There is something truly wonderful about a wild mammal. I might go so far as to say a good mammal sighting can be the highlight of the wildlife enthusiasts day out, even this one. This may sound odd coming from somebody who is primarily fixated with birds, both in my outdoor pursuits and my indoor reading. I could list many, many reasons why birds are so very much more brilliant than mammals, though I think perhaps now is not the time or place. But whilst birds undoubtedly have a special, cosy little nesting space in my heart, and a peculiar grip on my psyche, perhaps even on the psyche of the country above all other groups, one of the primary reasons I go bird watching is because birds are what you tend to see. Take a look outside the window now, and I can almost guarantee the first, and probably only wild animals you see will be birds. You can go out birding, and expect to see birds. Maybe not fantastically rare or elusive birds, but you will see birds. At least thirty species, quite possibly lots more, in just about any part of the country, with not too much searching.
How about mammals though? You can’t really go ‘mammaling’ in the same way. You’d see plenty of Homo sapiens sapiens of course, a few tree rats, sorry, I mean Grey squirrels, maybe if you are lucky a deer. Oh, and rabbits. But anything else is definitely not guaranteed, and therefore a rare treat. In fact, it is of course much like seeing something like our Tawny owl from last week – something you know is here all around us, but so seldom seen as to make any glimpse particularly memorable. Therefore I can see lots of good birds on a bird-watching trip, but when I get home the first thing I mention might be watching a fox sun itself on a bank, or the time I saw a Stoat running across a shingle beach in West Sussex.
You can go out specifically to find a hard to see mammal, it just takes a little effort. About five years ago now I was taken Badger watching in Dorset as an engagement present. (After a tour round the Badger brewery. She knew me well even then!). Waiting for them to emerge from their set at dusk, even though the set up was fairly artificial, with hides, floodlights and the lure of a tasty peanut; was absolutely magical. Last summer, as I think I have already mentioned I spent a fantastic afternoon with five very good friends watching dolphins jumping out of the water on their way up the moray firth. Despite these experiences though, mammal trips seem necessarily difficult and most of the time, I’m content to stick to my beloved, ubiquitous birds.
Saying that, last wednesday two fantastic mammals happened to me, as if to prove a point, almost by accident. As normal I had a little crowd with me at Otmoor RSPB where I occasionally volunteer as a warden. Hares are not the most uncommon of animals but much more scarce than rabbits, and according to the most up to date evidence likely to be native to Britain. Sadly less common than they used to be and still declining, they are seen quite frequently at Otmoor, and I think the surrounding farmland as well — as they are adapted to open country I imagine they are helped by the land being managed to protect ground nesting waders. Last weeks hare was particularly obliging, and this was what made it notable – lolloping down a track near the hide it afforded astonishingly close views, eventually settling down for a wash right underneath the windows. I’d never managed to observe one in such detail, so plenty of their features had gone unnoticed – no lumbering lagomorph this, but a lean, strong looking creature, with almost comically long black tipped ears, tail black on top and white underneath, and a slightly paler strip of fur running down from each eye giving a serious, almost sad impression.
A hare within whispering range was not bad. But even finer treats were in store. Otters have come back to Otmoor, the area named for them long ago when I presume they were plentiful on this damp low lying land. They are, for Otters, relatively frequently seen by visitors, crossing footpaths or even swimming and running in front of the reed viewing screens. I’d never yet managed to see them, and took it that a large slice of luck was required – well, my numbers finally came up. We bumped into one of the other volunteers, which is an extremely rare event in itself, who had just seen Otters swim across an area of water at the far edge of the reed bed from one of the screens. Thinking this would be the days sole performance we didn’t expect to see them again, but nonetheless watched the same spot for about twenty minutes. We had already given up and got a few paces back towards the car when one of the local regulars with more patience than us, cried out ‘Otters!’ And turning back to the screen, there they were – three, swimming nose to tail, diving in and out of the water and scattering ducks as they moved right to left between the reeds. A few seconds later and they had disappeared, perhaps not to be seen again for days.
Mammals – actually quite brilliant after all. And, for equalities sake I’ve started a 2011 mammalian species list – if I can count myself, it’s up to 9!