Northern Hobby: the Scythe-winged Hunter
By Mark Brazil | Aug 25, 2015
My symbol of summer is a falcon, one that arrives late each year. The Northern Hobby rides in on warm southerly winds during the dying days of April or early May’s Golden Week. The fresh arrivals are lithe and vigorous after a long carefree winter in warmer climes. Their chattering kew kew kew kew calls, boldly announcing their return, arouse a heart-warming nostalgia, like hearing from a dear friend after many months abroad.
On rapid flickering beats of long scything wings, a Northern Hobby flashes past; its arced wings thrash the air with relentless power and its movements are accompanied by a hard chattering; no mercy there. The hobby shares, in the plumage of its upper parts the same sombre slate blue-grey of a miniature Peregrine Falcon, but in contrast to these funereal greys its white face combined with a bold mask and its strikingly streaked front set off by distinctive rufous thighs and undertail coverts lend it a lightness and elegance the Peregrine lacks.
In the days following its return the delicate male flies repeatedly and conspicuously above the copses and woodlands where it has nested before. During this early summer courtship period the male is both aerobatic and vocal, showing off his flight skills and calling frequently to attract and entice the larger female that lingers nearby. It may take him several weeks of courtship to convince her that he is truly worthy, but once she is convinced first mating then egg-laying follow swiftly. They engage in no nest-building phase; instead, they take up squatter’s rights in an old Carrion Crow’s nest, in which the female lays her clutch of three bluntly ovate reddish-brown eggs in mid-June.
After the heated passion of their courtship and the effort of her egg laying the pair suddenly withdraws into cloistered silence and unobtrusiveness. Weeks pass and I catch only brief glimpses, and of the male mostly. Then, in mid July her eggs hatch and activity expands to meet her nestlings’ demands. While the female broods the white fluff ball youngsters the male alone provides for them, hunting relentlessly. He delivers food to her near the nest and she then feeds the clamouring young.
Through the warmth of mid summer this most graceful and agile of all the falcons flickers back and forth above the tree tops conspicuous effort interspersed with lazy gliding. He scythes through the sky reaping a harvest of smaller fast moving creatures. He must be faster than his evasive prey if his young are to survive. He rows, banks, swerves swoops and chases almost anything that wings into range. His wings, dark and swift-like in their stiff angled shape and stiff beats, seem rigid like a fighter aircraft’s wings, yet they are flexible too allowing him to gain, cutting off his prey at each turn, closing, closing, stooping, snatching. He lashes out with a foot; his narrow toes are tipped with sharp-tipped curving talons with which he snatches his prey from the safety of the air; no mercy there. An airborne beetle, a seemingly swift darter dragonfly, a Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Asian House Martin, they all fall prey to this swift-winged harbinger of death.
Their breeding is a fine exemplar of phenology, the delicate and critical balancing of the processes of the seasons. As their young emerge, then as those young leave their nest and take their first critical steps along the path to becoming masters of the air and high-speed pursuit predators, one particular group of insects becomes abundant. The breeding season of the hobby coincides nicely with the pre-autumn flush of dragonflies. Dragonflies are perfect prey, perfectly sized, and occur in sweet abundance as the young hobbies are growing.
Fellow of the genus Falco, along with its bigger bird-bullying cousin the Peregrine, the Northern Hobby is an aerial master, capable of chasing down other supreme aerialists, even swallows and martins, themselves pursuers of aerial insects. When perched, an adult hobby has a bold and upright posture, appearing self-assured, a confident predator.
The restless dashing, flashing flight of the hobby with its bandit mask leaves only a subliminal blur of shape and pattern on the human eye, an avian gestalt known as jizz to bird devotees. The hobby’s only true colour comes in the deep redness of the feathering of its thighs and under tail; they seem deep and darkly coloured almost as if they have been stained with the blood of their prey.
During late July and early August the scrawny, newly feather tufted young hobbies become increasingly vocal, clamouring and constantly begging as the adults deliver prey to them. Fledging, like incubation, takes a month, so once they have fledged from mid August onwards the young are conspicuous and this period is the very best hobby-watching season. The young appear less assured and with the odd down feather still clinging to head or mantle they appear a little more dishevelled, and less worldly than their parents. During their first weeks of flight they are recognizable, not merely because of their clumsiness in the air, but because their wings are shorter and blunter tipped than those of their parents. The fledglings must learn their hunting skills quickly and focus their attention almost entirely on the abundance of dragonflies that begin to fill the air like the first flurries of wind blown autumn leaves.
Now, as summer wanes, dragonflies in abundance are lining up along tree branches, dwarf bamboo stems, and along telephone wires. With their dark-tipped double gossamer-wings they resemble miniature aircraft lined up in squadrons beside runways ready for take off and combat. Paired dragonflies mating on the wing are busily depositing eggs in puddles and pools, dipping, dipping, dropping then rising. A descending dash of slaty-grey wings, a flash of red thigh from which a lashing foot extends and soon another hobby is circling, soaring on outstretched pinions reaching down and below to pull and peck at the prey it has trapped in its bunched talons. A delicate membranous dragonfly wing meets the curving blade of the hobby’s bill and loses; one by one four finely veined wings fall, twisting away on the breeze like sycamore seed blades. Though a dragonfly seems a fierce predator to the likes of a midge or a mosquito, it is no match for a determined hobby. The falcon is a rapid reaper of the air and makes short work of these morsels. A brief jink, a sudden falling off of speed and the hobby raises one foot and lowers its head. It pulls, plucks and gulps and moments later the hobby is ready, refuelled, and ready once more for the hunt.
This morning late summer crickets and grasshoppers were buzzing, making their dry rattling stridulating sounds from every roadside patch of tall grass. The dryness of their “calls” is like running a thumbnail across the teeth of a wooden comb. These are among the parched sounds that symbolize the turning of the season. The grass stems too are almost withered enough to rattle and Japanese Pampas Grass stems stand tall, proud and ornate with their tufted, feathery flowering tips turning steadily silver. As the grasses turn sere and rustle, as the crickets “cry”, it is as if they mourn the loss of the lushness of summer. Meanwhile the dragonfly wings rustle too, and the young hobbies are practicing their new found hunting skills on an abundance of easy prey.
It is breakfast time (mine) and as I eat and admire the changing shades of the distant mountains, two dark shapes flash into view. Our local hobby pair has fledged two young in a crow nest hidden in a tall conifer somewhere beside the nearby railway tracks. The young are conspicuous now forever practicing, refining their skills in the air and after prey. When they tire and pause they flicker in to land on the rooftop corner of our building. From their 15th floor lookout they survey a changing landscape. The plenty that the young hobbies know now, this late summer swarming rush of dragonflies will only last a few weeks more, then the insects will turn lethargic, fade and die and the hobbies, my symbols of summer, will retreat southwards once more. Once the northbound battering typhoon winds have passed and cooler southbound breezes from Russia return, the hobbies will depart.
Each day when I see them dashing past my window, I envy their lithe lightness of being and their marvellous mastery of flight. I listen for their last calls, and watch for the final flickering of their wings for one day soon I will miss them. There will be a silent emptiness where they have been. It will be autumn again and I must wait another eight months for their return.
The illustrations accompanying this article are taken from the recently published Pocket Guide to the Birds of Japan illustrated by the late Masayuki Yabuuchi.
Author and naturalist Dr Mark Brazil has written columns in his Wild Watch series continuously since April 1982. All Wild Watch articles dating back to 1999 are archived here for your reading pleasure. A collection of Mark’s essays The Nature of Japan has been published and is also available from www.japannatureguides.com