The danger of complacency

On Friday this week my wife and I went on our usual lockdown walk, following a path along a local stream. It’s a path I must have walked hundreds, if not thousands, of times. It’s easy to become complacent about your local patch, to assume that you have seen all there is to see, to overlook the gradual change as environments age, trees grow taller, bushes grow thicker, and the ground beds down under layers of bramble and rotting leaves. But the lesson that you should never presume that you have seen it all was brought home to me as we walked alongside this small stream, bounded on one side by houses and on the other by the slowly maturing woodland that was planted on top of a reclaimed tip.

My attention was first caught by an alarm call from a bluetit, a constant “dit-dit-dit” sound. The small bird was sitting on the uppermost stems  of willow branch that had broken and bridged the stream. And as I watched, the cause of its alarm appeared. Something long and thin and brown moving rapidly down the branch towards the ground. At first, I thought it was a young watervole, because I know they live in waterways in the area, and have been known to climb trees to get vegetation. But this animal was too long and thin, too pointed of the face, and moved rapidly, unlike the water vole’s more sedate scuttle. It was a weasel. Even though I had my camera with me, before I could begin to lift its the weasel vanished underneath a chunk of branch and disappeared into the undergrowth. I waited patiently, desperate to see it again, but that’s been my experience of weasels to date: you see them once, and you never see them again. I’ve been privileged to see weasels a number of times, but is always been an accidental encounter like this one. Even when I knew where a weasel nest was, and haunted the space for hours, watching from a distance through binoculars, they contrived to wait until I had gone before moving.

From its size, I believe this was a juvenile weasel. They have been seen on the old tip, and it makes me wonder if this one is setting out into the world to make a life of its own, crossing the stream in search of a new territory to establish. For once, this blogger doesn’t have a photo, but that doesn’t matter. I stood yards from houses in an urban housing estate, and watched a wild weasel, and if that isn’t something worth writing about, I don’t know what is. And so, every time I walk past this part of the stream again, I will be watching just that little bit more carefully for the faint flicker of a tale or rustle in the undergrowth – and perhaps now I will be watching all of my walk just that little bit more carefully for the things that I never expect to see. Of such experiences are naturalists made.

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