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More than just a Hobby

March 7, 2013

This article  was written for the Lost In London book, which features various articles of mine and was published in March 2013. It’s available to order here

Few encounters with London’s birdlife provoke such a sharp intake of breath as witnessing a Hobby Falco subbuteo on the hunt. A killer combination of elegance, dexterity, ruthlessness, aesthetic beauty and speed make for an unforgettable sight, and visiting favoured habitats at the right time of year gives you a great chance of finding them.

This was far from the case not so long ago. Hobbies were, and still are, very much an iconic bird of lowland heath, open forest and mixed farmland in England, the habitats favoured by London’s small but expanding breeding population. Until relatively recently, they barely scraped into the London area, except as scarce passage migrants and isolated breeders, with just a few vulnerable pairs in suitable areas on the capital’s rural fringes.

Britain hosts relatively few birds of prey that routinely migrate long distances, and those that do return to our shores each summer are usually associated with less disturbed, rural habitats. Up until the last few decades, the Hobby very much typified that description. However, over the last forty years or so, they’ve slowly but surely increased as a breeding bird in London, and – as a positive sign of their increasing population – they’re now often seen on migration in even the most urban of boroughs.

As a kid I was more concerned with learning Latin names of birds by heart than learning times tables, my neo-bibilical field guide being of much greater importance than my school books; as a consequence, the Hobby came to forge a unique connection between indoor, rainy day recreation and the outdoor pursuit of such (then) mythical species. Thanks in no small part to the creator of a certain table-top football game, who, via the same means, called his invention Subbuteo following his failure to secure the name ‘Hobby’ as a trademark.

While they can turn up almost anywhere, a cluster of favoured, picturesque spots in the upper Lea valley are particularly reliable – Seventy Acres Lake, Rye Meads and Amwell reserves are all popular with Hobbys, and even host feeding flocks on warm spring and late summer days. Returning birds arrive back in the UK during April and May, when small waves of migrants enter the capital’s airspace; many keep moving, while others linger at favoured locations, and some go no further, finding suitable territories to raise their young. Most leave us in September, with a few stragglers hanging on til October.

Over several years I spent studying the birdlife of Stoke Newington Reservoirs – a small wetland surrounded by housing estates and tower blocks in dark heart of Hackney – Hobbies provided unforgettable and surprisingly regular airshows; as time passed, so did more Hobbies, and their presence in the spring, summer and autumn became eagerly anticipated, as opposed to vanely hoped for.

It seems that, despite the noise, disturbance, traffic, pollution, and blanket concrete, the all-you-can-eat buffet supplied by such a tiny haven is too much for them to resist, both as a pit-stop on migration and as a regular food source during the breeding season – a wonderfully simple illustration of the relative biodiversity of even the most isolated of urban oases.

Hobbies are adept at catching a variety of prey items – as small as ants and as large as Starlings, and everything inbetween – and there’s no shortage of opportunities for them at reservoirs, open parks and at other urban sites. Those that visit Stoke Newington are particularly keen on the local populations of Swifts and dragonflies, often brushing aside the slow-coach attentions of gulls and crows in pursuit of their quarry.

There is something wonderfully counter-intuitive about enjoying the sight of a Hobby hunting deep within the capital. This most evocative of predators is still essentiallly a bird of wide open spaces, hawking aerobatically in warm summer sunshine over the heaths, farmland and marshes that provide the right combination of both breeding and foraging conditions.

In appearance, Hobbies share various features with Peregrines, which are arguably the main confusion species. However, good views usually reveal a combination of diagnostic features, and with practice, even distant or silouhetted birds are often identifiable on shape and flight behaviour.

Hobbies have a characteristically rakish appearance, accentuated by long, narrow, scythe-shaped wings and a sleek undercarriage (while Peregrines are larger, somewhat broader-winged and barrel-chested in comparison). Superficially dark overall, a good view of the underparts reveal a heavy blotching on a pale background, a pale ‘collar’ and a dark sub-moustachial stripe (a feature shared with Peregrines). Adults also have a diagnostic, bright red patch on the belly area, giving a distinctive, slightly macabre impression of ‘blood-stained thighs’.

The journey of these birds to and from London every year is truly epic. Unlike other members of the falcon family breeding in the UK, Hobbys are long-distance migrants, with the entire population spending our winter in tropical Africa. Hobbies are capable of sustained flight over huge distances, including over oceans and deserts, and thus migrate on a broad front (with no need to ‘bottleneck’ at narrow land bridges). A hell of a journey to reach us, and a hell of a bird to enjoy in London.

All words and pictures Mark James Pearson 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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