Yesterday morning I was scanning the sky to the west of Gilling East. Looking for swifts I was suddenly aware of a hobby, turning this way. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile away when I first saw it. I was then looking at it approaching head on. I could see very little of its wingspan. At this point I realised that it was approaching at immense speed in a long shallow dive. What suddenly hit me was the closing speed. Through the bins its relative size increased rapidly until I could see its contrasting facial markings and the yellow around its beak and eyes. Its wings were swept back so I could only really see the leading edge of the inner wing.
At about a hundred feet I just watched without bins as it powered over our house towards a flock of hirundines to the east of the village. The whole sighting was just seconds but left such an impression. It was pure fluke that I caught the start of the dive. The view was very intimate as I watched the bird decide to strike. I saw its expression moments before attack I looked into into its eyes and sensed its concentration and determination. Its rock steady approach combined with speed was most likely deadly to a young house martin or swallow to the east of Gilling. Hobbies have been a frequent sight over the last few days. As summer progresses they move increasingly from their dragonfly diet to swallows, swifts and martins.
Having house martins nesting on the house I feel the threat keenly. They quickly ascend (if they spot the hobby’s approach) forming a tight flock high up. You can sense their panic which is in a different league to other birds of prey such as sparrowhawk and kestrel. Then, if there is a strike I anxiously count the martins home.
A commotion of house martins around the nest boxes this morning saw a grey brown bird fly up immediately. It briefly joined a martin in an aerial spat then settled on the gutter. A stunning adult spotted flycatcher graced our roof for a while. Beautifully marked around its head with subtle grey brown and sepia stripes, long elegant wings and tail, the first I have seen since early June. Yet this subtle beauty made me sad. They didn’t nest in the village this year as they have for the last few years. We are just one more small area devoid of spotted flycatchers. When I was a child starting birdwatching every large garden, park and churchyard had a pair. We walked the church path and each year expected to see their fledglings atop a grave stone. Indeed churchyard grave stones seemed to be perfect for flycatchers as hunting perches.
It is so easy to concentrate on big game and other high profile animal declines and extinctions, but not so easy to get across the message that species are disappearing in our own back gardens. For me, spotted flycatchers have come to symbolise the silent extinctions that are happening all around us. As we lose insects we lose birds and so on. It is strange feeling when seeing a beautiful bird leaves me with an unbearable sense of sadness.