Farsical robots & rabies (Placement day 22)

I arrived at Piccadilly Station on time for the 08:52 to Buxton and found it sat on Platform 12 as advertised on the information board. Unfortunately due to some virtual confusion caused by the early arrival of the train that would be the following service to Buxton an hour later, the artificial intelligence that it turns out is running Piccadilly station became discombobulated and blurted out an incorrect platform change announcement which resulted in me leaving the train unnecessarily which then promptly pootled off to Buxton without me.

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Once in, it made sense to stick around rather than pop home for tea before the evening’s bat survey in Bolton as planned so I busied myself working a species list for last Friday’s Phase 1 and making notes on the various bat training literature that has been piling up on my desk…

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A while after five I packed up my stuff and prepared to go find some dinner. On leaving my office I discovered I was the only person left in the building. I was fairly sure I remembered the alarm code but couldn’t shake the image in my mind of me stood outside the building while the alarm went off, cringing myself inside out with embarrassment. After wandering about aimlessly for a minute or two I heard a car outside and was spared by the arrival back of Kath and Ann.

I bumped into Kath in the kitchen the other day. It was the first time I’d seen her since my interview in September and was able to fill her in on what I’d been up to so far and end with a cheerful: “Thank’s for giving me the job by the way I really appreciate it!”. Such a nice feeling to be this side of the placement-getting experience.

A creature of habit, I wandered down Buxton High Street back to site of my other successful meal, the Railway Pub. If an ecologist were studying me they’d observe the run I’ve been making up and down the high street to feed at the end.

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I had a cheese, tomato and red onion baguette and a coke, then headed back to the office, stinking of onions, in time to be picked up by Sarah to go to Bolton for a bat survey.

The site only had a few trees on it suitable for bats and they had bat boxes in so the survey consisted largely of me climbing up a ladder and looking in the boxes. I like climbing ladders so it was fine by me. Come to think of it I’ve always enjoyed climbing ladders. Growing up in Weston-super-Mare there was a ladder attached to the high sea wall where the beach turned to pebbles and rocks at the north end. It was several meters high and in the holidays or on weekends my friends and I would play on the rocks until the tide forced up the ladder and back onto the prom.

No tide to contend with this time though, just rain. Dark clouds spread like cement over the north-west sky which from Bolton’s elevation went on for miles. The sun was setting over the hills in the distance, blurred and bright orange like a street light through wet eyelashes.

I opened each box in turn. Out of one a spider crawled right onto my nose and down my arm, passing Sarah as she held the ladder at the bottom. While I put the ladder up against another tree two boys stopped on the other side of the fence and asked what I was doing? I said I was looking for bats. “What are they?” they asked. I mimed flapping wings with my arms. “Is that a good job?” they asked, apparently genuinely interested in the answer. I said yes and they shrugged and walked away, apparently satisfied with the information.

The grass around the trees had been sewn with a wild flower mix and we ID’d a few for fun before we left. It was gloomy so the photos aren’t great…

 Corn Marigold

Prickly Sow-thistle

Tare

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This morning I went to the doctors and got my rabies booster. This means I can care for injured bats through the bat group which will be fun, rewarding, and also help me on my way towards getting my licence. I had to cycle through Manchester in the rain wearing jeans. Yuk. Now I’m at work, the only person in my room today as the others are on holiday. It has been raining all day…

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From the Soprano house to Cumbria (Placement days 16 to 20)

I’m still getting used to how to manage my new disjointed timetable. I arrived at work at 9am and spent the day at my desk working on some sound analysis for Helen.

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I had a roost visit and survey that night and was getting picked up from the center of Buxton so I figured it made sense to hang around. At 6 I headed into town to get some tea. Turns out Buxton starts shutting down around that time but the weather was nice so I bought a sandwich from the Co Op and ate it on The Slopes reading my book.

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Helen picked me up at seven thirty and we drove to Prestbury to inspect a bat loft that had been installed in a new house built on the site of a property which had been home to brown long-eared bats. The house was huge and reminded me of Tony Soprano’s house. We inspected the loft then conducted a dusk survey in the garden. It was a humid evening, ‘close’ as my mother would say. Appropriately I heard sopranos pips foraging in the trees above me and saw the odd one pass over my head. The more surveys I conduct the better I get to know the calls, feeling them vibrate softly through my hand even when they are too faint to be heard.

I got back to Manchester after midnight and cycled home through quiet, muggy streets. That night, fierce thunder storms hit the city. It was still raining the next morning and I cycled to the station in waterproofs . I arrived there to find it’d been struck by lightening, knocking the electrics and signals out. There was a train at every platform but none were going anywhere and the info boards were all blank. Someone gave me a free bottle of water and a packet of Fruit Pastels.

I got to Buxton eventually but the survey I’d had booked in was cancelled due to the weather, an occupational hazard.

The next day though I had a survey in Buxton so again I hung around after work. I read in the park then went for tea at a pub called The Railway Inn. I sat outside in the sun eating scampi and chips. A lady was sat near by with her little girl who I guess was about 4. She ran over to me and introduced herself. Her mother called her back but she was back over a few minutes later asking if she could sit with me because there was a bee at her table. Her mother apologized and call her back. Another few minutes later she was over again asking me, what I had had for my dinner and to fix her head band which she had knocked a plastic flower off. I fixed it and she thanked me before telling me: “Poo is your name!”. Charming.

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The survey that evening was with Sarah my supervisor, just around the corner from work. There was lots of bat sounds though I only saw a couple of passes. The highlight was near the end of the survey when a hedgehog appeared from the bushes next to me and spent a good twenty minutes playing with a bit of paper it found on the floor before shuffling back into the undergrowth.

The last train from Buxton was cancelled and I half snoozed on the replacement coach as it wound its way out of the Peak District and into the city.

A few hours later I was on my way back to work. I read The Bat Worker’s Manual at my desk before heading off out with Sarah to Cumbria for a Phase 1 and dusk/dawn bat surveys of a farm. You spend a lot of time with people on surveys. From getting into the car at mid day on Thursday to getting back to the office at 3pm the next day I probably spent at least 21hrs with Sarah. Imagine if you couldn’t think of anything to say. Luckily I can think of lots of things to say and Sarah is an interesting and chatty person. She has a lot of botanical experience so it was a great learning opportunity for me.

The site was beautiful and it was good to get to conduct a Phase 1 Habitat Survey for the first time. When we arrived at the pond where we started the survey Sarah asked me to start on a species list and I was in my element. I was quite pleased with the amount I got on my own before Sarah pointed out the rest.

The pond was home to cock’s-foot, hogweed, sycamore, hawthorn, nettles, wood avens, common sorrel, marsh willowherb, wild angelica, ragwort, great willowherb, soft rush, tufted forget-me-not, ground ivy, marsh bedstraw, ash, watermint, water speedwell, bramble, bull rush, creeping buttercup, cleavers, broadleaf plantain, field bindweed, galeopsis, yarrow, couch crass, yellow pimpernel, shepherd’s purse, tower mustard, water plantain, branched burreed, bittersweet, fox glove, knotgrass, common bent grass, false oat grass, parenial rye grass, marsh fox tail, red fescue, meadow buttercup, creeping soft grass, field horse tail, nipplewort, elder, meadow foxtail, ivy, lesser burdock, upright hedge parsley, creeping bent grass, mayweed, creeping thistle and fat hen.

The heavens opened and the surface of the pond turned 3D with huge rain drops hammering into it for minutes while we sheltered under a tree.

Spurge
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We spend the rest of the afternoon completing more of the survey before heading back to the hotel for dinner. The hotel is stuck in a 70s time warp, with loads of quirky old furnishings. The staff were really nice and my fish and chips were excellent. It’s a good job bat surveys keep you skinny or I’d be getting fat on all the restaurant food I’ve been eating lately.

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Drunk octopus wants to fight you(Drunk octopus wants to fight you)

Back out for the bat dusk bat survey. We walked transects for this one. For the first couple of hours there wasn’t a single bat. We attached Anabat detectors to fences which will record for the next few nights before we return.

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As the sun went down I took high steps through the long wet grass around the parameter of the field and clouds of hundreds of moths few out of the hedge and around me as I went. A nightmare for some but I loved it.

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Darker now and as we headed towards the pond a heard of sheep stampeded away from us in the gloom as we passed them. Having had no bats up to then, the pond was alive with the sound of daubenton’s foraging on and over the water.

The dawn survey was my favorite yet, I was stood on a country track in the dark with a clear view of pips foraging over my head. They fed and interacted with one another in an areal dog fight. My detectors warbled constantly until near the end of the survey a wren flew into the tree above me, silhouetted against the dawn sky, trumpeting a song and signalling the end of any more bat sounds.

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(Placement days 14 & 15)

This was my first experience of completing two dusk/dawn bat surveys back to back. Something that my new colleagues have hinted, with the amusement of people used to something that they remember being hard at first,  would leave me exhausted. After my fox encounter in Liverpool I returned home to pack a new over night bag and caught a train to

Stoke where I waited as instructed to be picked up by Chloe in, as she had described it, her little purple car. We arrived at our hotel, Ternhill Farm House in time to drop off our stuff and head to the site which was a shame because dinner there smelt delicious and there was a cute little dog in the hall. The site was a relatively small area of brown field land with a run down building on one side.

We set up an Anabat recording in the shed as it was a suspected feeding site for Brown Long Eared Bats. Inside were many discarded wings of butterflies. Bats don’t like the wings. We cleared them away so we could see if there were any more the next day, so adding more information to the survey. We positioned ourselves such that we had the whole building covered and observed it as the sun went down and the site became dark. I attracted a cloud of midges above my head.

Butterfly wings

Chloe didn’t have any above her head. I tried wafting mine away with my weather-writer but they returned immediately I stopped wafting so I gave up and learned to live with them. By 11pm I had several entries on my survey sheet.

I had a comfortable couple of hours sleep at the hotel then headed out as quietly as possible in a converted barn with bare floor boards, to the second site where I stood watching a lime tree while the sky turned from navy blue to sky blue behind it.

Over breakfast I picked Chloe’s brains about moth trapping of which I had heard she had a hobby in. It’s something I’d dearly like to try but have my mottephobic wife’s nerves to consider. Then we headed back to the first site to gather up the Anabat and check for new butterfly wings. None this time, but I did get to see some blue fleabane (Erigeron acer) which was new to me and growing along with a variety of other plants which were dotted about in the gravel like a hastily constructed show garden of wild flowers.

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Job done we headed home, Chloe dropping me off in Stoke to catch a train home to Manchester. I was spaced out and cotton-wool brained, but that’s fine. I think I can do this. I have plenty of practice coming up.

Fox Encounter

My final dusk/dawn bat surveys in Liverpool last night were again light on bats with only a couple of pip passes on our record sheets. But while the bats were absent, present were a pair of foxes.

I was stood about five meters away from where I had left my bag lying on the floor. I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye and looking over I saw a fox cub investigating the bag. The motion of my head caught its eye, making it jump. It let out a half-growl and ran away.

A few minutes later it was back. This time I was still and it either didn’t find me threatening or didn’t recognise me as a thing, for after a minute or so of staring curiously at me it sat down for a while. I stood watching the roof line of the building for bats while my Duet detector crackled away in my hand, glancing occasionally at the little fox sat on his bum near by. What a nice moment.

Around the corner I could hear another fox softly barking as though to let my reclining friend know where it was. When the recliner trotted off, the barking continued. I crept to the corner and peeped around. Another young fox stood near by, head low to the ground, looking expectantly for its companion.

I suppose I can look forward to more treats like this as I find myself out at dusk and dawn. I remember every other time I’ve seen a fox, they’re always special moments.

Aquatic Macrophytes course with CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists)

My second course with CAN since joining (the first being Great Crested Newt training) began with a walk to Fleur’s house. Fleur is my ecology friend who like me is attempting to change career into the field of ecology and so attends courses and volunteers in her spare time. We met volunteering at Summerseat Nature Reserve and have since (along with our little group’s third member, Tom, who is doing the same degree as me but today was off in Preston doing the FSC course ‘Using a Flora’) attended many conservationy type things across the north west.

I arrived at Fleur’s to find her looking terrible. Up all night puking apparently but luckily (for me) still prepared to give the day a try.

The course was held at Rocksavage Power Station in Runcorn. I’d been there before for GCN training with CAN but that was on a cold April day. Today was hot.

Rocksavage Power Station

We signed in at the gate and joined the others in the meeting room. We were late and samples of rushes were already being handed out by Jack and Andy, the course leaders today.

They made a good team. Jack is your classic old school botanist with pockets in his jacket big enough to fit Stace in, he describes purely in Latin names and talks in an engaging absent minded fashion. Andy comes equipped with memorable anecdotes to commit Latin and common names to memory, sometime obscure but they do work!

Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN)

The day was split between the meeting room and the ponds outside. There were around 20 people on the course including Becky from work and a man who told me that in 1976 someone accidentally threw a petrol bomb at him.

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Reed Canary Grass & Reed Sweet Grass

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Celery leaves speedwell

Brooklime speedwell

Marsh Horsetail. "The skirt is longer than the knickers".

Common starwort

New Zealand pygmy weed

It was really hot. Apparently my head went red where my hair is thinning at the back. I managed not to let on that I hadn’t realised my hair was thinning at the back. I’d better not be getting Dad’s bald patch.

Natins, floats, angle on stem
Polygonus
Marsh spearwort
Marsh bedstraw
Cyprus sedge
Bee Orchid
Floating Club Rush
Purple Loose Strife
Common Centaury
Yellow Wort
Greater duck weed
Minuta
Lemna minor
Marsh cinquefoile
Saint John's Wort

Ratty & Batty (Placement days 8, 9 & 10)

Wednesday took me to Fleetwood in search of Water Voles. My only experience before Wednesday was Ratty from Wind in the Willows who was in fact not a rat but a vole. I suppose the tales wouldn’t have read so well if it was Voley and Moley messing about in boats.

Helen and Ann were the ecologists leading this survey, and work experience Scott came too. It was a scorcher of a day. The site was grass and scrub land with a ditch running around it. The ditch contained a stream with tall vegetation growing on the banks, and some reed beds.

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Ann is a botanist and I picked her brains as we walked around. She explained the difference between Phragmites and Reed Canary Grass from an ID perspective…

Phragmites

Reed Canary Grass

Woody Nightshade

We donned our waders and entered the stream which as it turned out was thigh deep and very silty giving it the feeling of quick sand as you sank slowly before finally settling, unsettlingly close to the rim of your waders.

Water Vole surveying

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We were looking out for Water Vole droppings which are apparently tic-tac size, for runs where they have repeatedly trampled commuting routes, for food piles of neatly trimmed vegetation cut at a 45 degree angle, and for holes potentially with a neat lawn maintained at the entrance.

Cole food pile

The stream was humid, thick with silt and home to many horse flies which set upon us enthusiastically. One bit Ann on the nose almost immediately. It’s as though they can tell when you’re vulnerable, bracing yourself on the bank and a tree branch to try and suck one leg out of the boggy stream with a squelch. That’s the moment you hear a horse fly enter your ear or feel it land on your mouth and you have to hastily complete your movement to free up your hands and wave them away. But they always come back.

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I found a hole which apparently was more likely to be a rat hole. Ann found a food pile which apparently wasn’t the right size to be conclusive. But the site was interesting all the same. I saw several species of butterfly and on the pond on the site damselflies were mating. A Reed Warbler fired through its full repertoire from within the reeds. We left a buffer zone several meters either side of it undisturbed. Inside the reeds was dense and alien. There weren’t even any horse flies in there, just the rustling of many tall stems and the occasional giant chrysalis dangling from a leaf.

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Green veined white

Water bunting

It was a short drive to the beach nearby where we drove to find shade from the afternoon sun and eat our sandwiches. My egg and prawn role was microwave warm after a day in the foot well of our hot car.

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Thursday afternoon was our return to Liverpool for the second of our dusk/dawn surveys at the red brick industrial site. We followed the same time table and stayed in the same hotel. This time though I took the position outside of the side, on the road facing the building. This was where Paul had been on the other survey and he had detected a couple of commuting bats so my colleagues thought it would be nice for me.

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This was good and bad for me. Good because I might see some bats, bad because in Liverpool apparently Thursdays are the new Fridays. While Paul hadn’t encountered another sole during his stint on the road, I had a different experience.

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Most people just looked at me funny. I suppose it’s fair enough, I was stood on a side street facing a large empty building, holding some electronic devises emitting white noise. They probably thought I was either a policeman or a Ghostbuster.

Two women out walking a scotty dog asked what I was doing. I told them. They said they’d assumed I was a policeman. They were friendly and told me about when they’d seen bats in Liverpool before, and also foxes and squirrels. They said I must feel awkward stood there like that. “Bit weird isn’t it?” I said. “Yeah” they said sympathetically.

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After they’d gone a fox appeared from between some railings. It stopped and looked at me as foxes do, then trotted off down the road. An hour or so later the women returned to tell me they’d seen a bat. I told them I’d seen a fox. As we were talking my duet detector let out the familiar wet, slapping sound of a pipistrelle. The bat flew right behind the ladies almost mockingly, like the pandas in that Kitkat advert,  before disappearing into the shadows.

I didn’t detect any other bats on the dusk survey but I did attract the attention of a variety of drunk people one of who fired questions at me about what I was doing as though he was trying to catch me out, before saying good night, shooting me a suspicious look over his shoulder, getting into his car and driving away. As the dusk survey neared its end three young lads observed me from across the road. One asked another loudly what I was doing. His friend replied that he didn’t know but it looked as though I was enjoying myself.

I read for a while before going to sleep between the two surveys. This helped me fall into a good sleep but consequently made it harder to get up at 02:50. I can see this is a technique I will be forever refining. Back at the site from 3am it was now dark and deserted other than the sound of a couple shouting at each other just around the corner.

I tried not to make any noise so as not to attract their attention and was doing well at it until their dog came wandering around the corner with a punctured football in its mouth. A lady followed after it in her dressing gown and bizarrely appeared not to notice me in my high vis jacket as she retrieved Baby and returned to shout some more with her boyfriend.

I detected two more bats and slept soundly back at the hotel with the feeling of a job well done. Back in Buxton I completed my time sheet, practiced some of the sound analysis Helen had sent me and made the station in time for the 14:29 to Manchester Piccadilly.

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It’s been an excellent week. Next week I don’t have anything booked in but I’m sure I’ll still learn a lot and I’m looking forward to finding out what’s in store.

Creature of the Wheel (Placement days 6 & 7)

Glorious sunshine spread like honey out of the weekend and into the second week of my work placement. Manchester Piccadilly had a bright and cheerful atmosphere as I caught my train to Buxton, looking forward to my first bat survey with Penny Anderson Associates.

Another sunny start to my second week on my placement...

I helped out sorting and IDing aquatic inverts in the lab in the morning and wandered into Buxton on my lunch. It was hot and everyone seemed tanned and happy. I ate my lunch on The Slopes while listening to a couple of guys play the accordion and the fiddle on a near by roof.

Back at work Helen gave me a crash course on using Analook sound analysis software. There was a short test at the end which I did well on making us both pleased with ourselves for our respective teaching and learning skills.At half 4 I climbed in the back of the car and set off to Liverpool with Helen, Kelly and Paul. The journey there painted a beautiful picture of the Peak District national park which Buxton is situated in. Our hotel was on Albert Dock which shone in the afternoon sun, surely the best skyline in the north west. I had fish and chips for tea. So far I was thoroughly enjoying being an ecologist.

We headed over to the site at 9pm. The sun was reflected off the city’s buildings. We needed to be there and set up before sunset and I felt like Charlton Heston in The Omega Man when he raced home to avoid The Family who came out at night.

omegaUnlike Charlton our aim was to remain outside long after sunset, at our site, a beautiful red brick Victorian building. Once we were all in position, Anabat and Duet detectors crackling away in hand, I was all alone. It reminded me of a game I used to play as a teenager when walking home in the dark, imagining like Dr Neville I was the last man on earth, and feigning surprise to myself the first time I encountered another person.

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The sky got darker. A whole society of gulls went about their noisy business, perched on the many walls and towers like sentinels looking out for only they know what. Soon the building turned chocolate brown under the orange street lights and all but a dedicated few gulls cried their way off towards the docks.

No bats. We headed back to the hotel and said our good nights. I set my alarm for 3am. I woke up convinced I’d slept through it but checking my phone in the dark it was only half past 2. I could hear someone snoring in another room. At 3 I got dressed and headed down to meet the others. Hotel night staff asked if I needed anything in the way retail staff are told to engage suspected shoplifters. There was upbeat funky music playing in reception. A couple wearing going out clothes came in holding kebabs as we set off out, back to the site.
 

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The sky was still a kind of blue even is late. It mustn’t get completely dark this time of year. We took up our positions again, around a different building this time, and waited for bats and the dawn. Dawn arrived on time but still no bats. The gulls returned a few at a time. Maybe they’re the reason the bats stay away?

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One gull in particular took up a position above where I was stood and mumbled anxiously at me for over an hour. Occasionally I’d hear bird poo splat on the floor near by. I stopped looking up at the gulls reasoning if I was going to get pooed on I’d rather they pooed on my head than my face.
 

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We headed back to the hotel some time after 5am and went back to bed. It was a humid night and I didn’t sleep well but I’d enjoyed myself. This felt like the first proper work I’d done since starting my placement. Playing an active part in a survey for a client. And while there were no bats, the survey was still necessary regardless of the result. On top of that I got to know some the consultancy staff better and we had a laugh as we headed back to Buxton.Paul and I continued our invert work in the lab before heading home early. A Manchester train was pulling away as I entered the station so I sat on the platform and ate my lunch, before cracking on with this blog as a pigeon sat on the announcement board above me preened its self contentedly in the afternoon sun.

 

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