How to identify UK animals

Swift, swallow and martins

A glimpse of a forked tail, white rump or shaped wing might be all you get to see of a swift, swallow or martin in the skies this summer. Although frequently confused with one another, they are easier to tell apart than you might think.

These quintessential summer visitors, with their mostly aerial lifestyles, are a delight to watch. All can be found almost anywhere in the country at nesting sites, around towns and villages, and swooping over lakes and rivers catching flying insects and other invertebrates.

Although superficially similar, the table below will help you sort the swifts from the swallows in no time. Already know the differences? Then identify our mystery bird with our cunning clues at the bottom of the page.

Key distinguishing feature What else I am a

Bright white underside

House martin belly
  • Fluttery flight and pure white rump.
  • Glossy blue-black back and head cap.
  • Seen on the wing over built-up areas, water and open areas.
  • Builds enclosed nest out of mud under the eaves of town and village buildings.
  • Perches in flocks on wires before migrating.
  • See where house martins would have nested before we had houses.

House martin (Delichon urbica)

House martin

Deep forked tail with long streamers

Swallow tail
  • Deep rusty-red chin patch and white to buff underneath with fast swooping flight.
  • Glossy blue back, head and throat.
  • Seen on the wing over farmland, villages and open grassland.
  • Builds cup-shaped nest out of mud and straw inside barns and outbuildings.
  • Gathers in flocks on wires before migrating.
  • Watch a swallow skilfully take a drink.

Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

Swallow

Long scythe-shaped wings

Swift wing
  • Plain brown all over, with pale throat, that appears dark against the sky.
  • Fast flier and glider with loud screaming calls.
  • Seen on the wing around villages, towns and open country.
  • Breeds in holes and crevices of old buildings.
  • Screaming flocks in the air but never perched.
  • See swifts fledge and set off on an epic flight.

Swift (Apus apus)

Swift

Brown breast band

Sand martin breast band
  • Brown back and wings with white under parts divided by the breast band.
  • Confident flyer with shallow forked tail.
  • Seen on the wing over water, in quarries or perching at nest hole.
  • Colonies burrow into sandy banks, cliffs and quarries.
  • Forms flocks and perches on wires.
  • See how a busy quarry has become home to a colony of sand martins.

Sand martin (Riparia riparia)

Sand martin

Quick tips to take with you

You are not alone! House martins, sand martins and swallows are all roughly robin-to-blackbird sized birds in the same family (Hirundinidae) and are not only easily confused with one another but also with the larger, unrelated swift.

Much of the confusion is down to the fact that these birds have mostly aerial lifestyles and are usually only seen when flying at high speeds. In fact, the swift even sleeps "on the wing".

Although swallows and house martins both have glossy blue-black backs, try and look for a swallow's longer forked tail, black head and red chin. A house martin has a purely white underneath and a white rump.

House martins are also similar to sand martins so look for the latter's brown band around its neck breaking up the white. Also, sand martins don't nest around buildings like the other three.

Swifts have similar forked tails to the martins, but are dark brown all over, and will never be seen perching on things like telegraph wires. Groups of screeching swifts will also fly very low offering some great views.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have some nice and simple tips to help you tell these birds apart and for a more audio visual guide then watch this excellent video from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Where to see

Usually seen in summer between March, when the sand martins start to arrive, and autumn when they all leave on a southward journey to winter overseas. Swifts are among the last summer migrants to arrive and one of the first to leave. All the species are usually gone by November.

They can be seen almost anywhere across the UK, but most species are becoming scarcer in the very north of Scotland.

Good places to look are in towns and villages and over bodies of water such as lakes and rivers, where they are often seen swooping after insects.

If you have a camera or phone with you, then these handy tips and tricks will help you to get the best out of your photographic equipment, whatever your level of expertise.

Been inspired and want to help?

If you would like to help then why not take part in the RSPB's swift survey by submitting your sightings and help the charity find out more about these airborne acrobats.

Then there is the BTO's house martin survey where you can find out how to help solve one of ornithology's great mysteries: where house martins go for the winter.

Don't forget you can register and submit all your bird sightings on the BirdTrack website. It's an exciting project that looks at migration movements and distributions of birds throughout Britain and Ireland. Here is a handy guide to taking part.

There are also the latest observations on iSpot, an online resource for identifying and sharing nature.

Like what you've seen? Then here are some tips if you would like to encourage swallows and house martins to nest.

Test yourself

Now you know the key features, can you identify this bird from the clues below?

White belly

I have a white belly

Mud and straw

I build a cup-shaped nest of mud and straw

Cows

I can frequently be seen over farmland

Click here for the answer and to find out more about our swift, swallow or martin.

Seen any recently? Then tell us on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

You can also share your photos with us on the Springwatch Flickr group.

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