No matter how much we plan our outdoor experiences and encounters with wildlife it still falls to chance.
In many circumstances, naturalists are now species focused, twitcher like and not just with regard to birds! We’ve all done it and do so regularly – we head out into the wilds with a species in mind, an imaginary checklist and a success rating. How many of us have travelled to Scotland and stayed in a cottage that boasts the good likelihood of seeing pine marten? Just pop out some sweet snacks and await their arrival. Mull each year is flooded with tourists with white-tailed eagle, golden eagle and otter on the brain. Our favourite seasonal shows, Springwatch and Autumnwatch encourage us to visit reserves and locations across the country to spot particular species.
This is partly due to human influence on habitat and distributions of species, gone are the days you could wander out to chance upon pine marten, red squirrel, white-tailed eagle, adder or osprey, along with many more. We’ve shrunken and fragmented their suitable habitat, or persecuted them so heavily that we now need to travel to find them and the success of our journey hinges on seeing them.
This is fine, we all do it and often to see some species we have to head out with them in mind. But it’s still all down to chance, fate or luck. We can try extremely hard to be in the right place at the right time but nature does its own thing, no guarantees! As adults we can just about handle the disappointment of not encountering the desired species, but we should be careful when our younger generations are involved. Aiming high can be a real excitement, but if the species isn’t seen we’re disheartening kids and swaying their feelings towards natural history.
Instead head out with an open mind and a positive attitude and let chance take the lead. Without that imaginary checklist every encounter becomes exciting because it’s the unexpected. Enjoy the common and regular species, become more acquainted with their behaviours and be ready to be surprised. Just two days ago I spent a few hours searching hard for reptiles in what appeared to be a great spot and left for home with a little tinge of disappointment. But by chance I pulled into a passing place and from the windscreen I spotted a lizard basking right by the road. After taking a couple of photos I took a few more steps and spotted an adder, slow-worm and another lizard, all within inches of each other – mere feet from the road! This was a chance connection to nature in a very unexpected location. I was elated and drove home with a big smile on my face.
That was a great chance connection with reptiles and we had another yesterday when wandering in one of Mull’s wilder parts, away from footpaths and tracks. First we encountered a colony of yellow meadow ants, making their busy home under a very small scrap of corrugated sheeting. We watched a pair of grey wagtails bobbing about a burn and found the perfectly preserved breast bone and wings of a kestrel – a great natural keepsake. Then, just when we weren’t expecting it, an adder was curled up among grasses in a tiny pocket of bracken. What a thrill to bump into our only venomous snake! We continued on and shortly encountered another adder, again in the tiniest pockets of bracken habitat amid boggy surroundings. We also delighted in the speed of common lizards, taking to cover at the vibrations our footsteps create – how amazing that raptors like kestrel and buzzard are agile and acute enough to catch them as prey.
We should make time for chance connections with nature, let the wildlife surprise you and minimise any chance of disappointment. Children relish all connections with the natural world when allowed to do so. Don’t make their childhood about the top species and tick boxes, let nature do its thing and inspire them. If you visit the Isle of Mull don’t make it all about the eagles and otters, if you chance upon them brilliant, if you don’t that’s okay. With young people so disconnected from nature in this modern world, we need those happenstance connections more than ever, especially the local ones, the ones on your doorstep – children need to know nature is out there and easily accessible and so do adults. We can get disheartened with the current state of nature but finding chance connections close to home can cheer our thoughts. It doesn’t always have to be a far flung adventure with drawcard species as the make or break.
Rachel Ann French | WildChildScotland