Urban, but far from urbane
By Dan Jones, photo by Will Atkins
As night time retreats into the summer, the best times to see nocturnal urban wildlife are the hours of early mornings and long evenings.
Nightingales and nightjars, singing in the fading light of late evening – heard and seen if you look hard enough. The latter will fix you with its hawk-like stare and not ruffle a feather even if you walk right up to it – you will see nightjars in larger parks (or smaller ones if they prefer). Try Solitudepark, sandwiched between the Tinguely museum, the Roche campus and the Rhine, or Kannenfeldpark, especially at dawn when the nightjar is dewy-cold and roosting. To my mind the nightjar looks more like a sparrowhawk than a songbird. It is nothing like its companions in the avian choir – blackbird, song thrush, tree warbler and so on. Expect to see real sparrowhawks in the daytime along lines of hedgerow and trees, flap-flapping and gliding at great speed in an up and down pattern. They like to take pigeons and all of the birds you will find in Basel, so here they are, to enjoy the feast. I have only seen them at a distance; they are as bashful with humans as they are brutal with their feathered prey.
And here is one for you: an urban kingfisher spotted perching beneath the “Schwarzwaldbrücke” by a local fisherman. Hop into the Rhine if you want to see other birds – watching them at river level whilst floating downstream through Kleinbasel is my favourite way of seeing water birds, and if you float by a great crested grebe you will know why. But before I get carried away with our garden, water and park-sharing feathered friends (herons, cranes, green woodpeckers, robins, jays, etc., etc., etc.), we must move our attention from feather to fur.
The cunning fox is seen more often with a backdrop of sky-scrapers than rolling hills; foxes have for generations now been town-dwellers. Some of our more successful foxes, however, have both a town and country residence, skulking as they choose, between the two. Townies are every bit as cunning as their country cousins, but other than having to avoid humans and their dogs and cats, and snatch half-eaten kebabs from bins, the town fox keeps cunning for emergencies only. No need to stalk a kebab as one does a rodent, or listen through the snow for winter-mice, or use one’s highly-refined sense of smell when a wheelie-bin is all that is sought.
But, time to move on…
The fearsome pine marten, the town’s furry vandal, looks rather like an overgrown stoat. If I were to have an anthropomorphic dinner party, Pine Marten would not be on the guest list, possessing neither the charm of Fox, nor the exuberance of Otter (not that Otter has visited Northern Switzerland for a while). Perhaps Owl at the head of the table? His sagely bearing and his wisdom would be useful in the dinner party conversation. The owl is not uncommon in Basel – a nocturnal hunter, but seen in the daytime, also, like recently at the university’s botanic garden. The pipistrelle would not fancy a dinner party. Its tiny form allows it to hang in most safe spaces, even in the former homes of our ubiquitous red squirrel, seen more in Basel parks than in the surrounding countryside.
A warning to those of our readers who are herpetophobes: Basel also has reptiles and amphibians. They are not just in the zoo, but in and around Basel, and in and around to stay.
On a final note, my last spot – an enormous white stork at dusk in Schützenmattpark. Not the least bit afraid of me, being preoccupied, as it was, with the frogs in the long grass