Monday, 10 February 2014

Visiting a previous life

Before I discovered spiders in a big way, I thought I would be a raptor biologist. I'd done various things with hawks for a few years when I started my masters. I had contacts, and I have always liked hawks. I liked all other animals too (except the apes...they are gross and weird in all the bad ways). But I had decided from the age of 10 that I would study hawks.

At university I learned that it is okay to change your mind and not stick rigidly to the original plan if a better option comes along. We mostly learnt about seabirds, big cats, red deer, fish and whales during my undergraduate degree. I wanted to do my masters on something different, something we hadn't learned about, and applied to work on katipo spider ecology (Latrodectus katipo). During that year, and the following year when I returned to the UK, I learned that while falcons are fun to fly and keep, spiders are infinitely more interesting and give better data. Also, arachnologists in general are much better people than ornithologists in general (ornithologists tend to see you as competition, while arachnologists by comparison seem to regard their colleagues as fellow explorers of the unknown). I decided I would carry on down the arachnology route to see how far I can get. I will most likely have to hop off this train to study other taxa at some point, but I'll ride it as far as it will go.

My falcon world has dwindled into a hobby (Falco subbuteo), and sometimes I think of giving it up altogether when I clash horns with a particularly nasty example of an ornithologist. But when I have fun with falcons it is really fun. Days spent tracking a falcon who can fly faster than you can drive; the flood of adrenalin when a rabbit you are hunting explodes out of its warren; the satisfaction of getting a hawk to eat from your glove for the first time. That was going to be my life. But I have found a better one - a deeper intrigue and sense of challenge, a whole world that is virtually unexplored. People used to tell me that nobody studies the New Zealand falcon (Falco novaseelandiae). That is a lie. Plenty of people study it, and there is little left to be discovered, when you consider the number of people who study even the most charismatic of spider species.

Down the spider-hole...
I went this weekend to visit some falcon breeders who I have known for a few years. Stepping back into the falcon world is like crossing a vortex into a different reality. I loved visiting, and there are some great falcon-related opportunities for me, so it can continue to be my hobby. But I am glad to return to my spidery world. If I could visit my 19-year-old self again, just as she is beginning university, I would say open your mind! There are weirder and more fascinating things out there that you don't even know about yet!

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