Population of the Hobby in Northumberland

Population data for Hobby Falco subbuteo are given for years up to 2002 in the various Birds in Northumbria Annual Reports. Hobby data provides an interesting further example of a raptor colonising an area of northern Britain not previously thought suitable for the species. Hobby colonisation started in 1996, three years later than the Honey-buzzard. All the data in Table 1 refers to the study area in south west Northumberland. Overall the Hobby has made less progress in its colonisation than the Honey-buzzard suggesting that conditions on the Scottish-English border are less ideal than for the Honey-buzzard. Nevertheless the Hobby is maintaining its status on the edge of its range as an uncommon breeder with a preference for nesting on the moorland fringe, with stable numbers and productivity since 2001 with 10-15 territories each year and 4-9 broods in 11 of the 15 years. Overall in the study area the Hobby shows amazing constancy at a fairly low density. The Hobby is a difficult species to survey because of its secrecy and as it is not the number one target species, the numbers below are thought to be underestimates. Indeed the strain put on survey resources by the rapidly increasing Honey-buzzard population has reduced opportunities for detecting the secretive Hobby.

Status of Hobby in Northumberland

It is regrettable that so much politics surrounds the colonisation of the Hobby in Northumberland. The Hobby was regarded as a well-established recent colonist in Northumberland in 2003. See bulletins for reports by 22 observers in the monthly bulletins of the Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club. Hobbies were also found in two field trips led by Nick Rossiter in south west Northumberland in 2001 and 2002. The report on the latter, published in the bulletin for September 2002, is available here. Then along came the Honey-buzzard debacle, after which it was very difficult for the NCRC (Northumberland County Records Committee) to accept my expertise in Hobby, while denying it in Honey-buzzard. So Hobby was made a category A species (full description required), upgraded from category B (brief notes) when all indications were that it was rapidly increasing in NE England and E Scotland. Hobby are unmistakable when in flight on their jizz but seeing much in the way of plumage is often quite difficult. So we now have the situation where most observers do not bother to submit descriptions as acceptance is questionable on often brief views or on jizz alone. In Birds in Northumbria 2011 we find the NCRC reports (p. 228): “A further 95 records were not submitted for adjudication by the CRC. This is a significant increase on 2010. Of these, 24 relate to Hobby sightings where no details have been submitted to the CRC to corroborate the sighting”. Under the Hobby account (p. 78) we find: “There were again many reported sightings during the year, only six of which have been documented”. From a scientific point of view it is a triumph of precision over accuracy: we have a few very nice (precise) descriptions but the reported totals are highly inaccurate when compared to the real number of birds frequenting the county. After a slow increase in preceding years, it did appear by 2014, through records on BirdTrack, that eastern Scotland has been invaded in numbers; this should lead to wider acceptance of the healthy state of the colonisation of SW Northumberland.


The results below are for SW Northumberland. In 2003 one pair was found breeding in casual visits to north Northumberland (one locality, 2 adults, 2 juveniles).


Details for each Year


Year

Number of localities where signs of breeding

Number of broods

Number of juveniles fledged

1996

1

1

2

1997

4

2

4

1998

5

2

4

1999

4

2

2

2000

5

2

4

2001

12

5

8

2002

10

8

15

2003

13

9

12

2004

13

5

7

2005

13

3

5

2006

10

3

5

2007

13

6

12

2008

15

5

6 (1x2, 5x1+)

2009

15

2

2 (2x1+)

2010

13

6

8 (2x2, 4x1+)

2011

11

5

7 (2x2, 3x1+)

2012

11

3

3 (3x1+)

2013

14

4

7 (1x3, 1x2, 1x1+, 1x1)

2014

12

8

13 (1x3, 3x2, 4x1+)

2015

13

4

4 (4x1+)

2016

11

8

10 (2x2, 6x1+)

Table 1: Numbers of Hobby found from 1996-2016 in SW Northumberland

More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2007 are available in Table 2.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Locally-fledged

Also seen

Hexhamshire (Devil’s Water)

1

2

0

1

0

0

0

Allen

3

2

3

0

0

6

0

Upper South Tyne

6

4

1

1

4

1

5

Lower South Tyne

1

2

0

1

0

0

0

Tyne

1

2

1

0

0

2

0

Derwent

1

1

1

0

0

3

0

Total

13

13

6

3

4

12

5

Table 2: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2007


More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2008 are available in Table 3.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

1

1

0

0

1

0

0

Allen

3

4

0

1

2

0

0

Upper South Tyne

5

5

3

0

2

4

0

Lower South Tyne

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Tyne

3

2

1

0

2

1

1

Derwent

3

4

1

1

1

1

0

Total

15

16

5

2

8

6 (1x2, 5x1+)

1

Table 3: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2008

Perhaps because of the poor weather in August and early September it was a poor year overall for breeding success with only 6 young known to fledge (1x2, 5x1+). However, the number fledged is undoubtedly an underestimate as the Hobby sites are covered less systematically than Honey-buzzard sites. Further the number of sites occupied was a record at 15, suggesting that the species is consolidating its colonisation of the area. Overall the preference of the Hobby for moorland fringes remains very marked with 11 of the 15 sites being situated very close to heather moors. In lowland areas only four sites were occupied but there does appear to be a small viable population emerging in the eastern Tyne Valley.

More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2009 are available in Table 4.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

3

5

0

2

1

0

0

Allen

4

6

0

4

0

0

2

Upper South Tyne

4

4

2

0

2

2

0

Lower South Tyne

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Tyne

2

3

0

1

1

0

0

Derwent

2

1

0

0

2

0

1

Total

15

19

2

7

6

2 (2x1+)

3

Table 4: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2009

The Hobby is such a difficult species to survey, capable of keeping a very low profile and apparently being quite mobile from year to year in site selection. This year equalled the previous year's record in number of sites at 15 but the species has advanced very little since the 12 sites in 2001. The number fledged is undoubtedly an underestimate as the Hobby sites are covered less systematically than Honey-buzzard sites. However, with so much time in the field this September, it was expected that more juveniles would be seen and it is possible that the northern edge of the species' range is acting as a sink rather than as a spur to further colonisation to the north. Mobility is shown by 6 of the sites occupied in 2008 not apparently being used in 2009 and 5 of the 6 'new' sites this year not being used in either 2007 or 2008. The preference of the Hobby for moorland fringes was less marked this year with 7 of the 15 sites situated very close to heather moors.


More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2010 are available in Table 5.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

1

1

0

0

1

0

0

Allen

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Upper South Tyne

5

5

4

0

1

5

0

Lower South Tyne

2

1

1

0

1

2

0

Tyne W

3

4

1

2

0

1

0

Tyne E

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Derwent

2

2

1

0

1

0

0

Total

13

13

7

2

4

8 (2x2, 4x1+)

0

Table 5: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2010


The Hobby is such a difficult species to survey, capable of keeping a very low profile and apparently being quite mobile from year to year in site selection. This year the number of sites was down slightly but productivity appeared to rise with at least 8 juveniles fledged and breeding confirmed at 7 sites, including 2 where food was seen being carried in by adults. The number fledged is undoubtedly an underestimate as the Hobby sites are covered less systematically than Honey-buzzard sites. Mobility is shown with only 7 sites being apparently used in both 2009 and 2010. The preference of the Hobby for moorland fringes was again more marked this year with 9 of the 13 sites situated very close to heather moors. The stronghold remains the upper South Tyne where 5 sites occupied and at least 4 young fledged. Tyne Valley W was the next best area with 3 sites occupied and breeding confirmed at one. I'll give a back-handed compliment to game interests here: the Peregrine is on the black list and few are seen but at least the Hobby are recognised as such and indeed flourish on the edge of their range in ideal habitat. Many birdwatchers really struggle with separating Hobby and Peregrine, because they are fixated on plumage. There would have been more sightings in spring I think if I had not been absent so much in Devon with ailing mother.


More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2011 are available in Table 6.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

1

1

1

0

0

1

0

Allen

3

5

2

0

1

4

0

Upper South Tyne

3

4

1

2

0

1

0

Lower South Tyne

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Tyne W

1

1

1

0

0

1

0

Tyne E

1

1

0

1

0

0

0

Derwent

2

2

0

1

1

0

0

Total

11

14

5

4

2

7 (2x2, 3x1+)

0

Table 6: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2011


This year the number of sites was down slightly but a widespread presence across the area was noticed with birds in all valleys except the lower South Tyne. Poor weather in the first half of September reduced the effort on the edges of the moors, which are popular with the species. Very strong winds and blustery rain reduced both observer effort at altitude and the visibility of the family groups, which is the main way that breeding is confirmed. 7 of the 11 sites occupied are adjacent to heather moorland. Maybe though the birds are tougher than the observer with a family party of 4 Hobby up at Studdon Park in 60kph SW winds on 13 September, seemingly unaffected by the conditions. Hobby now seem well established in the Allen as well as in the initial stronghold of the upper South Tyne. They remain scarce in lowland areas with a total of 2 territories in the main Tyne Valley, E of Hexham.


More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2012 are available in Table 7.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Allen

3

5

1

2

0

1

0

Upper South Tyne

2

3

0

2

0

0

0

Lower South Tyne

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Tyne W

2

3

0

1

1

0

0

Tyne E

2

4

1

1

0

1

0

Derwent

2

3

1

1

0

1

0

Total

11

18

3

7

1

3 (3x1+)

0

Table 7: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2012


At 11 sites (same as in 2011), as many as 18 adults were seen, with 10 of the sites being at least at the probable level and just one at the possible. Evidence for fledging was not so good with 3 juveniles noted at 3 sites. Considering how bad the weather was in the summer, this was not a bad result, suggesting that the Hobby will be able to maintain a presence in northern Britain. Although only 3 broods were recorded, this is likely to have been an underestimate as birds were still on-site at 3 of the sites in the probable category in August. As in 2011 there was a widespread presence across the area, ranging from upland areas such as the East Allen near Allenheads to lowland areas in the east such as Wylam. 7 of the 11 sites occupied are adjacent to heather moorland; the remaining 4 were in the main Tyne Valley, E of Hexham.


More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2013 are available in Table 8.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

1

1

0

0

1

0

0

Allen

3

4

1

1

1

2

0

Upper South Tyne

4

3

3

0

1

5

0

Lower South Tyne

1

2

0

1

0

0

0

Tyne W

3

4

0

1

2

0

0

Tyne E

1

1

0

1

0

0

0

Derwent

1

1

0

1

0

0

0

Total

14

16

4

5

5

7 (1x3, 1x2, 1x1+, 1x1)

0

Table 8: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2013


A similar year to recent ones with 16 adults seen at 14 sites; finding broods remains challenging with breeding confirmed at just 4 sites. All the broods found were on the moorland edge with 3 in the upper South Tyne and one in the Allen. A gathering of 3 juveniles at Parson Shields on 14/9 produced spectacular display; it is possible that this brood was from more than one site. Evidence for fledging is not easy to produce as the period in which the full family groups are visible is thought to be quite short from mid-August to early September. If this were the top priority species in the study area, a focus could be put on this period at the known Hobby sites but the Honey-buzzard sites for early fledging take preference. There was a widespread presence across the area, ranging from upland areas such as the East Allen near Allenheads to lowland areas in the east such as Wylam. However, 9 of the 14 sites occupied are adjacent to heather moorland; the remaining 5 were in the main Tyne Valley, around Hexham, including the gravel-pit site at Farnley; in Tyne Valley E around Wylam; in lower South Tyne around Warden. Sand Martin might be a significant prey along the Tyne Valley. On the moorland edges, Meadow Pipit may well be targeted as the commonest passerine.


More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2014 are available in Table 9.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Allen

3

2

2

0

1

2

0

Tipalt

1

1

1

0

0

1

0

Upper South Tyne

1

1

1

0

0

3

0

Lower South Tyne

2

3

0

1

1

0

0

Tyne W

3

6

2

1

0

4

0

Tyne E

1

2

1

0

0

2

0

Derwent

1

2

1

0

0

1

0

Total

12

17

8

2

2

13 (1x3, 3x2, 4x1+)

0

Table 9: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2014


The total number of sites occupied at 12 is similar to the previous 13 years when it's varied from 10 to 15; the total number of broods at 8 is beaten by only one other year, 2003 with 9; the number of young raised at 13 is beaten by only one other year, 2002 with 15. In reality, think coverage of the Hobby has suffered as Honey-buzzard numbers have soared, as was able to spend more time tracking down Hobbies 10-15 years ago. Whatever, it's a good result and in a year, when eastern Scotland has been invaded in numbers (BirdTrack), should gain wider acceptance. The high proportion of confirmed sites (2/3) suggests that it was a successful season with ample food supplies. The surprisingly low numbers in the upper South Tyne, down from 4 sites occupied to 1, is hopefully a sign of lower coverage rather than a real downward trend. In addition no birds were seen in the Beldon Burn this year so there is an apparent trend towards lowland areas, hopefully not reflecting any persecution on the grouse moors. This year 7 of the 12 sites occupied are adjacent to heather moorland; the remaining 5 were in or near the main Tyne Valley.


More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2015 are available in Table 10.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

1

1

0

1

0

0

0

Allen

2

1

1

0

1

1

0

Tipalt

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Upper South Tyne

3

3

1

1

1

1

0

Lower South Tyne

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Tyne W

2

2

1

0

1

1

0

Tyne E

2

2

0

1

1

0

0

Derwent

3

6

1

2

0

1

0

Total

13

15

4

5

4

4 (4x1+)

0

Table 10: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2015


At the end of the season, without having done the calculations on the records, was expecting this to be a poor year for the species. It was certainly one in which sightings were often brief but the totals were not that far from normal with the 13 sites being in the middle of the long-term run from 2001 of 10-15 sites and the number of broods at the lower end of the typical range of 4-9 in the same period. Two of the 18 sightings were of this species mobbing Honey-buzzard, something they're quite keen on doing. The Hobby continues to make inroads into E Scotland with a pair of Hobby breeding in Perth & Kinross where personally had birds (juvenile male, adult female) at 2 sites in my visit in September; records of this species numbered 10 in July, 10 in August and 3 in September [Scottish Birds 35(4) December 2015 p.375]. Everywhere though on the edge of its range it seems to be difficult to pin down, readily moving sites by a few km each year and being difficult to observe as with many raptors when on eggs or with small young. After last year's apparent dip, numbers recovered in the upper South Tyne to 3 sites occupied, but Towsbank one of the showcase sites was not apparently used. The same number of pairs were at Derwent and 2 pairs were at each of Allen, Tyne W and Tyne E. This year 8 of the 13 sites occupied were adjacent to heather moorland; the remaining 5 were in or near the main Tyne Valley including the one in the Devil's Water. Overall in the study area the Hobby shows amazing constancy at a fairly low density.


More details of the Hobby breeding season for 2016 are available in Table 11.


Area

No. sites

No. adults

Breeding Category

Juveniles

Conf

Prob

Poss


Local-fledge

Also seen

Devil’s Water

2

2

0

0

2

0

0

Allen

2

2

2

0

0

2

0

Tipalt

(low coverage this year)

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Upper South Tyne

1

2

1

0

0

2

0

Lower South Tyne

(low coverage this year)

1

1

0

0

1

0

0

Tyne W

1

0

1

0

0

1

0

Tyne E

1

2

1

0

0

1

0

Derwent

3

2

3

0

0

4

0

Total

11

11

8

0

3

10 (2x2, 6x1+)

0

Table 11: Breeding Data for Hobby in SW Northumberland by area in 2016


This was a typical season on the number of sites with the 11 noted being within the long-term run from 2001 of 10-15 sites. The number of broods at 8 was at the higher end of the typical range of 4-9 in the same period, indicating a successful season. Derwent had the highest number of broods at 3 and although upper South Tyne only had 1 brood, the fledged family party here of 4 (2 adult, 2 juvenile) at Towsbank produced the best aerial spectacle of the year on 26th August. This year 6 of the 11 sites occupied were adjacent to heather moorland; the remaining 5 were in or near the main Tyne Valley including two in the Devil's Water at the possible level. Overall another year of amazing constancy.


Videos of Hobby in Northumberland

Blanchland, 7 September 2011, adult male, video with derived stills 1  2  3, in great power flight against the almost gale-force wind.

Staward, 14 August 2011, family party of 2 adults and 2 juveniles, video, much interaction.

Farnley, 21 April 2011, adult male, video, mobbing Honey-buzzard.

March Burn, 24 August 2010, adult female and juvenile, video with derived stills 1  2  3  4  5.

Plenmeller Unthank, 30 August 2010, 2 juveniles, video.

Lambley, 2 September 2008, adult, video, fast overhead flight.

Wylam, 29 August 2008, video (1  2) of juvenile beating about for around 3 minutes over the Spetchells.

Videos of Hobby elsewhere

Ruislip Woods, London, 5 September 2011, video with derived stills 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11, adult female followed by play between adult and juvenile males.

Ulignano, Tuscany, Italy, 27 July 2011, adult female, video with derived stills 1  2.

Haldon, Devon, 20 July 2009, Hobby mobbing a family party of Raven.

Glen Auldyn, Isle of Man, 26 May 2009, pair of displaying Hobby near the moorland edge 1  2.


Stills of Hobby in Northumberland (South Tyne)


Barhaugh 23 June 2002, adult (male?) 1 2 3

Barhaugh 12 July 2003, adult (male?) with Common Buzzard in second one 1 2

Kirkhaugh 19 August 2003, adult (female?) 1 2 3 4

Kirkhaugh 12 September 2003, adult 1

Each line shows the same bird in a number of poses. These birds were frequenting woods along the edge of the moors. Note the short inner wing and long pointed outer wing; the medium-length square-cut tail and lightweight appearance. Peregrines Falco peregrinus also have a medium-length tail but would have a proportionately much heavier body, with pronounced chest, and a broader tail base. Peregrines would also still be in primary moult in August and September while Hobbies may start moult of inner primaries in late summer but most migrate south with old flight feathers intact (Forsman, 1999, p.508).

Although Hobbies do have shortish tails, the wing base can be so narrow that the tail is longer than the wing base (20-30% perhaps) while in Peregrine and Merlin Falco columbarius the wing base and tail length are more equal. As a Hobby moves away from you the tail length can look quite long at up to 1.5 times the wing width: see for instance Forsman, 1999, plate 644. The relatively long wings of Hobby give them a wingspan:length ratio of 2.5 compared to 2.2 for Peregrine (Ferguson-Lees & Christie, 2001, p. 882, 914). The first and third below show a ratio of about 2.5.

Female Hobbies are only slightly larger than males (3-5%) but they are not quite so slim or thin-winged and average over 30% heavier with the bulkiest 50% heavier (Ferguson-Lees & Christie, 2001, p. 882). Forsman (1999, p.510) notes that female Hobbies are stockier and broader-winged than males and may at times even resemble a slender Peregrine. On this basis the first two birds above could be male(s) and the third a female but the emphasis is probably on the could. In picture 2 the Barhaugh 12 July 2003 bird is mobbing a Common Buzzard: the size comparison clearly excludes Peregrine Falcon. Further the Common Buzzard has a length 1.75 times that of the falcon, very close to the 1.77 expected from the lengths given by Forsman (1999, p.267, p.506) of 51-57cm for Common Buzzard and 29-32cm for Hobby.

Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus would show a broader wing with a rounded tip.

It has been suggested, perhaps rather extraordinarily, that these are Merlin Falco columbarius. Merlin are more compact with relatively short wings (wingspan:length ratio of 2.3 (Ferguson-Lees & Christie, 2001, p. 878)) and have a broader and shorter hand with a slightly blunt tip.

I am grateful to Martin Kitching for comments on these birds.

For comparison, a Peregrine:

SW Northumberland 17 May 2003, adult 1

This bird shows a broader wing base, a broader tail base and apparently shorter tail with the wing base and tail being about equal in length. Also note the primary moult (around P4) and generally more powerful appearance.

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