The return of the Halmore Hobbies

by Chris Newton.

A year ago I gave an account of a successful breeding attempt by a pair of Hobbies on farmland near my home in Halmore, Berkeley. I thought those who have seen that article would be interested in hearing what happened in 2021.

Last year my final sighting of one of the adult birds was on September 17, and I last saw the two juveniles on the 22nd, by which time they were fully grown and strong flyers. Having kept my fingers firmly crossed over the winter for a return, I was delighted, on May 1 this year, to spot a Hobby on Ragged Oak (as I call it), the stag-headed oak tree amid arable farmland which was most frequently used by the Hobbies in 2020, first by the male while on lookout and later also by the juveniles after fledging. This 2021 arrival was even on the same branch, suggesting that I was looking at the same male bird.

The male hobby in late June 2021 on ‘Lone Oak’, taken from a hide concealed in a nearby hedge (Chris Newton)

Within the hour we were leaving for a two-week holiday in Scotland, so I could do no more until the middle of May. I was conscious that after 2021’s very cold spring the bird world generally was a couple of weeks behind the norm, and that the small birds upon which Hobby families rely were in short supply, Would this affect breeding?

Sightings from mid-May to mid-June were irregular and always of single birds, but then on June 15 I spotted two Hobbies sitting in the birds’ other favourite tree, a solitary oak tree I call Lone Oak. From my previous observations, they were behaving typically for a mated pair pre-incubation – sitting several feet apart in the same tree and doing very little for extended periods. I saw them again later that day and the next, but after that we were back to single-bird sightings for the rest of the month. I presumed that this was because the female was now on eggs, which are typically laid around mid-June, although I was conscious that given the late spring, the breeding cycle might have been pushed back.

The male soaring above (Chris Newton)

On 13.7 I saw one of the birds, presumably the male, apparently chasing away a Kestrel (a Kestrel pair were successfully raising a family in the same area at about the same time). A couple of days later I saw the Hobby harrying a small group of Swallows high up (Swallows and other hirundines were thin on the ground locally this summer, so perhaps he was having to take every chance he could get). Then on July 16th I was surprised to see two Hobbies flying away together from the field side by side. I had assumed the female must be incubating, although I believe female Hobbies do leave the nest periodically.

During the second half of July, when the temperature topped 30 degrees, and the first half of August, I continued to make sporadic sightings of single birds, always in mature oaks with bare branches, like last year. However these locations were not all in or around the birds’ ‘home’ field as they had been in 2020, and some of the chosen trees were 200-300 metres away from the group of oaks where I had presumed the Hobbies were nesting, making me wonder if they had chosen another location.

A view of the bird on ‘Ragged Oak’ (Chris Newton)

On August 11, I noticed from afar a commotion in the heart of the Hobbies’ territory which involved two Hobbies and a number of Carrion Crows. The crows did not seem willing to leave, and the fuss went on for several minutes. Was this an attack on the nest, and if so was this, or another attack by these birds, successful? I will never know, but it seems possible.

I was now searching daily for branching juveniles, as in 2020 I had first seen them on August 16. I was also still hoping to see or hear a food delivery, something which I had observed several times by the same stage of the 2020 season, because this would have given me a fix on where the nest actually was. In fact I only ever detected one food delivery, on August 14, when I heard the male’s ‘burglar alarm’ call and saw him bringing a food item into the same small group of large oaks where I believe they nested last year, suggesting that young birds were still being fed at that point – although he may of course have been provisioning the female. I heard that unmistakeable call many times last year, but in summer 2021 I heard it only three or four times in total.

Solitary bird photographed in late July (Chris Newton)

I saw single Hobbies several times from then until August 30, when a glimpse of the male in Lone Oak proved to be the last sighting of the summer. I continued to patrol the area with binoculars until the end of September without further success. I also explored our local fields more widely, conscious that other pairs might be breeding nearby (I have anecdotal evidence from a neighbour that they have nested in the area before) and if so, that the August-September period would give by far the best chance of discovery, because this is when the whole family are on the wing as the juveniles learn to fly and to hunt.

So was predation the cause of this year’s failed attempt to breed, or was it the lack of food in the shape of small (and particularly young) birds? Or maybe something else? I will never know. I am just hoping that my Hobbies will survive the rigours of migration to return in 2022, or perhaps that the chicks they raised last year will return as breeding adults, as they will be old enough then. I’ll keep you posted.

Chris Newton.