The hobby is a neat little slate-blue falcon with a white cheek and a black moustache, and also scarlet-feathered thighs, or “trousers”, as they are sometimes called.
I was once standing beneath a small pine tree, and suddenly heard sharp hawk-like calls coming from above me. I stared up through the thin branches, but all I could make out were some red bird thighs on a branch at the top. Then I heard a flurry of wings, and the thighs disappeared. But I knew I had seen a hobby — even if no more than a small bit of its anatomy.
Other views of them are more striking. They fly at great speed, pursuing beetles or birds in the sky, and with their swept-back wings look rather like large swifts, especially when they are flying straight towards you. If they are alarmed they go spiralling high into the sky.
They have been returning from Africa in the past few weeks, and are now much more widely found than they were 25 years ago. They were once considered to be birds of heathland, but now they are frequently found in ordinary farming country. They like to nest in places such as a spinney in the middle of a large arable field.
On arrival they often hunt above lakes, catching the house martins or sand martins that have also come there, in order to feed on flying insects. So an unfortunate martin may be killed by a predator that has arrived in Britain on the same flight, as it were. They catch their victims in their talons, and will sometimes transfer a beetle from foot to mouth as they fly, wobbling in the air for a moment.
Later in the summer they catch fat dragonflies, and I once saw a very unusual sight. A hobby was perched on a branch over a river, and kept flying down to pick up dragonflies that were wheeling over the water, then returning to its perch. I felt I could be watching a kingfisher rather than a falcon.