I spot a House Martin, Delichon urbicum, on the cliffs at the Castle o’ Burrian. That’s nice. Then I spot another one. Maybe they’re breeding here? I send a message to our Wildlife WhatsApp group to say I’ve seen them. There’s no reply.
They next day I see them again. That’s even more suspicious. Maybe they really are breeding here. I follow their swoops along the cliff as best I can and see one disappearing up and under the overhanging cliff ledge. There must be a nest there. I can see a parent taking food in and even see it taking a faecal sac away. I didn’t know that House Martins still nested on cliffs. I thought they all nested on houses now.
I check the Fauna Orcadensis and see what the Reverend George Low had to say about House Martins:
I don’t think they nest on the cathedral now.
The only place I have observed this species in Orkney is the great church of Kirkwall, where they make their clay nests in the corners of the windows. In Scotland I remember to have seen them build in rocks, and in the arches of bridges, particularly in one called the Gannachie-Bridge, in the shire of Angus, where they build in hundreds. Here they are less frequent; like the last they go off in winter.
Seeing their nest sets off an avalanche of messages as Steve Dudley of the British Ornithologist’s Union tweets asking for other records. The country’s most accomplished birders start to contribute, sending in sightings and nesting history from their vast archives of knowledge.
The UK population of House Martins has declined by 47% since 1970. An article in Scottish Birds notes that the decline in east Scotland was near total across farmland but had increased at coastal nest sites.
Steve’s social media research brought the following results on natural cliff nesting sites:
Doesn’t this one look like a Spitfire to you?
I thought it was very interesting to find such an unusual, traditional nester I got in contact with The Orcadian newspaper and they ran our story in their weekly newspaper: