BTO: Rich pickings for our birds of prey

Hobby by Jill Pakenham/BTO

Hobby by Jill Pakenham/BTO

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While it may feel as if summer has yet to get going, for some of our birds it has already finished.

The first of our cuckoos have already left, as revealed by the BTO’s satellite-tagged birds, the birds heading south across Europe towards wintering grounds in central Africa.

For other summer visitors the breeding season remains in full swing. Recently fledged broods of blackcaps and chiffchaffs can be seen in the hedgerows and heard calling from the scruffy margins of local woodland. The noisy presence of these youngsters might suggest a good breeding season, encouraging indeed for those species, such as willow warbler, that make just a single breeding attempt each year. For many other species there will be a succession of nesting attempts, the birds attempting to maximise their reproductive output by not putting all of their eggs in one basket.

The presence of so many naïve young birds is good news for predators, delivering an abundance of prey at just the time they are likely to have young of their own to feed. Birds like sparrowhawk, peregrine and hobby, each of which specialises in rather different prey species, will have chicks in the nest or (as in the case with the local peregrines) newly-fledged young learning to fend for themselves. For hobby, the flush of dragonflies and cockchafers attracts individuals to riverside and damp meadow habitats, providing opportunities for birdwatchers to catch up with these stunning summer visitors at sites like Minsmere and Lackford Lakes. In some years, several dozen hobbies can be seen at favoured sites.

Hobbies seem equally adept at catching dragonflies as they are at hunting hirundines, like swallow and sand martin. Some individuals will target swallow roosts later in the season, as summer edges towards autumn and the hirundines begin to gather ahead of their departure for warmer climes.

Our hobby population appears to have benefited from gravel extraction that took place some years ago. Many of the newly-formed waterbodies across our region are a result of gravel extraction and the conservation work that has been done to create wildlife and recreational habitat on these former industrial sites. The waterbodies provide a home for expanding dragonfly populations, as revealed in the latest national dragonfly atlas, and these, in turn, provide prey for the hobby. It is quite a sight to behold a hunting hobby and to watch it chasing hirundines or attempting to take an ever watchful dragonfly.

As the summer progresses we will see more of our summer visitors complete their breeding attempts; then the autumn migration proper will begin and the cycle will start all over again. That changing of the seasons may seem a while away but it will arrive all too quickly. It is definitely time to catch up with our summer migrants while you can.

Follow the cuckoos at www.bto.org/cuckoos)