*Photo courtesy of Andy Harmer
*Photo courtesy of Andy Harmer
I’ve spent the last 14 months on a work placement with an ecological consultancy which became a full time job for a while. Now I’m back at uni for year but I still do some bits and bobs for the company. I had an excellent time. I’m a compulsive photo taker. Here are some of the photos I took between July 2013 and and yesterday…
It’s hibernation season, the time when some bat workers get to go and share, hone or acquire the skills required to spot and ID a bat in a hibernation roost, and collect valuable data for the local bat group records. As you’ll know if you read my recent blog on my experience with South Lancashire Bat Group, it’s far from straight forward and more like something you work on over years than simply learn to do.
That survey had a mix of Whiskered Brandt’s and Daubenton’s. Very useful as they look so similar. I came away from it with a rare air of something like confidence in bat ID.
So I was excited to find out that I was to get the chance to go out on a mini hibernation survey with one of our licensed bat workers here on my work placement. Helen surveys the site at near by Pools Cavern and arranged to take me and a couple of others there one lunch time recently.
I hadn’t heard of Pooles Cavern. It sounds big at first but I knew the visit was to be a relatively short one in comparison to the day spent scrabbling around in the Lancashire mudstone caves so my mind painted a picture of a short, over-hanging rock face next to a road.
My lazy brain always places things right on the edge of a road. On an excursion with some work friends to try and see red deer rutting my subconscious uttered a familiar “Oh right!” as it discovered we were going to have to walk to see the deer and that they would not in fact be rutting in a field next to a car park.
Turns out Pool’s Cavern is a full on show cave. The Wooky Hole of Derbyshire. This happens occasionally with my not being from here, I haven’t heard of any of the famous local places so someone will say “do you fancy coming along on this job to Chatsworth” and I’ll say yes expecting another farm or brown-field site and suddenly there’s a giant country house in front of me with grounds and nobility and everything!
We surveyed a section of the caves. Helen, Tom, Becky, Andy and me. It was good fun, there weren’t many other people there and the caves are a magnificent site, especially when you weren’t expecting it.
We found 7 bats. I say we, none for me. Most were spotted by Tom who clearly has a good eye for it. I can’t decided whether I’m just not good at spotting them in their hibernacula or whether I’d find more if I asserted myself more in getting to have first look at more of the area we’re surveying. I do tend to linger at the back of the line a bit. I’m also seriously considering getting my eyes tested as when others do find them there are times when they’re a little too far away for me to make out the ID features.
But enough excuses…
The group found 7 bats. They were all Natterer’s apart from one brown long-eared and one Daubenton’s.
Here is the best picture of the day. Taken by Andy on his phone. Further proof of how awesome camera phones are these days. This is of the Daubenton’s hanging conveniently in arms reach for this beautiful shot…
Now as great as it was seeing this and the Natterer’s (my first experience seeing Natterer’s in the flesh) it took the confidence I’d gained in separating Daubenton’s and Whiskered Brandt’s and turned it on its head. Adding this 3rd Myotis species to the mix upped the game of ID from medium to hard. Like the other two is has pale belly fur and like the Daubenton’s the pinkness of its face is an ID feature. It’s also a similar size to the Daubenton’s. Here are the ID features (courtesy of Steve from South Lancs group following an email conversation about the bat in the photo):
Thick fleshy earsEars too short for Natterer’sEars curled back – behaviour of a disturbed bat, and a trait of Daub’s (we saw it a lot with captive/rehab Daub’s)Ears dark in colour, Natterer’s are always pinkyFur – medium shagginess, Natterer’s would be smootherGreyish dorsal fur, indicative of juvenile – Natterer’s are more pale brown. (on W/B its very shaggy, and usually dark the base and golden or lighter tips- often visible as the fur is shaggy.)On the pic there is a small bit of ventral fur above the wing, but not enough. Natterer’s bats have white ventral fur just above the forearm, between the pro-potagium and wristNo white crescent of fur behind the earsNo reddish forearm (although it is in shadow, I can see its brown, but not dark enough for W/B)
…but that’s part of the fun.
All week the weather forecasts had ended with a comment about a wet and windy Sunday. Wet and windy: Two words that you don’t want to hear associated with a day you plan to spend outside or in a cave.
This time last year it was cold and dry and still. The survey then had been physically challenging, heaving yourself in and out and around unusually shaped and composed environments. My arms and legs had got tired in new ways. I hadn’t taken quite enough food to stay at the optimum level of cheerful for the whole day. But it had been great and I had been looking forward to doing it again this year.
The hibernations are a treat because they come at a time when you haven’t seen any bats for a while. In our group you get invited to attend one if you have been particularly active in the group that year and if there is space in the limited number that these surveys are suitable for. So if you get an invite, you want to go, wet and windy or not.
I kitted myself up. Sunday was my first outing in my new thermal underwear. Like a secret mime artist I thermalled up, then wore a t-shirt, trousers, a fleece, waterproof trousers and a fat, high-viz waterproof jacket. I had woolly gloves and waterproof gardening gloves over the top. I had spare gloves, spare hoodie, spare long sleeved top, spare jumper. I had hiking boots and wellies, and a cag.
What would later occur to me was that wet days tend to be warmer than dry winter days and I would spend some time either being way to hot, or faffing about in the dark trying to get rid of a layer or two.
Baptiste picked me up at 09:30 in his Ford KA. Ever notice how many ecologists/conservationists drive Ford KAs? We picked up Andrea from Salford Quays and drove through the morning rain to the first site near Chorley.
As we drove up the narrow country path to the meeting point, a large 4-wheel drive met us coming the other way and refused to pull over and let us pass. So Baptiste had to carefully reverse his KA back down the length of the path. The driver of the other car said thanks on his way past as though we’d had a choice.
There were 8 of us on the survey: Steve, Fi, John, Brian, Leanne, Andrea, Baptiste and me. We suited up and strode off into the woods to the remains of some industrial buildings that have been a hibernation roost for many recorded years.
The woodland was soaked with rain and rich in mosses and broom everywhere you looked, all taking advantage of the nutrients and growing on top of one another. Even the buildings we surveyed had stands of saplings growing from their roofs like bad hair.
We split up into two groups. My group took the main building, gated off to protect the hibernating bats from inquisitive people. It was wet inside too, the rain finding its way through the old stones and dripping down our necks and in our eyes as we peered into every crack and crevice.
The technique for finding a hibernating bat comes more from practice than anything. You shine your torch into a space and peer in. You move the torch to illuminate the space from all angles and you try to focus and unfocus your eyes to take in every detail of what generally all looks like variations of the surface of whatever the structure is made of.
It’s hard. When you’re first shown a bat in these circumstances you may struggle to see it at all. “Look at the back past the sticking out bit of stone” someone will say. You can’t see it. “Move your head up a bit, you need to get right in as far as you can. See it now?” You still can’t. You don’t believe there is a bat in there. Someone else has a go and they see it. You try again. After a while you see it. A bit of leg and a slither of fur, 6ft away in a dark crack that you seem unable to keep your torch light on for more than a split second. “I see it!” You say. “Great!” They say. “So what do you think it is?”
The idea that you could ID a bat in those circumstances seems ridiculous at that point. You suspect they’re taking the piss. But they aren’t. What you discover is that if you over come the overwhelming appearance that it wouldn’t be possible to ID the bat, and think instead of the ID features (fur colour and shagginess, face colour and shape, ear shape and texture etc) you can make positive IDs to species in these conditions.
There were no hibernating bats in this building, or in the other structures that the other half of the team were checking. There were however, as I stuck my head up a hole and wriggled round to investigate a space with my torch, several herald moths and loads of mosquitoes which began dancing excitedly as they sensed the CO2 in my breath.
But no bats. Not even in Simon’s Crack (there is a tradition in the group of name the locations of first bat finds after the person who found them), a rare and disappointing result. But our fortunes would improve later…
We squelched back through the woods to the cars. The stream near by was hurling up water over the rapids. Quick snack then back on the road. The drive to the second site at Edgeworth, over undulating roads, through the pouring rain was a soporific one and I watched rivers of water running in the gutters on the road side as we drove. One drain had rain water fountaining up out of it.
It made me think of the SuDS (Sustainable Drainage Systems) training session I’d had at work on Thursday and I tried to imagine what mitigation you could put into place here to make more of the rain stay where it landed.
We all met up again at Edgeworth and stood eating our lunch. I had a cheese, pickle and rain sandwich and pocketed a flap jack and a bottle of squash in my giant high-vis for later. We donned our caving helmets and got our trudge on along the path to the mouth of the cave. The entrance is set in a gully that to a fan of fantasy fiction strikes you as being the perfect place for an ambush. But there were no bandits, orks or mountain trolls, justs 8 bat workers in a variety of coloured caving helmets and a mish-mash of waterproof coats and overalls.
Last year the cave entrance had a beautiful façade of icicles hanging above it, today it was running water and we descended through a beaded curtain of water into the gloom. One look back at daylight then off we trekked into the cave.
The cave network is a spacious one. Not much crawling around needed here. They have clearly seen some action too. There are the remains of parties gone by in the form of spent candles, discarded beer cans the brands and colours of which you don’t recognise, and extensive graffiti which looks like its been produced with a tin of paint and a brush rather than a can. The caves themselves remind me more than anything of the 2p machines you get in arcades where you attempt to push many 2ps over the edge by inserting one 2p, creating shelves of over hanging coins. The whole cave is like a giant 3D version of this with giant square coins that teeter, dead still and silent above you in the dark, and litter the floor, the result of past jackpots.
The piles of fallen rock shift and slide about under your feet as you scramble as carefully as you can over the mounds, mindful that nothing you see is reliably secure. Your mind wants to reach out and pluck this or that stone splinter from where it juts between layers but your inner monologue repeatedly refuses it, imagining the ruinous domino run it could initiate.
We began the painstaking process of investigating every crack with our torches. You get into a rhythm, moving along a wall, crouching and stretching to see in as much as possible. Occasionally you look up and see 7 other torch lights moving around in the large, dark space. It looks absurdly surreal and strangely beautiful. There’s something satisfying about being somewhere like that with a specific job to do.
As time goes on you all start to develop what I refer to in my head as drunk legs and the sound of someone landing on their bum isn’t uncommon and is always followed by: “I’m alright!” Your arms get tired too as you push yourself up or balance on a boulder.
We found 18 bats, an excellent result. There were 13 Whiskered Brandt’s and 5 Daubentons. With each bat that is found, everyone has a look and tells Steve what they think it is and why. Then he tells you what it is and why. Impressively we were all right more than we were wrong. It’s so useful having this many of these similar looking bats together. Being told a Whiskered Brandt’s has a darker face than a Daubenton’s is nothing compared to seeing one, then the other, then other etc…
Steve has a habit of acting as though you might have got it wrong when you give your answer, forcing you to be bold and confident in your ID’ing. One example was where there were two bats hanging out in the open. I identified them both as Whiskered Brandt’s and he replied: “Really? Because one looks very different to the other”. “Dammit” I thought. Other people suggested one Whiskered Brandt’s and one Daubenton. “I did think they looked different” I chastised myself. But they were, as it turns out both Whiskered Brandt’s and I smiled satisfied in the dark.
About an hour from the end I found my first hibernating bat. I hadn’t had any firsts the last year so it was an ace moment when I saw that clawed foot and wing between the rock. You get used to seeing rocks that look like bats. There are rocks in those caves that look more like bats than the bats you’re shown. I double checked. I was sure and called Steve over. This was an especially exciting find as it took our total for the day over the existing record and we successfully high-fived (no mean feat in the dark) in celebration.
When we left the caves it was getting dark. We retraced our steps back to the car, torch lights bobbing along in a line and headed to the local pub for a celebratory drink then home. A excellent day, a productive survey, and a fantastic lesson in Whiskered Brandt and Daubenton’s bat ID.
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.
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…
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.
Cows snorted and farted in the field next to me, sparrows chirped in the hedge and swallows swooped overhead.
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.
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.
In the distance I could hear a dairy farm starting work, ushering in the cows. Farmers called out: “Come on girl! COOOOOME-on GIRRRRL!”.
Pipistrelles foraged back and forth above my head.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Unlike 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.
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.