Hobbies - sky tearaways coming soon!
My brief for these articles is to talk about birds that might be seen in a typical Four Shires garden, and even I have to admit I'm really stretching the definition of a garden bird this month. Having said that, hobby falcons are so aerial I'd happily wager that one could be seen from any of our gardens this summer.
No bird, and I mean no bird, can fly like a hobby. They are the cheetahs of our summer skies, easily capable of flying down and catching a swift. In fact, with their streamlined bodies and long sickle shaped wings, they look very like large swifts themselves. Their hunting technique is simply to chase down their quarry with a dazzling series of swerves and dives in the open sky until their victim is exhausted. The most impressive chase I ever saw was from a pub garden one July Sunday lunch time when a poor swift was pursued relentlessly to its doom. I’ve seen hunting hobbies perform extraordinary aerobatics, one actually flying upside down to snatch prey from below and another bird flying low at bullet speed over a cornfield, barely breaking its stride to pluck a sparrow from a head of wheat.
So what's the best way to see these super athletes of the sky? Well, despite being so dashing, they are largely insectivorous birds with a great liking for dragonflies, which they eat on the wing, so anywhere near our larger lakes and reservoirs is a good bet. The superb RSPB reserve at Otmoor is a favoured spot, especially late in the summer. They also love mayflies and you can watch them delicately hawking for these tit-bits over the Thames and the Cherwell in May and June. Otherwise listen for a swallow’s urgently repeated 'chissick chissick' alarm call and then look where the swallow is looking and the chances are you will see a circling hobby prospecting for dinner. With good reason, swallows prefer to keep any roving hobby safely within their field of vision.
Hobbies migrate to Africa with their favourite prey, swallows and house martins, and generally arrive back in Europe in mid April. They usually lay in an old crow’s nest and when they have eggs or recently hatched young, they become elusive. It’s only when they have ravenous youngsters to feed that they really start hunting in earnest. Young hobbies often betray their presence high in trees, near their nest, with their strange and quite unique yodelling calls.
The word hobby, as in a spare time activity, comes from falconry. Because of their small size and a tendency to pine in captivity at migration time, hobbies weren't taken seriously and were regarded as the dilettantes of the falconer’s mews. Young hobbies may learn to hunt with their parents and I've seen two or three together in September having a dip at panicky rooks and jackdaws, which although far too big to hunt, seem to provide them with fun.
Hobbies are much commoner than they used to be and the old egg-collectors' journals record only about 100 pairs in southern England in the 1930's. Now, thanks probably to new reservoirs and a higher dragonfly population, there are more than 2000 pairs in the UK. So, listen for those nervy swallows this summer and you could witness a drama to match anything on the Serengeti.
First published in Four shires Magazine