Know Your Swallows, Swifts and Sand Martins

May 13, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Posted in Cycle Rides, Learning Stuff | Leave a comment
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…and House Martins too, but that didn’t fit with the alliterative title of this post.

As I was riding home from work tonight I saw some swallows. This is always a lovely sight, especially early in the year. Or were they swifts? Or martins? I wonder this to myself EVERY year. Although I have consulted Enid’s nature books in the past I’m afraid it’s failed to sink in. So here are some tips for identifying swallows, swifts and martins from each other, for me and also for you, if indeed you have this problem.

The Barn Swallow

Barn SwallowFrom Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

‘He is a well-known bird, because of his long, forked tail. His black is steel0blue, his throat and forehead are chestnut-coloured, and he has a blue-barred chest.

Swallows build their nest sin barns of out-buildings, on beams or rafters. The nest is a saucer of mud, and is lined with feathers or grass. The eggs, which are long and narrow, are white, speckled with grey-brown.

The swallow has a musical little twitter that sounds like “feetafeetit, feetafeetit”. It is very pleasant to listen to listen to on a warm summer’s  evening.’

From the RSPB Magazine:

‘The one with the long, forked tail: steel blue above, pale below (white to bright peachy colour) but with a clean-cut dark throat […] Swallows typically fly low down, flying fluently with sinuous swerves and more fluttering twists, often around livestock, along the edges of open fields, over cricket pitches and the like’.

The House Martin

House MartinFrom the RSPB Magazine:

‘The one with the white rump: blue-black above with browner wings, with a broad white band above the tail, and all-white below from chin to tail. Nests in quarter-sphere mud cups beneath eaves’.

From Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

‘Many people think that the house martin is the barn swallow, for they are rather alike. The martin belongs to the swallow family, and leads the same aerial life. He is steel-blue above and white below. He has a white patch on his back, and this and his shorter tail will help distinguish him from the swallow. He, too, is a migrant.

The martin likes to build his nest of mud under our eaves, stuck against the wall. He lines it softly. The eggs are long and are pure white.

The martin, like the swallow, has a pleasing twitter.’

The Sand Martin

From the RSPB Magazine:

‘The brown one: all mid-brown above, white below with a brown chest band. This is a tiny bird, more fluttery than the others, often above or close to water.’

The Swift

From Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book:

Swift‘The swift has no song or twitter, only a loud and harsh screech. His name is a good one for he is one of our fastest flying birds’.



One thing that is lovely about Enid Blyton’s writing is the way she incorporates factual information into her narratives. The first part of the Nature Lover’s Book tells a series of short stories set across the course of the year. John, Janet and Pat go for a series of walks with Uncle Merry and his little black dog Fergus. Uncle Merry opens their eyes to all sorts of things that are around them, from flowers in January to nightbirds, moths and nocturnal beetles in June.

This is from ‘A Second Walk in May’

‘One morning John went into the garden and heard the swallows twittering together. He loved their little voices saying “feetafeetit, feetafeetit.” He looked up and saw that another bird was flying with them.

“That must be the swift,” said John to himself. “It’s sooty black, as Uncle Merry said. What great sickle-shaped wings it has! It looks like a flying anchor!”.

Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book has beautiful drawings by Donia Nachsen, as seen above. I was very lucky to discover a second hand copy of this in the National Trust bookshop at Blickling Hall in Norfolk while on a cycling tour a couple of years ago.



Bankside Birds

July 4, 2010 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Learning Stuff | 1 Comment
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The early bird catches the worm, as they say. Normally I am not excellent at getting up – I would like to spring out of bed at the crack of dawn every day but I love my bed too much (a bit like George who sleeps in at the beginning of Treasure Island, and Five Get into Trouble). Today though – a Sunday no less – I got up at 6.15 to cycle to Southwark for an early morning walk as part of the London Festival of Architecture. The title of the event was ‘Birds of Bankside‘ and it was organised by architect Catherine du Toit and author, broadcaster and bird expert extraordinnaire, Peter Holden.

Catherine is one half of the architectural practice 51% Studios and their festival project, which ties in with the Bankside Urban Forest initiative, is Nestworks 1 2 3. This considers and responds to the way in which birds have adapted to, and live within, urban environments. As part of the Nestworks project, 51% Studios have come up with three different types of nesting box: blocks, boughs and bushes, which have been carefully placed in various green spaces around Southwark.

The walk started at the Union Street Urban Orchard where we were almost immediately treated to the sight of a female blackbird, who has nested under the railway arches near the site (and who was no doubt delighted when a whole orchard was constructed near by earlier this year), swooping down to feast on red cherries from one of the orchard trees. The orchard’s set of Nestworks boxes can be seen here (above right). These are grouped together like this for sparrows, who are sociable birds who like to live in little communities. Spot the nesting ‘bough’ (below left) produced for 51% Studios by Riverford Organics.

From the Union Street Orchard we went to All Hallows Church (bombed during the war so only a couple of archways remain) and then on to various public and community gardens including those arrayed around the old Marshalsea prison, made famous by Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, and Octavia Hill’s Red Cross Garden, near Borough High Street. Although Peter warned us not to expect large amounts of exotic birdlife, over the course of the two hour walk we were lucky enough to see and/or hear goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, house sparrows and great tits, magpies, blackbirds, starlings, robins and crows (plus the obligatory pigeons).

We ended up near Tate Modern where our final bird of the morning was a peregrine falcon, perching on the tower of the turbine hall.  Some London peregrine falcons nest in the Barbican and when their chicks are old enough, the adults fly about and come over to the Tate. For anyone interested in seeing these (which I would recommend), the RSPB annually set up a viewing station, which is operational from 17 July to 12 September.

This painting (right), by one of my favourite artists, Cedric Morris, was painted in 1942, incidentally the same year that Five on a Treaure Island was published. Peregrine falcons had a hard time during the Second World War – because they catch pigeons they were killed to prevent them stopping all-important messages being taken by carrier pigeon. Their numbers were further affected by the horror of DDT, depicted by Morris in c.1960’s Landscape of Shame. Since the 60s things have improved and there are now something like 1,042 pairs breeding in the UK, something that Jack and Philip Mannering of Blyton’s Adventure series would no doubt be pleased to hear.

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