I’ve just got back from a fascinating little night-time walk around the fields behind my house.
Scarlett has been a bit unsettled and grizzly this evening, so in an attempt to calm her down and bring some peace to the house I put her in the baby carrier, grabbed a torch and went out into the dark for a stroll. At the top of the field the torchlight picked up the eyeshine of a small group of animals.
Spotting wildlife after dark can be easier than during the day, provided you have a torch, as the eyeshine is visible at long distances and even in quite thick undergrowth. Nocturnal animals have an extra reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum at the back of the eye to capture all available light. This helps them to see better in the dark but it also makes them more visible. The exact colour of the reflection varies with species, and experienced observers can identify animals solely from the colour of their eyeshine. Non-nocturnal animal such as humans do not have this reflective layer, so in a strong light their eyes will tend to reflect the red of the blood vessels at the back of the eye, hence the familiar ‘red eye’ effect in flash photography.
I had no camera, binoculars or any of my usual wildlife watching kit with me, but for the sheer fun of it I decided to see how close I could get to these animals. It seemed odd to be stealthily stalking animals at night while shining a light in their faces, but they were remarkably unbothered by it. As I got closer I was surprised to see that the animals were five Chinese Water Deer. I’ve always thought of these as a solitary species. You sometimes see two in the same field, but they tend to maintain an air of indifference to each other. Yet there they were, five of them clustered together and looking and acting for all the world like a small herd. This was definitely new behaviour to me.
Despite the torchlight they were feeding happily – content but still wary. They’d graze for a few seconds and then raise their head to check around them. Either by chance or design there was always at least one deer in the group scanning for danger at all times. Over a space of ten minutes or so I managed to get within 50 yards of them, which is closer than I could do in daylight, before a muntjac barked a few fields away and they all bolted.
It was an interesting little walk that opened up all sorts of possibilities. I learnt that deer are much more approachable after dark. I learnt that Chinese Water Deer seem to have a more complex social life than I’d suspected. Most importantly I learnt that going out for a stroll is a good way to get a grizzly baby to settle down. I suspect there’ll be a few more of these short nocturnal walks over the coming months. Next time I’ll remember to take a camera.