The Spring Alive season for Africa has begun! After spending the summer in Europe breeding and raising their young, migratory birds are now travelling back to their African wintering grounds. As they do, children across the continent will be waiting with baited breath to record first sightings of five iconic species: the Barn Swallow, White Stork, Common Cuckoo, Common Swift and European Bee-eater. These easily-recognisable species are the poster-birds of the Spring Alive programme, acting as friendly guides who help children to learn about the wider natural world. This year, we welcomed a new member into the Spring Alive gang: the Collared Sand Martin (Riparia riparia). This fast-flying insectivore has a unique relationship with quarries, and is a great example of how sustainable businesses can create new habitats which actually benefit birds. The species naturally nests in burrows in the sandy banks of riversides, lakes or coastal cliffs. However, in modern times we humans have modified our waterways, putting in flood control and anti-erosion structures, and these natural cliffs are being lost. Nowadays, quarries are one of the few remaining habitats where they can set up a colony. But quarries are also working landscapes that, by necessity, change constantly as new areas are dug up. So how does HeidelbergCement, the 2019 sponsor of Spring Alive, make sure they can nest in safety? It all starts in January, long before the sand martin arrives in Europe. While it enjoys its sunny African wintering grounds, on the other side of the world workers at some of the sand martin’s favourite quarries are busy getting everything ready. First, they survey the site to find out where last year’s nesting colonies were. If the colonies are in areas where they do not plan to excavate that year, they give them a spring clean. First they cut the face back to maintain its vertical angle, mimicking the natural process of water erosion. Then remove vegetation and fallen rubble from the area, making access easier. Finally, they put up barriers and information boards so that the area is not disturbed. Wherever the quarry workers plan to excavate, they make sure that the area does not attract the birds by flattening the cliffs to a low angle. If they plan to excavate on the site of a former colony, they prepare an attractive alternative face elsewhere. When the sand martins arrive, the staff keep a constant eye on them, making sure they keep their machinery a safe distance away and that the birds do not come to any harm. Only if a nesting hole appears in an unfavourable location like an active quarry face do they discourage the birds from settling by flattening the slope or using special bird-safe netting. However, if the birds still decide to set up a colony there, workers will abandon the face and excavate elsewhere
So as you wait for migratory birds to arrive this autumn, keep an eye out for this wonderful species, and don’t forget about its amazing and unique lifestyle – an example of people and nature living hand in hand.