An ag­ile beauty

The light­ning quick and ag­ile Hobby is re­turn­ing from its win­ter­ing grounds in Africa to daz­zle us once again with its thrilling aerial prow­ess

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: IAN PAR­SONS

The Hobby is a won­der­ful bird about to daz­zle us at this time of year with its spec­tac­u­lar aerial prow­ess

NOW IS THE time when many of our spring mi­grants ar­rive; it is a real bo­nanza of a month for bird­ers, with lots of species re­turn­ing to our shores. For me the star of these species is a small bird of prey, the Hobby.

This lit­tle fal­con (roughly the size of a Kestrel) has in re­cent years ex­panded its range in Bri­tain and can now be found al­most through­out the whole of south­ern and mid­dle Eng­land as well as be­com­ing more fre­quent in south Wales, north­ern Eng­land and, in the last few years, even south­ern Scot­land. With its slate grey back, black-and-white face pat­tern and its red­dish vent, the Hobby is a smart bird by any reck­on­ing. In flight, it is pure el­e­gance. Its long, pointed wings with their deep pow­er­ful wing beats are dis­tinc­tive as it dashes through the sky. This is a bird that has mas­tered high speed flight and rev­els in it. Like many mi­grants, the Hobby spends its win­ters in Africa. It leaves us around the end of Au­gust/ be­gin­ning of Septem­ber, although some­times in­di­vid­ual birds can stay a few weeks later. They are long dis­tance mi­grants, win­ter­ing south of the equa­tor, with one tracked bird spend­ing the time in south­ern An­gola and Zim­babwe. The Hobby can be a se­cre­tive bird, es­pe­cially when nest­ing. One of the best times to see them is now, freshly ar­rived and be­fore they start to breed. When they first ar­rive in this coun­try, usu­ally around mid-april, they of­ten gather at good feed­ing sites and can some­times be seen in good num­bers, as they quickly re­plen­ish the sup­plies they used up on mi­gra­tion.

These sites can be var­ied but of­ten in­volve stand­ing wa­ter; flooded gravel pits and marsh­land are favourites. Speak to other bird­watch­ers and re­serve war­dens in your area to find out if you have such a site near you. You don’t want to miss out, and as they soon move on to their breed­ing ter­ri­to­ries a bit of for­ward plan­ning on your part can prove very re­ward­ing. By mid-may, the birds will have set­tled on their breed­ing ter­ri­to­ries, with the first eggs be­ing laid at the be­gin­ning of June. The Hobby doesn’t build its own nest; in­stead pre­fer­ring to use an old nest from an­other species, es­pe­cially a corvid. When I was a ranger, I used to mon­i­tor these and other birds of prey (un­der li­cence, the Hobby is a pro­tected species) and al­most every Hobby nest that I mon­i­tored was in an old Ravens’ nest in a tree. These nests are ideal for the se­cre­tive, but ever-vig­i­lant, fal­con. They are much larger than a bird the size of a Hobby would nor­mally have, mean­ing that the fe­male can be sit­ting on her eggs in the deep cup of the nest and yet be com­pletely in­vis­i­ble from be­low. Take it from me, you re­ally can­not tell that the bird is oc­cu­py­ing the nest just by look­ing at it from the ground. The other as­pect that makes a Ravens’ nest so good for a Hobby is that Ravens tend to build their tree nests high up in the canopy, look­ing out over the im­me­di­ate ter­ri­tory. Ex­actly what the Hobby wants, too. They love be­ing able to see what is go­ing on in around the nest site and woe be­tide any other bird of prey that comes into view.

An in­tol­er­ant fal­con

They may be a small fal­con but the Hobby is an ag­gres­sive bird when it comes to deal­ing with its fel­low rap­tors. It will not tol­er­ate them fly­ing any­where near the nest. Be it a Buz­zard lazily glid­ing by, or the more pur­pose­ful Goshawk, the re­sponse is the same. The in­ter­loper is met by a loud, scold­ing, scream­ing ‘kew kew kew’ call re­peated con­stantly as it sud­denly finds it­self bom­barded from all an­gles by the an­gry fal­con, its speed and agility

As the sun be­gins to lower, these bee­tles take to the skies and if you are lucky you will get great views of Hobby pluck­ing them out of the air with its talons and then trans­fer­ring them to its mouth as it flies along. The sud­den burst of ac­cel­er­a­tion as the fal­con spots a bee­tle or a dragonfly is breath­tak­ing

keep­ing it safe from the larger, more pow­er­ful in­trud­ers. If you are ever lucky enough to see such a bat­tle, savour it, for it is al­most al­ways over in a few sec­onds; the in­ces­sant calls and flash­ing talons of the Hobby per­suade the in­truder to leave, rapidly. I have only ever seen one bird that can com­pete with an an­gry Hobby, its rel­a­tive and fel­low mas­ter of the skies, the Pere­grine. When Hobby have newly fledged young, the Pere­grine is a real threat, in­deed on one oc­ca­sion, I wit­nessed the big­ger fal­con strik­ing and killing a young Hobby in mid-air, while the Hobby’s par­ents bat­tled in vain to drive it off. It was an in­cred­i­ble sight and one that is in­deli­bly seared into my

bird­ing mem­ory bank!

This ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour to­wards other rap­tors has not gone un­no­ticed by other bird species. The Wood­pi­geon has lit­tle to fear from the Hobby, but it has a lot to fear from other rap­tors, of­ten ap­pear­ing on the menu of our big­ger birds of prey. It is very com­mon to find nest­ing Wood­pi­geons in close prox­im­ity to nest­ing Hobby and it has long been sug­gested that this is no co­in­ci­dence. Stud­ies have shown that Wood­pi­geons do in­deed pos­i­tively select nest sites close to those of Hobby and that these nests have a much higher pro­duc­tiv­ity than those in sites with no Hobby. The Wood­pi­geon doesn’t just ben­e­fit from the

fal­con’s tenac­ity when other rap­tors are around but also when crows are about, too. Hobby don’t like them near their nest and will soon drive them off if they ap­pear; the Crow could be a po­ten­tial threat to their eggs and chicks but they are a far big­ger threat to the eggs and chicks of Wood­pi­geons and are of­ten re­spon­si­ble for nest fail­ures of this species. If you are a Wood­pi­geon and you are look­ing for a site to nest in, it makes sense to choose one with an in­built se­cu­rity sys­tem. There are records of Hob­bies pre­dat­ing Wood­pi­geons, but these are very few. The Hobby utilises its fly­ing skills when it comes to hunt­ing, catch­ing drag­on­flies and large bee­tles, in flight. How­ever it is best known as the hunter of hirundines, tak­ing martins and Swal­lows while it is in mid-air. You have prob­a­bly watched in awe as a Swal­low, us­ing its great agility, dashes and glides and twists and turns as it hunts small fly­ing in­sects. Now, pic­ture a bird that can catch that Swal­low. That bird is the Hobby. They will even take Swifts and, as the light fades, bats. Many peo­ple praise the Pere­grine as be­ing the ul­ti­mate fly­ing ma­chine, but for me, noth­ing beats a Hobby. A good time to watch Hobby feed­ing is early evening just as the light be­gins to fade. If you have Night­jars breed­ing near to you, why not head out to watch them a lit­tle ear­lier to see if you can also see Hobby. Both birds like feed­ing over heath­land and other in­sect-rich habi­tats, in­deed, most places that are good for Night­jars are good for Hobby too. Choose a warm dry evening in May or June (the muggy ones are the best) as these pro­vide the best con­di­tions for in­sects and there­fore the best con­di­tions for their preda­tors. If there are live­stock feed­ing on the heath then all the bet­ter; dung bee­tles are favourites for both birds as well as Cockchafers (or May­bugs). As the sun be­gins to lower, these bee­tles take to the skies and if you are lucky you will get great views of Hobby pluck­ing them out of the air with its talons and then trans­fer­ring them to its bill as it flies along. The sud­den burst of ac­cel­er­a­tion as the fal­con spots a bee­tle or a dragonfly is breath­tak­ing, but this is hope­fully just the be­gin­ning. As the light re­ally be­gins to fade (and re­mem­ber your binoc­u­lars gather more light than your eyes alone so you can still fol­low the ac­tion) the bats ap­pear. I have watched Hobby on many oc­ca­sions hunt­ing these fly­ing mam­mals. They com­bine their ex­cel­lent eye­sight with their su­perb flight skills and, although time’s against them as dark­ness rapidly de­scends, they can, and will, catch them. Not every chase is suc­cess­ful, but it makes for great view­ing while wait­ing for Night­jars to ap­pear! So whether you take ad­van­tage of pre­breed­ing groups of Hobby this month or wait for the warmer nights of the Night­jar sea­son (or do both!), make sure you put some time in to see this won­der­ful fal­con, they are well worth the ef­fort and make a won­der­ful ad­di­tion to your #My200birdyear tick list!

HUNTER HUNTED In sum­mer, Hob­bies spe­cialise in feed­ing on drag­on­flies, their in­sect equiv­a­lents!

SCALY JU­VE­NILE Ju­ve­nile Hob­bies are in­fused and scaled with buff and lack the red­dish trousers of adults

TREE NEST­ING These young­sters are al­most too big for this old crows' nest MOULTING This in­di­vid­ual is gain­ing its adult feath­ers, but still has some worn, brown feath­ers of its youth

PLUCKED FROM WA­TER Hob­bies will read­ily take newly emerged in­sects from wa­ter

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