One Looks At One

· mumblings ·

(Title with apologies to Robert Frost.)

A couple of times I’ve seen a muntjac deer in a scrubby bit of land on my way to work. I saw it again early yesterday morning, and it never fails to cheer me and make the day feel special. The area is a ’nature reserve’ but it’s one of those urban slivers of land crammed in between houses and roads and warehouses that feels far from natural. It’s noisy with dog walkers and smoking schoolkids, and often littered with rubbish, so I am constantly amazed to see any wild animal spending time in it. All of which just goes to show that you should never try to judge habitat suitability for wild animals from a human perspective.

I first saw the muntjac (a male) at dusk. I was cycling home and noticed a russet patch of fur in front of a line of bushes. At first, I thought it was just a dog, but as I got closer, I saw the small head and the short, sharp antlers and realised it was a deer. I know that muntjac are quite common all over the UK now, but it looked so exotic standing there amid the crisp packets and abandoned cans of Special Brew. For a while, we just looked at one another until the deer walked slowly off into the undergrowth.

Yesterday morning, I had an even better encounter. I recognised that it was a deer immediately this time as it trotted through the front gardens of the houses bordering the nature reserve. I screeched to a halt on my bike, and stood to watch it. The early morning sun caught the flanks of the deer beautifully, making his russet fur look glossy and rich, and glinting off his dark eyes. He stopped and looked at me, head held high, like a tiny monarch of the urban glen. For what seemed like long minutes, we just looked at each other; a bargain, half-price version of Robert Frost’s ‘Two Look at Two’ encounter. Eventually, he turned, and pausing delicately to sniff the displays of pansies in the front garden, he trotted off behind the house.

I’ve been lucky to visit some wonderfully exotic locations through my work, and see some incredibly spectacular wildlife. I’ve swum with manatees in Florida and watched half a dozen gorgeous hyacinth macaws take off from a tree just in front of me and fly into a Brazilian sunset. I loved those experiences and will remember them forever, but sometimes seeing wildlife in a completely unexpected context is an even greater thrill. I was just commuting to work, rather than deliberately looking for wildlife1, and was definitely not expecting to see a South Asian cervid wandering about among someone’s pansies in urban Birmingham: that made it all the sweeter.

1 Well, not consciously looking for wildlife. Biology is what I am as well as what I do, so I've been looking for wildlife all my life, all the time. In other words, I didn't have my binoculars handy, or a camera, unfortunately.