As the phrase goes ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’, because the swallow is just one of a troop of aerial acrobats performing above our heads, and subconsciously telling us that British summertime has well and truly arrived. The sight of the year’s first swallow daintily swooping and chirping back into our lives always warms the heart. But in the swallow’s jet stream come other visitors that share the bird’s showman garb of long, thin wings and a cigar-shaped body. Swifts, house martins and sand martins share the swallow’s penchant for aerial artistry — skills that enable them scoop up the clouds of insects on which they rely. But despite our apparent familiarity with these species, it is surprising how many people struggle to confidently tell these very different birds apart. Of the four, the swallow is perhaps the closest to our hearts — it is the epitome of summer, a bird that has delighted us for millennia with its graceful flight, dapper plumage and tendency to set up stall in close proximity to ourselves. The power of the bird even extended to medicine — crushed swallow broth was once believed to cure epilepsy and stammering. Returning to our shores from early April onwards, the swallow’s unmistakable needle-like tail streamers and red bib set it apart from other aerial acrobats as they jink and dodge often just centimetres above the ground in pursuit of flies and bugs. The swallow’s cup-shaped nest is a common site in barns and outbuildings in rural areas across the UK and Ireland. And happily, the swallow is on the increase — the British Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) recorded a 35 per cent rise since the early 1990s. But this surge is limited to western parts of Britain — the bird has declined in eastern areas, possibly because of arable intensification. If swallows represent rural contentment then swifts literally scream of wild, untrammeled nature. They are big, dark, rapid and noisy; their old vernacular name ‘Devil screecher’ pays homage to these raucous antics. In seconds, a quiet summer evening can descend into pandemonium as a ‘screaming party’ of young birds tear the sky asunder, chasing each other like wayward tracer bullets. This is a bird of superlatives. Swifts can fly at two miles above the earth, cover hundreds of miles a day, sleep in mid-air and the young birds sometimes don’t land for three years. This is a bird that city dwellers are now more familiar with than the swallow. The swift feeds on insects at a higher altitude than swallows and martins so can cope with pollution levels that the smaller birds cannot tolerate.

The house martin is a more genteel customer than the swift. As its name implies, these small black and white birds set up home directly alongside us, usually under our roof eaves. Their size and colouring can lead to confusion with the swallow, but the martin’s lack of tail streamers is the key giveaway. The house martin is a bird on the move. The BBS found a distinct north-south divide with breeding populations doing badly in southern England but increasing in northern England and Scotland.

Sand martins arrive back in the UK in the chill winds of March and head for river banks to chisel out long tube-like burrows with their tiny bills. The bird is distinctly brown and typically found near water.

For the next few months, all these wonderful birds will light up the summer with their gravity-defying displays. Keep your eyes to the skies — because before you’ve noticed, our swifts, swallows and martins will have slipped away for another year.