Whilst wandering round the reserve this morning and mulling over the fact of how both Sand and House Martins are rarely seen crossing the reserve in the spring I got to thinking about the fortunes on Sheppey of both the Martins and Swifts.
Swallows seem to be holding their own OK throughout the Island wherever there are suitable nest sites and indeed there is a private farmhouse alongside the reserve entrance which has seen nesting pairs in their stables, rise to around sixteen pairs over the last couple of years. On the reserve they have nested in just the one place this last couple of years, in one of our public hides that is so fallen apart that it's only real use now is as a nesting place.
Up until I was a teenager in the 1960's we used to have a regular Sand Martin colony at the highest part of Minster cliffs at the end of Oak Lane. There the cliffs are made of a very sandy soil and, as they still do today, regularly collapsed to leave a sheer and unassailable cliff face, which was home to around twenty pairs of Sand Martins. It still remains a fairly satisfactory place to nest even today but by the late 1960's the colony had gone and never returned.
Swifts are still to be found over some of the older parts of Sheerness and Minster where traditional nest sites can still be utilized but numbers of these birds have probably dropped by two thirds in general over the last twenty-odd years. The biggest drop in their numbers has probably been in Minster, where I live. Just up the road from me was, until two years ago, the old Sheppey General Hospital. This cluster of old buildings grew out of and around, what was originally the Sheppey Workhouse in the late 1800's and was probably home to around twenty odd pairs of Swifts each year. It used to be a fabulous sight to sit in the garden in the evenings in mid-summer as large flocks of these birds swirled around high in the sky, feeding on flying ants, etc. Two years ago all the buildings were knocked down and a new housing complex was built and as a result Swifts are fast only being seen either over Sheerness or on passage now.
House Martins remain the biggest mystery. Until recent years they could be found nesting over most of Sheppey. I remember as a child in Sheerness and right up until a few years ago, that most of the old terraced streets had two or three Martin nests occupied and in Sheerness Docks where I worked, there were large colonies of the birds. Nothing has changed, all the buildings are still just as available but the birds just aren't coming back anymore. This last two years, I have found just one returning colony of these birds in Sheerness and even that is only two or three pairs and whilst I haven't covered the whole of Sheppey, I have looked at a lot of it, and they are the only nesting birds that I have found. I can only assume that if nesting conditions remain the same as they have for the last hundred odd years, then either a major shortage of birds, or perhaps insect food, is to blame.
In the meantime I still wait to see either of the Martins or a Swift so far this year.