Sand martins will soon be setting up home along the coast

A sand martin, photographed by ranger Dougie Holden.
A sand martin, photographed by ranger Dougie Holden.
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Some feathery friends will soon be able to settle into a new coastal home.

Members of South Tyneside’s Coastal Conservation Group (CCG) are working with National Trust rangers from Souter Lighthouse and The Leas to build a new sand martin nesting site in Whitburn Coastal Park.

The teams excavating foundations for the new nesting site. Pic: The National Trust.

The teams excavating foundations for the new nesting site. Pic: The National Trust.

Work on the project, funded via the Local Environmental Action Fund (LEAF), started at the end of last month,

Dougie Holden, National Trust ranger at Souter Lighthouse and The Leas and a CCG member, said: “Over the years we’ve improved the coastal park for wildlife, including installing bird feeding stations and creating ponds.

“We were all over the moon when we got the go-ahead from South Tyneside Council to build the sand martin colony.

“At the last count, we had about 60 pairs of sand martins nesting in the cliff tops around Whitburn and Marsden. They belong to the same family as swallows and are summer visitors to the UK, arriving in late March or early April after spending the winter in Africa.

We were over the moon when we got the go-ahead

Dougie Holden

“We’ve already noticed one or two birds flying over the site, as if they’re checking out the ‘new build’.”

Dougie added: “When they nest in cliffs, adult sand martins excavate tunnels up to a metre long before carving out a nesting chamber which they line with grasses and feathers.

“They then lay an average of four or five eggs.

“Recent summers have been so wet, these eggs often haven’t reached fledging stage.

An artist's impression of how the new site will look. Pic: Network Rail.

An artist's impression of how the new site will look. Pic: Network Rail.

“During long periods of heavy rain, water seeps through the cliff, causing tunnels and chambers to collapse, sadly resulting in birds dying. We lost 46 nest holes in 2016.”

By providing an artificial nesting bank of 128 holes (complete with a grass roof and weasel baffles to prevent predators entering) the birds will have a safe, stable place to breed.

The sand martin project has been made possible with help from organisations including Network Rail, whose design and construction team volunteered time to carry out site surveys and an ecological impact assessment, as well as create a design for the colony building.

JT Atkinson of Hendon, Sunderland, offered a generous discount on building materials.

Ranger Dougie Holden is delighted the nesting site can go ahead.

Ranger Dougie Holden is delighted the nesting site can go ahead.

The Owen Pugh Group, located at Marsden Quarry, across the road from the coastal park, loaned machinery and operatives to create foundations for the building.

John Dickson, group chairman of The Owen Pugh Group said: “We and the National Trust are close neighbours at Marsden, and share a commitment to the environment and wider community on this beautiful part of the coast.

“We were happy to respond to a request to provide an excavator to assist in the construction of the sand martin nesting site.

“As well as giving valuable to support the local population of sand martins, it gave Owen Pugh an opportunity to demonstrate the efficiency and versatility of the new JCB Hydradig excavator, the first of its kind to enter service in the North East.”

The sand martin nest project is expected to be finished in the summer.

Anyone who would like to volunteer to help with this, or other wildlife habitat projects, can contact Dougie Holden by email douglas.holden@nationaltrust.org.uk or phone on 0191 5290903.

Volunteers with brick-laying skills would be particularly welcome.