Serendipity is defined as the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely. This happens often in wildlife watching — the barn owl carrying a vole into a nearby hollow tree, giving away its nest, as you settle down to wait for emerging badgers, or the stream of bubbles from a passing otter as you wait to photograph a kingfisher. It is also why I take my camera when I fish or walk the dogs — you just never know.
Serendipity has played a significant role in science and medicine. A favourite example is that of Oskar Minkowski in 1889 who when working on digestion in dogs that had had their pancreas removed noticed that the dogs’ urine was attracting unusually large numbers of flies. Tests showed that they were drawn by high levels of sugar in the urine — a symptom of diabetes — thus confirming the role of the pancreas in the disease. It also led to the identification of insulin and, ultimately, the treatments that we know today.
I’d like to say that this thought was passing through my head as I searched for a suitable tree when needing to relieve myself on a recent dog walk, but that would be stretching reality. The dogs waited patiently as I surveyed the options available — so many to choose from. I opted for a stout young oak set just back from the main path, popped around the back and proceeded to provide the tree with some welcome extra nitrate. It was then that I noticed her, staring straight at me with an expression that suggested dignity but with a hint of alarm. She was a few inches from my face, a mistle thrush sat in a spectacular nest of moss and twigs that was moulded discreetly into the fork of the tree. Of all the boughs in all the wood, she had to nest in mine.
I reached slowly round for my camera but she took off into a nearby tree, emitting a loud, rattling alarm call that shattered the early morning peace. Naturally I couldn’t resist a peek at what lay within — a clutch of exquisite eggs, the colours of which I find hard to describe, being a pleasing mix of pastel shades and blotches seemingly applied in a series of layers as if their creator could not quite make up her mind.
Memories of childhood bird-nesting exploits in the 1970s came flooding back as I quickly converted the image before me into megapixels and retreated, checking my flies as I rejoined the path.
A mistle thrush nest had landed a group of us in trouble, but it could have had a more tragic end had the passing policeman not intervened. One of us spotted the nest perched high up on a ledge on an electricity sub-station. The bravest member among us (not me) decided to scale the chain link fence and, ignoring the many warning signs and the obvious hum of thousands of volts, began to scale the bizarre structure. It was then that a police car pulled up. My friend was slowly talked down before he could reach the nest, and we all received a terrifying dressing down. Whenever I see a mistle thrush (or sub-station for that matter) that incident comes flooding back. I often wonder what the policeman was doing patrolling what was a fairly remote area. Perhaps he was on the look out for something else.
© Patrick Fox (2009)