In the welcome warmth of late September sun I stood stock still, alone, for 90 minutes on a path dissecting the wet meadows at Strumpshaw Fen. I was waiting. Waiting for a hobby to come close enough for me to capture something of its swift scything flight through the lens of my camera. The bird, a juvenile, appeared every so often jinking this way and that in the clear blue heavens. It was hunting dragonflies that in this summer reprise abounded, themselves darting hither and thither in their frantic quest for a mate before the chill of early autumn once more held sway and cut short their already brief role on this wetland stage. The hobby knew I was there, how could it not? A bird that can espy flying insect prey from a range of over 100 metres and home in on it with all the precision of a feathered exocet is unlikely not to have registered my presence below. But I remained still and patient.
A jay flew by crop full of acorns with another clutched firmly between its strong black mandibles. Raiding an oak on the north side of the river it flew to the marshes bordering the southern bank to stow away the plunder in instinctive anticipation of harsh times ahead. Back and forth it flew a half dozen times whilst I stood there in my unobtrusive garb and I know it too was aware. Flocks of Canada geese barked their way low over my head and a mute swan raised itself tall, lazily flapping its wide white wings and vigorously waggling its rear end before commencing a leisurely cruise along the drain. A loose flock of martins and swallows, mere ghostly specks high in the azure vastness whirled slowly east. And still the hobby swooped over the tree tops tantalisingly out of range, its bright cheek patches catching the sun as it twisted with effortless agility to snatch another morsel from the air.
Presently a kestrel entered the scene causing the hobby to suspend its hunting to flirt with the interloper. The pair cavorted over the marsh for a couple of minutes but it was plain they were simply mock fighting; they were too evenly matched and with an abundance of food and no territorial imperative why would they need to risk injury? A buzzard floating across the stage was another matter and both the hobby and the kestrel joining forces took exception to this much larger hook-billed character. The smaller falcons took turns to stoop at the buzzard driving it back from whence it came before once more resuming their playful sparring. Eventually the kestrel tired of the sport and with a touch more intent lunged at the younger bird and sent it packing, arrowing away to hunting grounds anew. I waited on.
As the morning slid seamlessly into afternoon drifts of cloud began to roll in from the west and the breeze gained strength, threatening the promised rain showers. I was beginning to toy with the not unwelcome thought of smooth hot chocolate and a snack in the shelter of the reception hide when the hobby glided back to its favoured position low over the trees bordering the marsh. I willed it closer and as if responding to my thoughts it began to wheel towards where I stood. Swooping even closer and plunging low towards some unseen bounty it inadvertently trespassed on the kestrels patch which appearing from nowhere once again engaged. Both birds, intent now only on each other, flew directly across my path and I snapped away hoping that the camera would not render my long vigil fruitless. But it doesn't really matter. The exhilaration of having these fine birds momentarily oblivious of me and chasing each other a few feet above my head made all the waiting worthwhile, belittling the need to worry over a digital image. The mental image I have now as I close my eyes to relive the moment is better by far. Sometimes it pays to simply stand and stare.
The Hobby....At Last!