Australian Bush Birds
Fairy Martin  -  Hirundo ariel
A Fairy Martin resting on a television aerial, other member of the flock are on other parts of the same aerial.
map map The head of the Fairy Martin - Hirundo ariel - is pale rust-coloured extending down the face to the bill, under parts are white from throat to tail, streaked white at the throat and merging into the dark brown-grey undertail; washed russet on the sides. Back is glossy blue-black blending into dusky grey-brown wings. Rump is off-white appearing bright white in sunshine; tail is short, slightly forked when folded. Eye is dark brown, bill and feet are black.

Males and females are similar (115 to 120 millimetres). Immatures are similar to adults but with duller plumage and without the glossy backs.

Fairy Martins are the most communal of Australian swallows keeping in tight flocks of a dozen to several hundred. They are found over the Australian mainland, except for the arid parts of Western Australia and central Cape York Peninsula. Occasional found in north-east Tasmania and New Guinea.

Feeds on the wing, weaving, banking and circling to take small flying insects in open woodland glades, over paddocks and particularly over open swamps, rivers and streams. During low skimming flight over water bodies Fairy Martins dip their bills briefly into the water apparently to drink or take insects.

They are partly migratory. Birds in the west seem to be fairly stationary or locally nomadic; in the east they regularly move north in autumn reaching Arnhem Land and Cape York Peninsula; they return south in spring to breed. During winter there are few left south of Sydney.

In breeding colonies the birds build rows of close, bottle-shaped nests of mud under overhangs of any kind, often under bridges. The nesting chamber is 150 to 200 millimetres in diameter, made of mud pellets and lined with fine grass and feathers, with an entrance tunnel 250 millimetres long sloping down from the nesting chamber. Often built over water. There may be a few nests together or there may be hundreds closely packed in a single cluster, each nest positioned so that birds can fly directly into the entrance tunnel and take-off by falling into the air.

Breeds in spring and summer, August to January or May to March in the far north. Four or five eggs are laid, dull white, often faintly speckled with rust-brown, mostly at the larger end; oval, about 17 by 12 millimetres. Incubation about 15 days by both parents.

During the day there is continual movement and noise in the breeding colony as birds come and go feeding their young or as parents relieve each other incubating and brooding. High-pitched twittering begins before sunrise and continues through the day as birds come and go.

Fairy Martin - page 2
Cluster of Fairy Martin mud nests under an overhanging rock ledge above the Fitzroy River in Geikie Gorge.
Although breeding in the colony continues over several months few pairs rear more than one brood; the practice seems to be for parents to vacate the nest after one brood has been raised and others take over that nest. Membership of the colony may be continually changing but there is a permanent core which, in eastern Australia, returns to the same site each year.

The Fairy Martin is considered to be uncommon.

Similar Species. The Tree Martin is similar in shape to the Fairy Martin but has a black head and other colour differences. Swallows are similar; they have forked tails while the Martins have squared tails.

Nomenclature. The name Petrochelidon ariel has been assigned to this species in one study but adoption of this name is not yet universal.