Monday, 6 April 2015

Next Term, 9: Hobby

One bird that we will be hoping to see, but cannot really guarantee at any location is the Hobby. This is a bird which it was virtually impossible to see around here when I started birdwatching. According to the Reader's Digest/AA coffee table book it was almost restricted to the area round the New Forest. However, since then its seen a remarkable expansion in its range, and these days can even be seen in Scotland.
Hobby at Rest (c) 2015 Mick Sharpe
 Hobby at Thorne Moors
Hobbies are dashing little falcons, smaller than Kestrels, and can look very dark in appearance. They are slate grey above and are heavily streaked with black vertical marks below. They have a black head and strongly marked 'tear-drops', which forms a mask around the head, the black is strongly contrasted with the white around the lower neck. The adults also have orange 'trousers' - that is orange feathering above the legs. For a lot of the time Hobbies feed on large dragonflies, which they scoop up in flight, and after they have done so they have a unique flying silhouette. Their feet then move forward up to the hooked bill, and the head comes down as the insect is transferred from talons to bill. It then proceeds to chew the insect in flight. Last autumn we watched a Merlin catching dragonflies at Blacktoft Sands, but it had to return to a bush to devour its catch. It didn't seem able to consume its food in mid-flight. 
When Hobbies are chasing quickly-flying birds, rather than insects, their wings will often be swept back and they can take on the appearance of a giant Swift or hirundine. Hobbies are one of the few birds of prey (Peregrines are another) which are fast enough to regularly take Swallows, martins and even Swifts. 
Hobby with Insect (c) 2015 Mike Day
 Typical Feeding Shape (c) 2015 Mike Day
Probably the most reliable site that we've ever been to for this species is Thorne Moors, near Doncaster. However, this venue is a bit tough on "the forced march front" for some of the oldest student members of the classes, so we are giving it a miss this year. 
Perched at Welton Waters - note dark mask
In the past we have seen wonderful lingering views of one catching dragonflies along a hedgerow at Welton Waters, enjoyed good views at Tophill Low, and I've heard rumours of them at Hornsea Mere, Fairburn Ings or Leven Canal after our visits for the year have ceased, but nowhere locally seems to be as cast-iron for them as Thorne Moors. Last year my best view was during my lunch hour as one skimmed along Winestead Drain near Patrington Haven alongside my car when my camera was in the boot! 
Hobby in Flight near Scunthorpe
During the actual classes last year the most lingering view was at a site near Scunthorpe where one was seen catching insects high above our heads when it wasn't disappearing behind a pine plantation. The previous year the Friday morning group were recovering from an early morning Otter sighting in one of the hides at the same site. They were marvelling at a large group of Sand Martins which had recently arrived. Suddenly a Hobby dropped in and attempted to catch a Martin directly in front of their faces. The attempt was unsuccessful, but it was a truly thrilling moment, and this brand-new venue to us, soon became a firm favourite. 
Hobby - note dark appearance
 Hobbt in flight

At the moment I can only speculate as to how many Hobbies we'll actually see, and how thrilling any encounters will be.
Even if we don't see many in the spring, we will still have a second chance on the autumn course, when we may see some before they head back to warmer climes!

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