I realise that when most people go on holiday to Berlin, they don’t spend their time sitting in the dirt photographing mice. So it’s probably fair to say that I’m not most people. And I like mice.
When I found myself wandering around the German capital last November, I didn’t just do the touristy stuff. Sure, I went to the Brandenburg Gate, walked along the Berlin Wall and got thoroughly depressed at the Holocaust Museum, but I also went looking for the urban wildlife that’s managed to carve out a niche among the 3 million human residents.
In Berlin, this urban wildlife includes an impressive population of Goshawks, a few thousand Wild Boars and a minor cult celebrity in the form of a raccoon that took up residence in a hotel garage and couldn’t legally be evicted. But it was while searching for Goshawks in a large public park called the Tiergarten, that I found what quickly became an unexpected personal highlight – a little mouse running under a park bench.
Naturally I went over to investigate, and thus I found an excellent way to spend the next couple of days. I can honestly say that watching and photographing a whole colony of Striped Field Mice was an absolute delight.
They seemed to live their entire lives beneath just two neighbouring bushes, and the internet kindly informed me that I was lucky to find these mice at all. During summer, Striped Field Mice are generally nocturnal, but they turn their body clocks upside down for the winter, allowing them to conserve body heat by retreating into burrows at night.
I’ve got to admit that I didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with whichever mouse originally selected those particular bushes as an ideal place to set up home. Surrounded by litter (bizarrely including half a broken bike and what I think was once a clarinet) and in an area popular with the local homeless population, it wasn’t exactly Shangri La.
I also had to deal with persistent suspicious looks from passersby, no doubt wondering what on Earth I was doing staring into a bush with a telephoto lens in the middle of a busy public park. Being propositioned by a very nice but very gay young man was the cherry on top. The joys of urban wildlife photography!
Having said that, the mice were certainly worth a little discomfort. As long as I stayed still and quiet, they would come incredibly close, often much too near for me to be able to focus. To be honest I’m surprised any of them are still alive – no self-respecting rodent should be that unconcerned by a potential predator just a metre or two away.
I was once lucky enough to see a Striped Field Mouse emerge from its burrow. A slight rustle as a couple of leaves were gently thrust aside, and then a small, furry, whiskered head tentatively appeared, slowly rotating and sniffing the air to check the coast was clear.
Now this is sensible behaviour for a small mouse with a lot of natural predators. A little caution is very wise. But what this mouse inexplicably failed to consider was what might be directly behind it. So after carefully examining its more easily seen surroundings, it came to the happy conclusion that it was safe to come out. Upon exiting the burrow, the mouse calmly cleaned its whiskers before heading off for some serious foraging.
On a human scale, I’m a little shorter than average. But to a mouse, I’m pretty sure I should qualify as a terrifying bona fide giant. Yet throughout this particular mouse’s entire routine, I – a monstrous, predatory Brobdingnagian – was sat barely a metre away, trying my best to stay still and breathe quietly, marvelling at both the beauty and the naïveté of this confiding little mammal.
One evening I was lucky enough to be entertained by a pleasant surprise in the form of a murine intruder. Wikipedia had told me that Yellow-necked Mice are strictly nocturnal, so I certainly wasn’t expecting one to pop up from its underground lair to say hello. Noticeably bigger than the Striped Field Mice that I’d been watching, it was less of a surprise to see that the Yellow-necked interloper was very much in charge.
Sitting quietly beneath a bush for so long resulted in a few other close encounters as well. Obviously initially unaware of my presence, a variety of small birds came and landed nearby while I was there. Clearly more intelligent than the mice scurrying around below, the birds would notice me within seconds and fly off screeching moments later.
My most unexpected guest must have been the Nuthatch that dropped by for a few short seconds. Nuthatches are tree-dwelling birds, noted for their acrobatic skill as they regularly (and seemingly unnecessarily) hang upside down or casually stroll along the underside of a branch. I certainly wasn’t expecting one to alight beside me and pose for the camera.
Whether you’re interested in history, culture, nightlife or pretty much anything else, Berlin has a huge amount to offer. But it also has a wealth of wildlife, often hidden in plain sight, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open if you ever end up in Berlin in the future. Admittedly though, spending several chilly hours mousewatching under the accusing eyes of the public might not be everybody’s idea of a holiday.