Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula)

Cover image by Andre Kok – Karoo National Park, Western Cape – BirdPix No. 171963

Identification

The Rock Martin is an all brown and rather drab coloured swallow.

The head is dark brown and the lores (between the eyes and the bill) are dark in colour. The rest of the upperparts are also dark brown but with a slight greyish wash to the plumage on the back and the mantle.

Rock Martin Ptyonoprogne fuligula identification
Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula) – Middelburg, Eastern Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman

The undersides are paler, but warmer in colour. The throat and chest is a light rufous, often with a hint of orange. the belly is plain greyish-brown. The tail is square or sometimes slightly notched. There are eight creamy-white spots near the tip of the tail which can be clearly seen in flight (diagnostic). The flight feathers dark blackish-brown above and paler greyish-brown below.

Rock Martin with white tail spots
The 8 white tail spots are clearly visible in flight.
Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula) – Vleesbaai, Western Cape
Photo by P. La Grange

The sexes are alike. Juveniles resemble the adults but have pale buffy tips to the feathers on the upperparts and wings.

The Rock Martin is only likely to be mistaken for the scarce all-brown form of the Brown-throated Martin (Riparia paludicola). That species is smaller and has a more forked tail and lacks the eight white spots near the tail tip.

Status and Distribution

locally common breeding resident throughout much of South Africa and Namibia, with a more scattered distribution across Zimbabwe. It is absent from north-eastern Namibia and much of Botswana, except in the east and a few rocky outcrops in the north.

SABAP2 distribution map for Brown Martin
SABAP2 distribution map for Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula) – April 2023.
Details for map interpretation can be found here.

The Rock Martin is not threatened in Southern Africa. It has expanded in numbers and range because it has successfully adapted to using man-made structures for breeding and roosting on. This has almost certainly allowed it to colonise or increase in areas that previously lacked or were poor in suitable nest sites. Breeding pairs now occur at farm buildings in otherwise completely level terrain in some regions such as parts of the Karoo and the Kalahari.

Habitat

Typical habitat for Ptyonoprogne fuligula
Habitat – Naude’s Nek pass, Eastern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The Rock Martin occurs in most habitat types within the region. The vegetation types in which the Rock Martin has the highest reporting rates are those in which rock formations are most frequent, especially in hilly or mountainous terrain. It has adapted to breeding on man-made structures in many urban and farming areas. Rock Martins are less dependent on water than most other swallows and seldom occur far from rocky terrain.

Rock Martin on rocks
Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula) – Near Clanwilliam, Western Cape
Photo by Zenobia van Dyk

Behaviour

Rock Martins sometimes roost gregariously on buildings or rock-faces during the non-breeding season. They drink rarely, swooping low over still water. The flight is slow, stable, often gliding, but sometimes reaches speeds of 80 km/hr. They often glide back and forth close to rock face or building. Rock Martins regularly perch on rocks and window ledges.

Rock Martin nest
Typical Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula) nest – Cederberg, Western Cape
Photo by John Todd

They are usually seen singly or in pairs. Hawks insects aerially over land or water and even over beaches at low tide. Attracted to fires and ploughing to feed on flushed insects. Also attends termite emergences. Sometimes forages at night around neon lights. Feeds on a variety of small aerial insects.

The Rock Martin is usually a monogamous, solitary nester but sometimes breeds in loose colonies. The nest is a cup, composed of mud pellets, sticks and plant fibres and lined with feathers or soft plant material. The nest is built by both sexes and is attached to a rock-face or building such as houses, dam walls and bridges. The nest is frequently reused, up to four times in a single season and also in successive seasons.

Rock Martin collecting mud
Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula) collecting mud for its nest – Near Still Bay, Western Cape
Photo by Johan and Estelle van Rooyen

Two to three cream coloured eggs with brown speckles are laid per clutch. The average incubation period is around 20 days and the incubation duties are shared between the sexes. The pair will aggressively defend the nest from Little and White-rumped Swifts , as well as humans and other potential nest intruders.

Further Resources:

Species text adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Anthony Paton, Colin Summersgill, Lappies Labuschagne, Lia Steen, Marc Van Goethem, Johan and Estelle van Rooyen and Robbie Aspeling is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Kransswael (Afrikaans); Mbawulwana (Tswana); iNhlolamvula (Zulu); Inkonjane (Xhosa); Hirondelle isabelline (French); Steinschwalbe (German); Andorinha-das-rochas-africana (Portuguese); Kaapse Rotszwaluw (Dutch).

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2023. Rock Martin Ptyonoprogne fuligula. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at http://thebdi.org/2023/04/19/rock-martin-ptyonoprogne-fuligula/

Bird identificationbirding

Ptyonoprogne fuligula
Rock Martin (Ptyonoprogne fuligula) – Near Vosburg, Northern Cape
Photo by Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!