I might as well call myself ‘the neurotic birder’. I jump when somebody sneezes behind me, or if small creatures make sudden movements in my direction. I’m mildly afraid of heights, mildly afraid of the dark, mildly afraid of large bitey-looking things that don’t have backbones. You name a phobia, I’ve probably got it. That said, all these are in very mild form, hardly life-altering. It just means I’m mildly on edge throughout most days of my mild-mannered existence. All I really want is a quiet life, and a nice cup of tea. Is that too much to ask?
However, modern life having removed most of the immediate primal dangers from our existence, I as much as anybody can extract enjoyment from adding a frisson of danger to a day. A taste of what it really would have been to be afraid. Some people ride on rollercoasters or go swimming with sharks or climb overhanging rock ledges above a thousand-foot drop. They’re nuts, but good luck to them. I, on the other hand, prefer to do really dangerous things. Climbing small hills in the Lake District. Poking around in the bushes looking for insects and spiders that actually aren’t at all dangerous. Holding a blue tit even though it will peck me (vicious little blighters, blue tits). Going for walks at night along safe paths that I know quite well. Yes, I’m a thrill-seeker.
Finding that my daily walk had been delayed until well after dark on Wednesday, I decided to indulge my insatiable appetite for danger and went to my patch. At night. Even though it was very hard to see! This is the sort of thrill-seeking I can cope with, even enjoy: hackles mildly raised, the anticipation that I could be startled at any moment by a creature as large and fearsome as a rabbit, say, or even a small owl. ‘Ooh, danger, danger!’, as Steve Irwin would have said, probably. And the creatures of the night were out to play with my nerves from the start. Crickets chirped eerily in the dark. Then, from away across the open fields I heard an unearthly sequence of yelping calls, followed by a drawn-out, rising cry of ‘Kkkkiiiiirliew, kkkkkkkiiiiirleeww’. Stone curlews! What fantastic birds, and very good to know they were in the area again.
Once the curlews died down into the distance – perhaps even departing for Africa – and the hedgerows were once again bathed in silence and moonlight, I noticed a soft gnawing sound emanating from a nearby hazel. Then the same again from behind me. Branches rustled in the middle of two or three trees, now in every direction, and the gnawing gathered pace. At first I didn’t have a clue what it could be. Too small and subtle for squirrels. What about…no, impossible. But a horse-rider I’d met along the way last week had seen a dormouse along this hedgerow. Is this what hazel-dormice sounded like, nibbling at hazelnuts? Branches in the nearest tree began to shake, and something was drawing closer still. I raised my torch, and held my breath. Gradually a creature came in to view, nimbly clambering along a narrow, flexible stem. It seemed a little larger than I would have expected, but perhaps dormice are surprisingly big for mice. I thought I saw a glimpse of a bushy tail as it swung to the next branch, and reached for a nut. As I tiptoed forward, the creature swung round and dropped a long tail behind it, not furry, but naked and pink. It fixed me with an inquisitive stare, looking right back into the light of my torch, and I found myself face to face with a large, hungry Rattus Norvegicus: the common brown rat. Now that is terrifying!