In recent posts I’ve written about some of the exciting and fascinating wildlife encounters I had during my May travels. These included great bustard, lady’s slipper orchid, snakeshead fritillary, even the humble Duke of Burgundy butterfly; all four were either re-introductions and/or found specifically on National Nature Reserves. Without interventions from conservationists none of these four species would be found in the UK, or would be struggling to survive. The last post of this series involves a bird species which has, on the quiet, become very much more common over the last fifty years. At the time of the first Breeding Bird Atlas (published in 1976) there was an estimated 100 pairs of hobbies in the UK. By the time of the 2013 edition, it was far more widespread, with a population of about 2,200 pairs.
The hobby is a small falcon related to the peregrine. It is fully migratory, arriving in the UK in April and leaving for Africa in September. It feeds on small birds and large insects caught on the wing. As a very fast, fluid and agile hunter it can catch even swallows and swifts in flight. On their arrival in the UK hobbies congregate at certain wetlands (where there is normally an abundance of dragonflies to feed on), before dispersing to their breeding areas. I had read of flocks or even “swarms” of hobbies at certain locations in early May and longed to see such a spectacle.
I have visited one of these locations – the Avalon Marshes, near Glastonbury – several times in recent years (see here), and it is one of my favourite UK birding destinations. Up to eight species of heron have bred there, which is extraordinary – given that just a few decades ago only the grey heron and the rare and elusive bittern were found in Britain. It was here that I headed after leaving Stonehenge.
My first evening and the following morning there were unspectacular. I was disappointed that the hides at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve were still closed following the Coronavirus lockdown, and birds seemed a little thin on the ground. After lunch I headed in the opposite direction along the disused railway line into Shapwick Heath NNR. Just a few minutes later I had seen my first hobbies, a dozen or more, hunting independently in a loose flock. Prey must have been small insects because there was also a very large dispersed flock of hirundines (swallows and martins) doing the same thing. Occasionally I caught sight of a bird transferring prey from its feet to beak in flight, a sure sign that these were hobbies. A few minutes later I heard loud bugling calls coming invisibly from Meare Heath to the north – surely they must have been cranes? *
I hurried on towards a northward facing hide. From there it looked like the hobbies had disappeared. I then began to pick them out in the heat haze, perched singly or in small groups on stunted dead trees amongst the reeds. Gradually they resumed their hunting and I managed a reasonable count of thirty-three birds altogether. It occurred to me that these were truly African birds spending just a few months of every year in the UK. Although they were very active, the hobbies were really too far away to photograph, so I returned to the railway line. And guess what? Hobbies, lower and much closer. Part of the same flock, no doubt, but this was more like it! I returned to the van to eat and recharge my mental batteries.
Late that evening I returned to the same area. Still hobbies! They were hunting insects low over one of the lagoons until well after sunset. Close to darkness in the far distance I could see about twenty of them perched on the stark boughs of a dead tree, one-by-one disappearing to roost somewhere nearby. They had gone by the next morning; but great white egrets – ethereal and otherworldly – floated by just outside the hide window. There must have been a nest nearby.
These spectacular birds are a very welcome addition to the British avifauna; as are the little egrets that are now a familiar sight in many parts of the UK. The flocks of hobbies that are now seen in the UK every spring are another example of the continually changing nature of our bird populations. It is a mistake to believe that wildlife distributions and numbers are normally static. For the wildlife lover there is a relentless diet of bad news in the media, and there’s no doubt that we are still losing some species rapidly. The difficulty is in distinguishing between natural fluctuations of bird populations and those changes, like the loss of farmland birds (and other wildlife), that are entirely down to human destruction of wildlife habitats.
* Sightings at nearby RSPB Ham Wall that day included a flock of eight cranes flying over, and two returning.
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