Building inspections & sunrise reflections (Placement days 35 to 45)

I had the opportunity to go on a couple of building inspections last week. Usefully, one of these buildings was very suitable and the other averagely so meaning I have bench marks by which to measure future visits. When Sarah and I pulled up at the very suitable building (an old barn) you could see by her face that she knew immediately we were likely to find evidence of a roost there, and sure enough the loft was littered with droppings and discarded moth wings. Apparently the reason for the discarded wings is that medium sized bats like Brown Long Eared are big enough to catch large moths but not big enough to eat them while flying, so they need a feeding roost to hang in while they munch their moth down.

The building of medium suitability was on a farm. When Helen and I arrived there the owner warned us that there was a dog in one of the buildings but reassured us that it was a nice dog. After he left, a horse whinnied. When you’re expecting a dog, the sound of a horse whinnying sounds remarkably like Scooby Doo laughing. There were some very old bat droppings in this place which crumbled to dust between your fingers. Not like the shiny, black jewels of the old barn.

The first rule of a building inspection is: look down before you look up, you don’t want to tread all over your evidence. Building inspections are a bit CSI.

Earlier this week I caught the train to Rochdale one evening for a dawn survey the next day. As the train whisked through the many brownfield sites that separate Oldham and Rochdale from Manchester I was treated to flick-book style animation of a battle taking place between Rosebay Willowherb and Himalayan Balsam. The war for supremacy was at times heavily in favor of one species the other, and at other times it was being thrashed out hand to hand with each occurring equally in saturated fields.

There was a chaise-longue in my Travel Inn room which I sat on eating Malteasers, feeling very opulent while watching TV before an early night/start for the dawn survey. My survey position for this survey was between two houses at the back of the site. I wore a high vis jacket in an attempt to look less scary to anyone who might notice me stood there in the middle of the night. There was very little bat activity. I resisted the urge to count the seconds away in my head. I got to 4 before before I stopped myself but as usual that was enough to trigger this song in my head which remained (not unpleasantly) for rest of the survey…

Over breakfast in the Premier Inn; Chloe, Sarah, Kelly, Vicky and myself discussed the phenomenon of lizards shedding their tails when caught or distressed. It seems as though it isn’t just something having hold of their tail that makes them shed it, but just the stress of being caught at all. We speculated that while it’d be useful to be able to grow back lost limbs, shedding them when distressed would cause all kinds of problems for humans. Imagine if you lost an arm or leg every time you were stressed or nervous. Job interviews, driving, weddings… Lack of sleep leads to some peculiar conversations.

Thursday saw a return to Cumbria. I’m getting to know the site well and was looking forward to going back. This time I was with Helen and Vicky. There was lots to get done. My time was split between helping Helen with water-vole/otter surveys and helping Vicky with hedgerow surveys. It was a humid day and we headed to the hotel, tired and hungry to load up on carbs (the hotel is very generous with its chip portions) before heading back out for the dusk survey.

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As we headed back to the site the sun was setting big and orange. It was eyebrow-raisingly beautiful and we all took pictures on our phones…

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I took up my position with my back to the main road. The setting sun turned from rich orange to polished, red glass and washed the big sky and long clouds vanilla. It began to look more like the far east than the north west.

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Cows snorted and farted in the field next to me, sparrows chirped in the hedge and swallows swooped overhead.

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Calves played at being bulls, butting heads. The sunlight began to filter from the sky. Vanilla turned to chrome, a mist fell across the fields in the distance and the hedge fell silent and the sky empty.

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With my back to the road, passing traffic back lit me, sliding my shadow across the field like a moving target in a shooting range. Pipistrelles arrived around half nine, passing over me on their way elsewhere.

Up at 4am for the dawn survey. The moon was almost full and so bright we cast a shadow as we headed down the track. For this survey my position was at the furthest end of the farm, a good ten minute walk from Helen’s position. Walking through the moonlit countryside I felt like both predator and prey as I kept an anxious look out for the feisty cows which have been the cause of so many reroutes on our walks across the site.

Thankfully I encountered none making it to my stretch of track in one piece, and greeted by a cacophony of bat calls which fizzed and popped from my detector.

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In the distance I could hear a dairy farm starting work, ushering in the cows. Farmers called out: “Come on girl! COOOOOME-on GIRRRRL!”.

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Pipistrelles foraged back and forth above my head.

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My earworn for the dawn survey was Louis Armstrong…

…which I whistled along to as the sky over the farms was lit up by another beautiful Cumbria dawn.

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At six Helen called and I began the walk back to meet her. I sang ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ to myself as I crossed fields and climbed over fences. What I didn’t know at this point but would find out later that day is that my step-father who has been very ill would not last the day and the already rather special sunset and sunrise I’d witnessed would be the last of his lifetime. They are inevitably all the more poignant to me as I look back on my photos. So this blog is for my step-dad, Ken Wyatt, who saw many beautiful sunsets and sunrises in his life, and wasn’t one to overlook the beauty such things.

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Summerseat Nature Reserve

Summerseat is special to me because it represents my first step into proactively pursuing a career in ecology. My plan was to change career from my job at the bank to a job in ecology and I was enrolled at Manchester Met. I knew that if I was to be in with a chance of getting a good job after graduation I would need to have a CV bursting with extracurricular activities. At this stage I was an enthusiastic amature but one without any real ID skills to speak of and without experience volunteering etc.

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In the 3 years that have passed since then I have accrued weeks of experience and enough skills to secure me the work placement I am now employed at. Back then though I was on the outside looking in and the windows were opaque. I Googled ‘conservation volunteering’ and along with several dead ends I filled out a volunteer application form for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. A few days later I received a call from Catherine. I remember it was a lunch time and I walked out of the office and leant against the railings on the edge of the River Irwell and scribbled down the details of volunteer oportunities in my area.

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There were plenty but most of them during in the week and I was still working full time at that stage. One stood out as possible, a comfortable sounding place called Summerseat which brought to mind The Last of the Summer Wine. I was to call Noell. I did. She said she’d expect me on the last Sunday of the month. Done.

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I was quite nervous. I’d never done anything like that before. Stacey gave me a lift to the site in Bury and wished me luck. I walked along the long entrance path with my packed lunch and for the first time got a look at a place that I was to become very familiar with. And a person I was to become good friends with. Noell reminds me a bit of a younger version of my Grandma to look at. “Everyone gets a hug” she said matter of factly as though handing out hard hats.

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The site sits on land which was formally the Ramsbottom Sewage Works. You wouldn’t guess, it doesn’t smell bad or anything. Its industrial past is easy to forget until you hit a brick in the ground with your spade, or find antique litter. It is comprised of a meadow and woodland which varies in composition. The ethos is to encourage local native species that can make it in the often rubbly, sometimes soft soil. United utilities own the land but due to toxins and heavy metals it is unsuitable for development. It became a nature reserve in the late 80s.

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It is managed by a team of volunteers, no paid staff at all, lead by Noell. They are almost all pensioners and live locally though don’t be fooled, I discovered early on that I was far from the fittest person there. Derek for example is like a machine. He can saw and saw all day. My arms were wobbly after half an hour of trying to keep up with him as we cleared willow to add light to a section of woodland on my first day.

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First job of the day is always to erect the gazebos. Any regular attendees are well versed in the proceedure and they’re generally up in minutes. They provide the base where lunch is had and multiple teas and biscuits are consumed and discussed.

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Composition wise the site contains a variety of ferns, fungi, lichens and flowering plants which arrive either by design or more often on their own, deposited by wind or bird. A lucky few have seen the Roe Deer and the occasional fox can be glimpsed or sniffed. It’s not a huge site but the woodland is dense enough that you can wander a short way in and feel completely alone. I make regular solo walks around the site at lunch time on work days and have been treated to the site of big, fluffy deer bottom bouncing away through the trees.

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As my ecology callendar had become more and more busy I still try where possible to make it to Summerseat on the last Sunday of the month. I’ve made friends there and it’s somewhere I’ve had the chance to observe the seasons change in a way that is so usfull from an ecological understanding perspective. The same things appear at the same times, you see them as shoots, adults and then in decline. You sense the arrival of the winged insects and then the birds and know spring is arriving. On my first visit in November I was introduced to candle-snuff fungus and a year to the day I saw it again.

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But the greening of the site is always a suprise. You have an idea that it’ll be greener than last month but you always underestimate it. It’s as though nature started with a sprinkle and then with a shrug just emptied the whole box of green over the site. Magnificent!

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I’ve written this blog entry in bits over a few weeks, returning to the draft to add a paragraph here and there and eventually to insert the photos which I’d  been uploading to a now defunct photo blog I’d been keeping elsewhere last year. What occurs to me as I add the photos is that I’ve been snapping the site like I’m in love with it, infatuated. I have more photos of Summerseat Nature Reserve than I do my wife. Month after month photographing the same features and reveling in how they change subtley as the air begins to warm.

I’d intended to at one point to keep a record throughout a whole year, every month. Things keep getting in the way. I’ve been on newt courses or bat hybernation surveys, botanical ID courses… I suppose it’s inevitable that I should go less and less as I have the oportunity to do more, but I hope I don’t forget where it all started. On this perculear, charming little site in Summerseat, Ramsbottom, near Bury, with Noell and Geoff and Derek and Linda, Barry and Sheila, Jack, Helen and Ig, Alex and Fleur and John and Cherry and everyone…

Cocks-foot in flower

Silverweed

Fox-and-Cubs

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Yellow Rattle

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Back to Cumbria (Placement days 24 & 25)

Back in the car with Sarah to Cumbria. Journeys always seem to go faster when you know them and we flew through the counties, peaks and traffic in no apparent time at all.

I continued to pick Sarah’s brains for botanical ID tips. I am either coming across as relentlessly enthusiastic or relentlessly annoying.

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The sun was back out after a week of rain and as we drove along hedge lined country roads in Cumbria, what looked a lot like a bat flew across the road and in front of the car for a second or two, in broad daylight. After a moment of me rerunning the image in my head before bringing it up Sarah said: “Was that a bat?!” A rare sight indeed.

Upon arriving on site we cracked back on with the Phase 1 survey we had started the previous week and I was allocated a hedge to work on a species list for…

Red Clover leaf, as evident by the angle (>90°) on the veins from the centre stem

Annual Meadow Grass. Crimped leaf.

#Betony

#Yarrow

#Feverfew

#Dogrose

Heliotrope

#MarshFoxTail

#BlackKnapweed

#Meadowsweet

Once again the Phase 1 took longer than expected and we had to wolf down our dinner back at the hotel. I’d been feeling progressively worse as the day had gone on. It was painful to swallow and my head hurt. I felt pretty rotten. I mentioned that I thought I might be coming down with something as I didn’t want to come across as though I was quiet because I was bored. Sarah said she had noticed I’d gone quiet and suggested that during survey season it isn’t unusual to feel as though you’re coming down with something when in fact you’re just run down.

That definitely sounded like something my subconscious would do so I resolved to pull myself together, put on a happy face and made an effort to say more. I then asked Sarah if she had noticed me perk up which kinda defeats the object but she said she had and inquired what had happened? I said I’d just pulled myself together and stopped being such a wimp.

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A plate of scampi, a glass of coke with ice and a 20 minute power nap and I was feeling markedly better as we headed through the fields to our dusk bat survey site. The cows have young calves and are paranoid and confrontational around people which made getting to the site a challenge. On walking through one field they all started approaching us. We left that field and began walking around the parameter but the cows followed us on the other side so that when we came to the point where we needed to climb over, they were there, so we had to wait until they’d all passed by. Then when we climbed over and began crossing the field they began hurrying over to intercept us. As we reached our point of no return it was clear if we carried on they’d beat us to the middle so we had to hurry back and over the fence again!

With a detour we eventually made it to our survey site and I settled in to watch the sky darken behind a large old ash tree. I’ve discovered I don’t like staring at ash trees. Their pinnate leaves create the feeling of double vision as they cross at different levels. All was quiet until nearly 10pm when we were treated to acrobatic pip foraging as at least 3 bats swooped around us and one another. One flying so close to my face I exclaimed: “WOW!”

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It’s funny the things that go through your head as you stare at the trees and the sky, waiting for the bats. I’ve leaned my brain acts as a randomized juke box with songs appearing out of nowhere and playing on a loop. This night I was treated to ‘Jimmy Mac’ by Martha and Vandellas.

On our way back through the fields we were met by the cows again, headed by the big old white bull with a limp, or ‘Limpy’ as we’ve come to know him. So again we rerouted, through dark fields, over barbed wire, back to the car, to the hotel, and finally I was back in my room and more than ready for the three and a half hours sleep I had before our dawn survey.

No cows to avoid, at dawn I stood on the dirt track watching Sarah’s torch light make it’s way over to a tree in the distance,. When she got to it she pointed it up into the tree, lighting the whole thing up like a cathedral.

Frogs croaked with gusto from the vegetation behind me, lapwings squeaked in the field in front and an owl hooted in the distance. I watched my tree.

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Dawn tree 2
Dawn tree 3
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Morning doesn’t break smoothly. It comes in surges as though the sun is being heaved over the horizon by an unseen titan before finally rolling down over everything.

Dawn bat survey in Cumbria #PAASvy

The next day we returned to the site to finish the Phase 1. I took the field of rushes, compiling a list of the species in the hedge first then carefully hopping across (and occasionally into) the many, and sometimes discrete, water courses.

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