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Aiguamolls de l'Empordà, Cataluña, Spain, May, 2023.

The Bird

The Common House Martin is a migratory passerine bird of the swallow family which breeds in Europe, North Africa, wintering then in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical Asia. It feeds on insects which are caught in flight, and it migrates to climates where flying insects are plentiful. It has a blue head and upperparts, white rump and pure white underparts, and is found in both open country and near human habitation. It is similar in appearance to other species such as the Common Swift, Sand Martin and Barn Swallow. The picture below is a great example of how to distinguish them all.

House Martins are tireless in flight and spend much of the day wheeling through the skies in pursuit of insects.


They live in colonies nesting underneath drainpipes, roofs or anything which would let them build their special nests. They are mud architects and builders, collecting mud with their mouths and then sticking it together bit by bit until they reach a quarter of a sphere shape with a hole.


Somewhat surprisingly for a bird that is so familiar to Europeans, we know virtually nothing about what happens to Common House Martins once they leave Europe.

Recoveries of ringed birds from across France and on into North Africa reveal a migration route south but we have no idea what happens to these birds once they have crossed the Sahara desert.


In fact, there has only been one record of a ringed house martin from south of the Sahara, despite the many thousands of individuals to be fitted with rings.


Common House martins are rarely seen in Africa during our winter, which might suggest that they remain on the wing and feed above the canopy of the equatorial rainforest, out of sight of human eyes.


New technologies may provide an answer, however. The development of tiny tracking devices, known as geolocators, has revolutionised our understanding of how small birds migrate to and from Africa. These devices, no bigger than a shirt button, have an inbuilt electronic calendar, a clock and a light sensor that constantly monitors the daylight against the clock and the calendar and stores that information.


Once the bird returns to Europe, scientists can remove the device, download the data and work out where on the planet the geolocator was at any given time and date.

The Sound

The easiest way to listen to them is by going close to a colony at any time of the breeding season. They make this cute, chattery mumble of high pitch sounds which becomes really loud and clear when approaching their nests.

This recording is from Doñana, South of Spain, precisely at Palacio de Acebron.

- Use the Player to listen to the House Martin Colony. -


Common House Martins are a commensal species, which means they are generally associated with people. Once used to rock-nesting, these agile birds are most at home over farmland and even towns and villages where building their nest is much easier, warmer temperatures, and most important plenty of food around. This recording is from a small village Aiguamolls de l'Empordà, Catalonia, Spain.

- Use the Player to listen a full hour of ambient soundscape. -

House Martins nest and forage around farmland, meadows and other open habitats near towns and villages. They are often attracted to wetlands and other freshwater habitats which make them perfect foraging areas full of insects.

They breed anywhere in Europe with higher numbers in temperate and Mediterranean zones, preferring areas without extreme temperature changes as this would mean less food. 


Their wintering grounds in Africa have been difficult to spot, they can be seen at high altitudes feeding high above ground.

- Use the Player to listen a full hour of ambient soundscape. -

Our Encounter

They are a classic example of common birds you can find anywhere, but the excitement of finding the first colony is unforgettable, and it’s something we should all cherish more, our first time seeing or hearing an animal.


We were in Aiguamolls de l'Empordà in north Catalonia, Spain, in June 2022 working with our great friend Arnau Sargatal to find the many local migratory birds from the area. It was a hot day, and we decided to take a break to go on a boat ride (yes, life is great when travelling around and choosing to do things last minute). We drove to pick up Marti, Arnau’s friend, in a village before heading to the port on the other side of the Pyrenees. Yes, the mountain CHAIN starts exactly there, from a few rocks in the sea to become the mountain chain we all know.


We drove through a small village called Vilajuiga, not many people around, really quiet, and all of a sudden we see our first colony up close, a10 nests built on the top of an entrance of a garage, so low they were head height. The temptation to stop was high, but we didn’t have any photography or audio recording equipment with us, so we decided to come back the day after.

To record their sound Axel wanted to get as less human noise around, a tough job as it was in the middle of a village, but early morning would have reduced the noise, and actually letting the call of the birds resonating around. After a 3 am wake-up alarm and a few kilometres drive, the mission was accomplished!


Although we met them multiple times both during our “Phase 1” expedition in 2022, when we were trying things out, and the official “Wings Across Continents” 2023 expedition, there was another time when we remained “wowed” by this bird, precisely at Palacio Acebron (Acebron’s Palace) in Doñana, South of Spain, in February 2023. It was one of the first migratory birds we’ve seen, migrating really early from Africa, although some are resident in the area all year round. 

It was one of the first warm evenings of the expedition, being still early in the year, we were coming back from a walk in the natural park, a must-visit as it’s one of the only remaining native woodlands in the area. It was time to head back to the vehicles to go camp for the night, when we noticed the House Martins flying really close to the main building, where many mud-nests were present, without many birds around though. The light was fading, giving space to the stillness of the night, when all of a sudden all the House Martins started a sort of murmuration, flying in a big coordinated flock above the building from one side to the other, making a “Whoosh” sound you could hear without zoomy microphones. They did it once, twice, five times until they all dived into their nests, making a hell of a racket of chirps.

This time we didn’t record, we didn’t want to miss the spectacle unfolding in front of us. We came back a few times that week until we manage to get the pictures, videos and audio recordings we wanted, which ended in the main story we shared the following week at the SEO/Birdlife Visitor Centre in the nearby village of El Rocio.


10% of the profit from the Common House Martin postcard and print goes to Aiguamolls de l'Empordà Natural Park, Catalonia, Spain, where these pictures, videos and sounds have been taken from.

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