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Part 33 - The Hobby and the Raven

Hobby – falco subbuteo

A few years ago, an ex-colleague who lives in Cranedown was fortunate enough to see one of these small falcons in his garden. I haven’t been so lucky – or so observant – but I keep hoping. The inventor of table football, a Mr P Adulph, if I remember correctly, borrowed the second part of this bird’s scientific name for his great game as he thought “Subbuteo” could become a hobby for many people. In my case, it became a teenage obsession and I still have the remains of some of my teams, including Oligarki Simpletons and Stefalik Hamlet (the inspiration for my new e-mail address below!). In fact –'sub-buteo' indicates a bird smaller than a buteo or buzzard and the hobby certainly is, with a length and wingspan more or less the same as a kestrel but with an outline and flight recalling a small peregrine.

Hobbies are summer visitors only, arriving in May and leaving in September or October. They are primarily insect-feeders and gatherings of hobbies can sometimes be seen over wetlands where plentiful dragonflies provide relatively easy meals. Earlier this year, I saw around 20 hobbies at the fabulous Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (NNR) in Somerset but much closer to home is Stodmarsh NNR in Kent where even larger groups may be found in May. The best chance of seeing a hobby locally may be over the Lewes Brooks but at this time of year, they can turn up almost anywhere. Apart from insects, hobbies also catch other birds including hirundines (birds of the swallow and martin family) and even, and very remarkably, swifts. Most of those taken are probably young and inexperienced and this may be why the hobby’s breeding season coincides with the availability of this extra food source. Hobbies often make use of nests made by crows, preferring isolated trees from which the birds have a good view of the surrounding area. The British population of hobbies is expanding very healthily and is currently estimated at around 1000 breeding pairs, most of these being in southern England.

Raven – corvus corax

The American Republican Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, may have some weird names for her children (the girls are Piper, Willow and Bristol and the boys Track and Trig) but I think my daughter’s friend's name – Raven – out-trumps any of these. If I used the expression, I would say that this is a very 'cool' name indeed. Raven is black but not as black as the bird. Although ravens are very large birds –their 64 cm length makes them about a third bigger than a carrion crow – it can be surprisingly difficult to pick one out by size alone. At close range, the huge bill is a give-away and at distance the tapering, wedge-shaped tail is a good field mark. The harsh voice – sometimes written as 'prrk' or 'koo-rook' - is diagnostic but the birds also have other noises in their vocabulary including one that recalls Toad's car in Wind in the Willows.

Ravens were once found all over Britain but were persecuted by gamekeepers, hunters and egg-collectors to such an extent that by the end of the nineteenth century their range had been reduced to the far western and northern counties. However, like buzzards, they have been making a recovery of late and expanding eastwards, albeit painfully slowly. The same colleague who saw a hobby in his garden – Chris Durell – wrote prophetically in an English Nature publication about ten years ago that 'the raven, absent for a century, may once again be seen over the cliffs at Beachy Head'. And so it proved! But the even better news is that there are now at least five pairs of ravens breeding in Sussex, with one of these in Lewes, on the Cuilfail cliffs. Ravens don’t move much from their breeding areas in winter and the Lewes birds are almost certainly responsible for recent sightings of ravens in Kingston. One certainly flew over our house last year and I’ve seen ravens occasionally on the Downs. Ravens are predominantly carrion feeders but are capable of killing prey as large as rabbits and may also take birds, especially if young, injured or otherwise vulnerable.

Ravens are extraordinarily intelligent birds and appear in myths and legends, including of course that of Noah in Genesis, in cultures all over the world. They pair for life and are very long-lived indeed.

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