Sand martin Riparia riparia

The sand martin is the smallest of Britain’s swallow and martin family and a common summer visitor. It has a distinctive brown-greyish breast band separating a white throat and belly, brownish underparts, a short, forked tail and straight black bill. Often seen flitting over rivers near to their nests, feeding on small insects and twittering continuously, whilst on the wing.


The sand martin is one of the earliest migrants and the first Hirundine (swallows and martins) to return, (from northern Africa), in the spring.  Unlike other passerines, they migrate mostly by day. During migration, and in their winter quarters, birds gather in large roosts, particularly in reedbeds.

They breed in colonies of a few tens to several hundreds, boring burrows in high vertical river banks, sand and gravel quarries, sandy sea cliffs and sand dunes. Sand martins return to their nesting sites for many years and excavate new ‘tunnels’ as, and when, necessary. They nest at the end of tunnels up to 90 cm in length. The nests are lined with vegetation and feathers.

They lay four to five eggs in late May to early June, with eggs hatching after around two weeks. Approximately 20-24 days later, the chicks fledge, but are dependent on the parents for about a week. Sand martins usually have two broods (mid to late June and August) each year.



  • Length:  12-13 cm
  • Wingspan: 26-29 cm
  • Average Weight: 13-14 g
  • Average Lifespan: 2 years



Classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2021);  the birds and their nest are protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The nest is protected from the moment they start tunneling.


Sand Martin is a common summer breeding visitor to mainland Scotland. It is much less frequent in the North and West and largely absent from upland areas. It is almost completely absent, or a scarce migrant on the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. Largest colonies are associated with lowland river systems, such as, the Tweed and Liddel (Borders), the Tyne (Lothian), Clyde (Clyde) and Devon (Upper Forth).

When to see

Best between mid-March and mid-September.


  • The scientific name of the sand martin, ‘Riparia’, is derived from the Latin ‘ripa’ meaning ‘riverbank’.
  • Sand martins make migratory journeys of several thousands of kilometres each year. They are thought to winter in the Sahel, the zone south of Sahara.
  • If sand martins colonise an operational quarry or building site, then all work must cease on that sand bank between March and September.


Common name

Sand martin

Species name

Riparia riparia

IUCN Red List status

Classified in the UK as Green under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2021); the bird and their nests are protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

When to see in Scotland

Best between mid-March and mid-September.

Where to see in Scotland

Artificial nesting banks have been created at Gailes Marsh and Montrose Basin.

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