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
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