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…Is it a bird? Is it a swift? Is it a swallow? Is it Superman?!

I was as nervously excited as the next film addict slash geek, at last week’s announcement of a film featuring both Batman and Superman! But both Batman and Superman would look on in envy at the aerobatics of swifts, swallows and martins!

I’ve had quite a few people ask me of late how you tell the difference between swifts, swallows and martins. I figured I would use this weeks Wildlife Weekly to help highlight the difference between these awesome birds…

Swift Illustration


The swift is probably the easier of these birds to distinguish. Larger than swifts and martins and darker in their overall appearance. You won’t see these guys on telephone wires; you’re more likely to see them high overhead or, in the evening, darting about between houses with unbelievable speed and precision.

swallow illustration


Swallows are arguably the more famous of these summer visitors. They are also the more ornate in appearance, with their iconic long tail feathers and deep red throat. They can be seen feeding low over fields and rivers as well as taking a breather on overhead cables.

house martin illustration

House Martins

House Martins are well known for building their mud nests below the guttering of houses. They are of similar size and colour to swallows. There are two main differences in appearance. The first is the tail which is shorter and less elaborate than the swallow, however young swallows can also have a shorter tail. The key to identifying them is the black hood and white front (they don’t have the red face of the swallow or the dark bar of the sand martin)

Sand Martin Illustration

Sand Martins

Sand Martins are the smallest of our super flyers. They can be a little trickier to identify from House Martins. They are more brown in appearance but the key difference is a dark coloured bar that runs across their chest.

Illustrative pictures kindly provided by RSPB

In my own observations of these spectacular birds, I’ve noticed that mostly they seem to feed in different areas and altitudes. Swifts being highest swallows often centimetres above the grass or water which is really awesome to watch, while house martins can often be seen flying over and around tree tops. It’s probably these different feeding habits that allows these birds to thrive together in one place, ensuring that they’re not competing with each other over one resource. If only we humans could be this savvy!

Burley in Wharfedale is lucky to have healthy numbers of all these birds. Swifts can be seen (and heard!) throughout the village but are particularly prominent around Peel Place green and the Sun Lane side of the village. The best place for swallows and house martins is Greenholme Mills, while sand martins can be spotted (in lesser numbers) along the Wharfe in either direction from Greenholme Mills. It’s not uncommon to see all these species together (again at different altitudes and areas) by the weir and stepping stones.

Burley really does offer great sightings of all these aerobatic specialists, this isn’t the case for everywhere so we shouldn’t take it for granted!

Here’s some recent photos of the swifts, swallows and martins we’ve been talking about…

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