It’s the 4th of March – you know what that means? Not much in itself. But it was World Wildlife Day 2017 yesterday (yeah, sorry, it took me longer to write this than I thought it would).
And the theme for this year was listening to young voices.
So, as a young person with a passion for wildlife I have decided to speak – and, as someone visiting my blog, you are being kind enough to temporarily fulfill the role of listener (however, if you have any comments, please do voice them below…)
I want to talk about why I love wildlife. It’s a question I have been asked many times, and one I’m sure both I and you will be asked many times more, so I might as well prepare a response now.
It’s a really tricky question to answer actually. I’ve divided my thoughts into categories, in an attempt to put my finger on what it is about animals that fascinates me.
Undeniably for me the best thing about watching wildlife is a close encounter. The magic of being close to another creature is something you can never grow out of. My best have probably been with badger cubs; they are so naive, so completely immersed in their games that they never notice me. Once a pair came so close that they actually brushed my leg as they chased each other past!
Similarly I had a wonderful experience with a fox cub wandering beneath my feet, completely oblivious of my presence, until I went ‘wow’ at which point it scarpered. Thankfully, my fieldcraft has improved since, and I’ve learnt to restrain myself!
A final example I will share now is one of a wren. I spotted a ball of twigs and moss low in a bush, and so I lay down on the ground in order to get a better angle of view. Within seconds of me doing so, a wren swooped down onto a branch just 30 centimetres from my face, with nesting material in its beak! It gave me a suspicious eye but then set to work placing the moss on the inside of the nest, apparently unconcerned. Magical.
What is so special about a close encounter? Perhaps there is a bit of glory in it. It’s not something that happens to everyone everyday, and often requires skill, dedication or patience to get a close view, especially if the animal is shy.
For me, it’s the moment you share. Seeing animals close up, you really get a sense of character, much more so than through the binoculars.
Perhaps even better if it has seen you, then there is some mutual connection that sparks. Not only is it part of your life, but you are part of its.
To borrow an awesome quote from Anthony Douglas Williams, which I believe sums it up quite well: ‘When I look into the eyes of an animal, I do not see an animal. I see a living being. I see a friend. I feel a soul’
You can never learn everything; you can always be surprised
The natural world is not only full of millions of species, each with their own complex anatomy and behaviours, but they are all continuing to adapt to changing conditions – we will never learn everything about them. Decoding the daily and seasonal rhythm of the natural world is a never ending task that can provide joy for an entire lifetime.
Especially satisfying, I find, is the discovery of an interesting aspect of an animal that I have so often overlooked.
I learnt from Frederik Sjoberg’s Fly Trap that many insects’ wings vibrate at different frequencies when flying, so much so that a trained ear can identify species simply by the pitch of the sound they create.
Another example is the common limpet. You can actually count the number of concentric rings on a limpet shell, and tell from this its age, much like with trees.
With a bit of background reading, you might be able to recognise a behaviour that most people would overlook – this can provide great satisfaction. For example, when I witnessed this Little Egret stretching one wing out, I originally had no idea what it was doing. After some research, I now know that it is eliminating reflections and attracting fish to the shady spot.
Finally, the Silver Studded Blue Butterfly, a very rare species that I am lucky enough to have within walking distance of my house, would seem to the average person to be a normal, beautiful but uninteresting butterfly.
However, I know it has an outstanding relationship with another species – Black Ants.
When the butterfly’s eggs hatch into caterpillars, the ants begin to supervise them, protecting them from predators and milking them for honeydew. Occasionally the caterpillars are actually carried inside the nest once they have pupated, and then in July, having emerged as butterflies, guided back out and encouraged to the tops of plants where they can pump out their wings and take off.
In this way the same nest can care for generations of butterflies (which don’t usually travel very far away).
These little gems of wisdom can make even the most tedious species of interest, and make the whole experience of nature watching even more fascinating.
The Thrill of the Hunt
Watching wildlife can be a difficult and trying hobby. You can sit in a field for hours, on countless days in, watching and waiting for a barn owl to appear, whilst only receiving a 3 second glimpse for your efforts.
You can spend every odd weekend for 8 years looking for adders, and not see a single one.
The twitcher knows this feeling better than anyone – I know people who have travelled hours and missed the bird, or been over ten times to see one and never quite caught a glimpse.
Take this to the next level if you’re a wildlife photographer; it’s not simply enough to have seen the creature – you have to have got a decent photo or it didn’t happen. I must admit I am guilty of this particular sentiment, and I am often more annoyed if I get spectacular views of badger cubs playing having forgotten my camera, than I would have been if I had not seen it at all.
For other species fieldcraft is key, and it requires knowledge and skill to be able to find and approach them.
It’s the thrill of the hunt, it’s satisfying our natural instincts not with a bow and arrow, not with a rifle, but shooting with a camera. The challenge of finding the creature, getting close, the hours of toil put into taking that one photo or film make the end result all the more satisfying. Just like running a marathon; it wouldn’t be rewarding if it was easy.
Wildlife can be Awe-inspiring
When I say wildlife can be awe-inspiring, perhaps you automatically think of record holding animals, like the 200mph peregrine falcon, the 30m long blue whale, or the arctic tern who can fly a whole 1.25 million miles, the equivalent of 3 round trips to the moon, in its lifetime.
But the smaller beauties of nature can make our jaw drop just as much. When describing the incredible changes a caterpillar undergoes inside its pupa, a friend told me that this was one of the main reasons he believes in God – all of the beautiful little details and complex interactions that exist in the natural world. He believes that it is not something that could just have happened by coincidence.
I think this is summed up quite well in my following (true) analogy. I found a curious mushroom in the woods, off the beaten track, where not many walk. Have a look below…
It had a beautiful, perfect heart inscribed into it. This wasn’t a big mushroom, and so for anyone to create that they must have had a delicate knife or something similar. What do you think?
It’s not hard to agree with my friend when confronted with amazing spectacles such as starling murmurations, strange relationships such as that of the Silver Studded Blue Butterfly and Black Ants, or even just the extraordinary beauty of a bluebell forest.
To witness such beauty is pleasurable, enlightening, and good for you. Patients that have a view out on a landscape while recovering in hospital recover more quickly than those that don’t, for example.
But what we must realise is that this beauty is a privilege. At the moment, it’s something that as a whole the human race is taking for granted, and moreover exploiting. We have to understand that it is not only in our best interests to conserve the natural world, but also our responsibility, and this is a feeling that seems to be lacking somewhat in politics at the moment. This has to change.
To be honest, after writing all of that, I still seem to have dodged answering the question directly. Why do I really love watching wildlife?
To that I reply: why doesn’t everyone love watching wildlife? I think it is more newsworthy that someone should not be astounded by the natural world than the opposite.
And I hope, having listened to my argument, and no doubt from your personal experiences, you will agree with me.
If you want to listen to some other young voices, there are plenty of young naturalists with great blogs, you can find some on my ‘Links’ page. Please do visit and comment, it means a lot to us.
Thanks for reading!