Welcome Back, The Hobby

In the bird world, now is the time of year when we start welcoming summer visitors back to these shores. Garden birds like Swifts, House Martins and Swallows have already put in an appearance, and they have been closely by the Hobby, a small bird of prey which, year upon year, follows the migration of all these species as they work their way back to the UK from Africa.

Migration is the process by which species of animals move from one area to another for the reason of reproduction. Longer days and warmer weather give birds a better chance of success rate when raising young and so the migration pattern is from the south to the north in our summer, and the reverse in winter.

Hence Hobbies usually arrive late April and leave again just before the start of September. This year, one individual was recorded locally to SOS, near Needham Market in Suffolk, as early as April 13th. They are not an overly-common visitor to these shores, but in recent years numbers have been on an increase, particularly in the south of England.

The Hobby is only a very small falcon of a size similar to our native Kestrel, though it has a shorter tail and distinct, 'sickle’-shaped wings which enable it to do fantastic aerobatic stunts as its chases its prey. The favoured diet of Hobbies is large flying insects such as dragonflies and the bigger moths, which they will eat while still on the wing - they can often be seen chasing moths just before dark. Hobbies are also the only raptor capable of chasing and catching the speedy Swift in flight.

In order to catch prey, Hobbies will usually cruise out of sight at high altitude, waiting for the right moment to close their wings and plummet to earth at speeds which can be in excess of 100mph, only opening their wings again when they are just a few feet of the ground.

Photo © Claude Ruchet at www.ruchet.com

Hobbies inhabit areas like heathland, near to the edge of woodlands, and around farmland. If you have a disused crow or rook nest locally, look out there too as Hobbies favour their abandoned nests - though as a result, a few chicks can be lost to these corvids before they get the chance to make the journey back to Africa.

As a rule the female Hobby will lay 3 eggs, which hatch in about 4 weeks: the chicks will take 4-5 weeks to fully fledge and then another 4-6 weeks to become completely independent. Young Hobbies learn to catch prey by first catching slow-flying beetles, then progressing to the faster species as they become more practised at the art.

The name “Hobby” is said to come from the Old Dutch “Hobben” - which means to move up and down or side to side quickly - which describes the way the bird flies to catch its prey.

The Latin name for the Hobby is Falco Subbuteo - you may recognise this name from the tabletop football game. This is because the inventor of Subbuteo was a Peter Adolph, who in his spare time was a keen bird watcher and the Hobby was his favourite bird. When applying for the patent, he wanted to register the game as ‘The Hobby’: this was turned down but the name of ‘ Subbuteo’ proved quite acceptable to the powers that be and which explains why the game carries crests and emblems which feature the head of the falcon on most versions produced today.