Sep09

Fairy Martins - Boom-time builders

By Senior Ecologist, Richard Johnson

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On a recent trip to Chinchilla, I noticed a colony of Fairy Martins building their distinctive flask-shaped mud nests under the eaves of a new and apparently unoccupied house. This got me contemplating the changing fortunes of this little bird.

The Fairy Martin (Hirundo ariel) is a member of the swallow family, a graceful little bird with the typical sweeping wimartin nest cool lowres copyright RJng shape of swallows but having a squared-off tail. It looks blackish with a bright white belly and rump and, when seen well, a rusty orange cap on the head. Known from most of Australia, it's most commonly seen around water – lakes and waterholes. Though able to forage far and wide – they seem to move big distances as they can be completely absent during dry periods then turn up in their thousands following rain – they can only breed where suitable sites exist. To nest it needs mud to build the nest with, and somewhere to build it. Once upon a time Fairy Martins had to rely on natural structures like overhangs on cliffs and the sheltered underside of leaning trees. Opportunities to breed were probably quite limited on the plains of western Queensland. A photo here shows how it was done back then. These nests are attached to a huge old coolibah tree on Monkira station, between Windorah and Bedourie.

Then along came the engineering Europeans. Suddenly new cliffs, caves and overhangs, big and small, were appearing in the landscape as buildings, bridges and culverts were constructed. A researcher has showed that nowadays, road culverts are the most popular nest sites, and produce the most youngsters, of all sites used. After a decent rain every culvert from Roma to Birdsville seems to have a colony of Fairy Martins, their presence betrayed as they fly in and out of the shelter of their home.

I suspect that the birds I saw at Chinchilla are in for a rude shock when the home-owners turn up. Most people aren't all that keen on hosting colonies under their eaves. But overall the Fairy Martin has done very well out of our unwitting contribution to the supply of nest-site real estate. Chinchilla, like many rural towns, is currently experiencing a housing boom as the gas industry expands. But the Fairy Martin housing boom has being going on for over a century!

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