Martin mystery

I’ve been making regular evening visits to the Newstead Cemetery over recent weeks – chasing some decent shots of Rainbow Bee-eaters … so far without much success. On almost all visits I’ve been intrigued by the following behaviour from Fairy Martins. Small flocks of the birds, perhaps 30 in total (mixed with a few Welcome Swallows and the odd White-backed Swallow), mill over the cemetery before dusk. Small numbers then descend to areas of mainly bare ground to pick what appear to be tiny food items. The photographs below were of birds that alighted no more than a few metres away – inspection of their chosen sites revealed no real clues, other than a few fallen seeds. I was expecting to see insects, perhaps flying ants or something similar that might have brought the hungry martins to earth. Has anyone else observed this behaviour?


Fairy Martins feeding on the ground, Newstead Cemetery, 22nd November 2014.


Fairy Martin front-on … the chestnut crown is distinctive.


Searching for ?


Can anyone shed some light on the mystery?

10 responses to “Martin mystery

  1. A friend of mine suggested:
    “I’ve seen similar behaviour where they have been on the ground eating the detritus of major termite/ant flights from the night before. The spent critters end up on the ground in numbers and get swept by the wind into concentrated pockets.”

    • Thanks Mal – that makes sense although in my case there were no obvious insect remains – it seems they are very clever and opportunistic birds.

  2. We have Tree Martins here exhibiting similar behaviour. They land on our gravel driveway and settle for a few moments , peck a bit then take off. Earlier in the season they collected the fine hair of our poodle cross who often sleeps on the driveway in the sun. Then later after nesting in some tree hollows in our garden I thought they may be collecting small grains of gravel for their crops . Then I wondered whether the Martin/ Swallow species had crops or not ?

    • Interesting idea Paul – I did consider that it may have been gravel that they were after … will do some more research and look up HANZAB when I get a chance.
      Cheers, geoff

  3. On the Birdlife East Gippsland camp last week in the Omeo area, we observed Tree Martins picking up leaves and small pieces of straw from the road and flying around with the items for a short while before letting them fall to the ground. They were doing this in groups of two/three birds only a few metres from where we were standing on a gravel road. This happened for a good ten minutes. Some birds flew around us at a height of one to two metres then went back to the spot they had picked up the item. We were fascinated. See for images.

    • Thanks Jack – what a fascinating observation .. I’m perplexed about why they would do this … were they adults thinking about nesting or perhaps young birds?
      Cheers, geoff

  4. Geoff we too noticed this at Newstead Cemetery last week. We also observed a Yellow-rumped Thornbill go to the entrance of a burrow in the creek bank and take something back to shrubs where we think there may be a nest. I would like to send you photos but don’t know how – this is my first venture into being part of a blog.

  5. I have built a house and where i placed the old plasterboard
    the martins again in flocks of 30-40 turn up every day and drop and pick up pieces of gypsum and fly off again
    so i just keep placing waste pieces of plaster board out in the same place went ever i see some scraps on building sites.
    i thought they would use it as a form of cement in the nest building process but i am only summarizing
    but come to think of it I will take note on the time of year i see them as if used for nest building why all year round.

    • Hi Graham – thanks for the note … suspect this may be associated with nest building but would be keen to learn more.
      Cheers, geoff

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