Encounters with wildlife sometimes trigger strong feelings in us. It’s especially true with, say, people who see for the first time in the wild the great beasts of Africa – the elephants, the rhinos and the buffaloes. Meeting the African megafauna in the flesh, as we might put it, tends to produce something unusual: a sort of intense awe, which is more than fascination (although that’s part of it), and more than fear (which can be part of it too); it’s an awe that tends towards reverence. It has almost a spiritual dimension. For me, anyway.
Over the years, I’ve thought about these feelings – I’ve written about them here – and come to suspect their origin lies in our distant past as hunter-gatherers; they are remnants of what our ancestors felt about the giant animals they regularly risked their lives to hunt and slaughter (and they came to worship them, painting their images on the walls of caves).
Remember, we have been workers with computers for one generation, and office workers for three or four, but we were farmers for four hundred generations, and before that, we were hunter-gatherers for perhaps 20,000, and the legacy persists. I think that some of these dramatic feelings from much earlier times about the great beasts remain in us, even if buried deep, and in Africa, they can emerge to surprise us.
So I think I see a reason why I have experienced powerful emotion on seeing a wild African elephant; but recently, I have experienced emotion every bit as powerful on seeing a single wild bird in Britain. This was a sighting 10 days ago on a common in Surrey, a sweeping piece of heath not far from Guildford, and the bird was a great grey shrike.
Shrikes are fascinating mini-predators, not much larger than blackbirds but hunting everything from lizards and beetles to other birds as big as greenfinches, and storing them in thorn-bush “larders”, on the spikes of which their prey is impaled.
In Britain we have one breeding species clinging on, the red-backed shrike, which went extinct in 1989 but has made a comeback: a few pairs have nested in Devon and elsewhere in recent years. The great grey shrike, on the other hand, is strictly a winter visitor, and every year, about 50 of them migrate to Britain from Scandinavia, and take up territories across the country.
I’ve been looking for it for several years. To serious birders Lanius excubitor is nothing out of the ordinary, but I had never seen one, despite making several trips over recent winters to this very heathland, where they regularly appear. This time I went with a friend, Paul Stancliffe from the British Trust for Ornithology, a man with wonderful birding skills, who has seen everything, as it were, but who was as keen as I was on a shrike hunt. Naturally it was Paul who, after ages of us tramping the heath, eventually spotted it, perched on a burnt stump of pine; and when it came into focus in my binoculars, I was taken aback: I couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. It is a quite exceptionally lovely bird, in a restrained palette of colours: an enchanting mixture of black, pure white and dove-grey.
I think its beauty was enhanced by its surroundings, for we saw it in what was still very much an autumn landscape, and against the muddy green of the old heather, the russet of the bracken, and the browns and golds of the oaks and birches, it stood out startlingly. (Paul said later that for him, part of the excitement was that here in these autumnal surroundings was a sudden vision of winter). It was almost like a bright light, swooping about the heath, and occasionally, to our great delight, hovering, beating its wings for all it was worth, like an overweight bloke (such as myself) desperately peddling a bike uphill.
I cannot tell you how strong my feelings were, encountering and watching this bird. I was filled with an enormous gladness, an explosive elation, almost an ecstasy. It was an intense joy, like… well, start going down that road and you simply sound pretentious. But joy it was.
It wasn’t a vestige of some ancient emotion, as in meeting a wild elephant, I’m sure of that. It wasn’t a relic of some prehistoric shrike-hunter.
It was a feeling right from the here and now, a very singular feeling, and my life felt elevated and more worthwhile because of it; and I have thought, ever since, that I have hardly touched on the riches the natural world can supply us with.