As a birdwatcher I am used to watching. I like to think that I have honed the art such that not much avian life escapes my notice. Combined with a good set of ears my walks are walks of watchfulness, looking and listening as a hunter would for nature’s never-ending bounty of sights and sounds. But there are times too when I sense I too am being watched! If I thought my senses were fine-tuned there are others in the wild whose powers of perception go way beyond what I could hope for.
Yes, binoculars give me an advantage – allowing me unnaturally close-up views from a distance, but often I have been spotted or heard before I’ve even started looking! Scanning an old oak tree yesterday and the two ‘eyes’ of my binocular lenses were met suddenly with the equally cold stare of a Little Owl! He had been there all along, a dumpy ball of feathers, enduring the cold and watching me all the while. Did his heartbeat quicken I wonder as I approached? Or was he not worried about my presence and maybe instead, a little bit annoyed that I was disturbing his daydreaming? Either way, he didn’t show it but those yellow eyes continued to follow me, unblinking, until I had passed by.
Having been a ‘watcher’ all my life I have noticed just how much time is spent watching and waiting by wildlife. Long periods of the day can pass with no apparent activity or even movement but at some point activity resumes either to look for food or to avoid becoming food. Sometimes this waiting allows the performing of maintenance tasks – I recently watched a Peregrine Falcon preen its feathers and dry off after a quick dip in the nearby gravel pit. Without this regular bath the falcon’s feathers would become congealed with the blood of its suppers – it is the assassin’s cleanup.
At other times, the inactivity is simply to rest but this is never uncoupled from watchfulness. For us as humans, sleep is by and large an ‘on-off’ thing – we are either awake or fast asleep – but for birds and a few other creatures the ability to ‘half-sleep’ is a scientifically established phenomenon. Known as ‘unihemispheric slow-wave sleep’ the brains of birds and some aquatic mammals, such as whales and dolphins, have been shown to be able to operate in two halves: one half of their brain is awake, including an open eye, and the other half shows the electrical signatures of sleep. This appears to be a protective mechanism, enabling the animal to fly or swim and monitor its environment for threats with one hemisphere while the other gets some rest.
More recently this kind of half-awake vigilance has been shown to extend to humans too. Tests on volunteers sleeping in an unfamiliar environment showed that one half of their brains remained more active or ‘vigilant’ during their first night of sleep. Once the environment had become more familiar so their sleep deepened on subsequent nights. This ability to ‘half switch-off’ has obvious benefits to wildlife, allowing them a secure but not deep sleep, but is perhaps more stressful to the tired human traveller wanting a good night’s sleep on arrival. I do however believe that I may have perfected the technique to my advantage during some long lectures at university!
Watching the watchers undoubtedly brings a greater affinity between the wild watched and the human watcher. Not only is an insight into the lives of the birds or animals watched gleaned but also a sense of what they are watching too. A sudden alertness amongst the ducks and gulls heralds the end of the Peregrine’s snooze, the tilted head of a wader – eye to the sky – signals the arrival of a Buzzard overhead and a change in call note of the feeding Pied Wagtails suggests that somewhere out in the distant ether a Sparrowhawk is peeling off in a lethal stoop.
Of course, it is not always threat that concerns wildlife. After a particularly stormy period of weather I took my dog out for a walk. The wind had gone, the skies had cleared and the sun sat low, bathing everything in a soft and welcome warm light. It was a moment to breathe and take in the beauty and I was not alone. Perched magnificently in the top of a dead tree sat two Red Kites, their rusty tones glowing in the winter sun. A little way off a lone Buzzard also sat soaking up the rays. A sense of contentment conjoined the watcher and the watched and all was well in that moment.
Happy New Year whatever you’re watching!
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