*Photo courtesy of Andy Harmer
*Photo courtesy of Andy Harmer
This is my first blog for a while. I’ve been busy finishing my degree, preparing for and sitting exams, finishing my dissertation and other course work and starting a new job. The good news is I did well. I got a first (yay!) and a full time, permanent contract at the ecological consultancy of my choice (woo!). So five years on from stepping out of the unsatisfying familiar and into the unknown I can say I’ve made it to this particular destination. From here to ecology is now from there to here and for a little while at least I’ve been enjoying the feeling of a job well done that doesn’t have ‘but it could still all go wrong’ tagged on as a wary caveat. I like to think I represent what’s possible if you apply yourself, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a natural academic.
Looking back from this vantage point at the experience as a whole, I see now that I’ve made some smart decisions along the way which have made me employable. The degree was important but without making yourself employable what use is it? So this blog is my list of tips which you may want to consider trying while you’re preparing to break into the world of ecology. They worked for me, they might work for you…
I’m pretty sure that if I can do it you can do it. I’m not exceptionally clever and as it turns out I’m dyslexic and dyscalculiac. I just put the hours in that’s all. If you care about your chosen field (and why wouldn’t you?) and you work hard there is no reason why you can’t make it. I’ve met some impressive, successful, skilled people who’ve told me they’re the same. You don’t need a photographic memory or to have been doing this since you were 3. Doubts are natural but don’t dwell on them. Spend your time working, not worrying, and you’ll be fine.
Whether you’re reading this before you’ve started uni, or you’re half way through your final year, right now is the time to follow these tips. The freedom of the uni timetable makes pursuing extracurricular stuff much easier than if you’re working nine to five, and the sooner you start the more you can do, and the more you can do the more likely you are to stand out when you’re applying for jobs.
You hear it a lot. You’re probably sick of hearing it but let me explain why it’s good and what you should try to get out of it. I remembering it seeming hard to find a way in to this world of voluntary work I was being told I should enter. Before you’ve done anything ‘volunteering’ is just a word but once you’re in more opportunities present themselves.
My way in was the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. I contacted them and signed up as a volunteer. They told me about different opportunities in the region and one of them seemed doable; a conservation work party once a month at a nature reserve near Bury. For the next few years I traveled there once a month and along with the regular locals I lopped, sawed, raked and dug. I helped put up and take down the gazebos, drank tea, ate and discussed biscuits and the weather…
I did it because I’d been told I should be volunteering and I believed it was good advice but I didn’t really grasp exactly why I was doing it. I thought one day an employer would look at my CV and check I’d done some volunteering. That’s part of it but it’s skills employers are after. At Summerseat Nature Reserve I began learning to ID flowering plants. It was the place I first learned that Himalayan balsam is Himalayan balsam and what red Campion, wood sorrel and wood anemone look like (and lots more). It was a place I got to see change through the seasons and began to anticipate when the insects would return and then the birds, which plants flowered first and which ones last.
This was a really useful foundation to build upon, and the longer I did it, the more people I met in this voluntary world. They let me know about other interesting things that were happening in the region. I got invited to courses and events because I was a volunteer. Eventually I wasn’t doing things because I’d been told I should, I was developing interests in specific areas and curiosities about others I hadn’t tried yet.
If you do it right volunteering gives you transferrable skills, exposes you to new subjects and opportunities, and introduces you to nice, interesting people who can and are happy to help you. The idea of turning up somewhere on your own and meeting a load of new people might seem nerve racking at first and it’s true you may find yourself wondering what on earth you’re doing on a tram at 7am on a Sunday on your way to meet someone who’s offered you a lift to a site. It is never that bad. That anxiety always disappears as soon as you arrive and there have been so many days where I thought how glad I was I hadn’t sacked it off! After a while you get quite good at meeting new people. This is a more valuable skill than you might at first realise.
You are more likely to do stuff if you’ve arranged to do it with someone else. My partners in crime, pictured below, for the past few years have been Tom who I met on my degree and Fleur who I met at Summerseat Nature Reserve. The three of us attend courses and conservation groups together, or just meet up to practice ID’ing stuff. It’s a difficult thing to dissect but directly or indirectly I think we’ve all probably benefited professionally just by being a bit of an informal team in this way, and we are all now professional ecologists.
Pick as many brains as you can. It’s a long, hard process getting the job you want but it’s pretty easy to persuade someone to have a chat with you and ask their advice on what you can do to make getting the job you want more likely. Most of the smart decisions I have made which have made me more employable have been me acting on someone’s advice.
There’s something in a lot of us that feels more comfortable intending to take someone’s advice in the future, rather than acting on it right now. Anticipation Vs Experience. A local ecologist I met through the uni’s mentoring scheme in my foundation year gave me some of the most useful advice I’ve received during my uni experience. “Can you drive?” was his first question. You can’t be an ecologist without a driving licence and you might not pass first time so it’s a good idea to get your driving licence as soon as you can. He also suggested I attend the FSC (Field Studies Council) ‘Using a Flora’ course, join my local bat group and amphibian group and start working towards my bat and newt licences. I took it all and it’s played a big part in job interviews. Working towards gaining EPS (European Protected Species) licenses and becoming proficient in using flora keys is a lengthy process so why wait? It definitely helped me get the placement I wanted.
If you can’t do a placement, sort out structured work experience for the holidays. Personally the year I spent in industry was the most useful thing I’ve done. It’s easier to get a placement somewhere than it is to get a job there. So you can end up working somewhere for a year that many professionals would love to work but can’t. You get to do the job you hope to end up in, so you enter the job market when you finish your studies with a degree AND experience. Employers love experience. You’ll find it easier to get a placement if you have some skills to offer, which you can gain through volunteering (see tip 3). So either through a structured placement year programme or independently, arrange some kind of work experience, and make it count. Like volunteering it’s not a box ticking exercise. Employers will want to know what you can do so make sure you learn from the people you work with and leave with a level of proficiency at actually doing the job. Aim to impress. Be a sponge.
It’s not a main focus in uni so it’s up to you to learn what is what and why. It can seem intimidating but you’ll be amazed how much you learn when you look back at yourself a year ago and see what you’ve achieved if you set your mind to it. Don’t be in a rush, you’ll never learn everything, there isn’t time. Don’t get freaked out when you meet someone who can ID every grass, rush and sedge going. They’ve been at it for years. If you learn a new species a week you’ll know hundreds in a few years, the more you learn the easier it gets and the more you’ll be able to ID.
Learn to use a key. Buy a hand lens, they’re only a few quid online. Attend every ID course you hear about, there are lots of free/cheap ones if you’re in wildlife groups. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sink in straight away, just keep at it. There’s help out there. Facebook and Twitter have groups for everything you can think of and they’re often more than happy to help you out with an ID for something you’re stuck on. Take photos and put them on Flickr, Instagram etc. It becomes a useful reference. The more you can ID the more fun it gets. There is nothing better than knowing what things are.
Uni holidays are long so try and fit a course in if you can. They can be expensive but sometimes grants are available to help aspiring biological recorders. Check out the FSC, CIEEM, BSBI websites. There are some excellent courses available taught by world class tutors in beautiful surroundings. You meet interesting people and get all inspired, it’s great. There’s often cake too.
Most wildlife groups run their own courses for members too. Having paid your subscription these are often free. Most areas have their own bat, mammal, reptile and amphibian, bird, botany and generalist groups. Google them.
If you do all that you’ll definitely be more employable. Hopefully you’ll be the most employable person that gets interviewed by the employers you want to work for, but it counts for very little if you don’t communicate it in your interview. If you’re obviously passionate and enthusiastic about ecology, or whatever your chosen field is, you are more likely to get the job. And if you’ve spent the last 3-5 years throwing yourself into this, meeting people, trying things and developing your ID and survey skills, it will come across in your interviews. If you find interviews hard, seek out someone who will give you a mock interview and honest feedback. If the idea of that you with anxiety then it will probably really help and you should definitely do it.
So that’s that. Call center monkey to ecology graduate and professional ecologist is 5 years. Whatever stage you’re at now: first year, final year, or sat at your desk wondering if if there’s more to life, I wish you the best of luck.
I hope you enjoyed this blog. If you have any questions or suggestions drop me a message. I’ll still be blogging now I’ve gone pro! But as it’s the start of a new chapter a few thank yous to; my lecturers at Manchester Metropolitan University, The volunteers at Summerseat Nature Reserve and staff at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Cheshire Active Naturalists, South Lancs Bat Group, the Lancashire branch of Butterfly Conservation, BSBI training and education grants, Field Studies Council, Penny Anderson Associates, NLG Ecology, and my wife Stacey. All of who helped a little or a lot, and combined got me where I wanted to be.
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…
This is based on my experiences on a sandwich year placement at an ecological consultancy. A consultancy I am currently working at full time in the 6 month gap between my placement ending and my final year at uni beginning so my approach worked, for me at least…If you’re about to do a similar placement, or are just interested in a career in ecology, or are going to be doing a totally different placement in another field all together this could be a lot of or at least a little help to you.
10 top tips:
1) Say yes to everything
If like me you have never worked in the ecology industry before it will come as some what of a culture shock. The hours, the structure of your day, the people, all totally different. You could be forgiven for finding it intimidating at first and your inner-monologue might start trying to talk you out of agreeing to too much stuff. Especially when it’s confusing stuff described in terminology that’s unfamiliar. Turn your inner-monologue off. Or turn it down so you can hardly hear it. Or systematically ignore it and do the opposite every time you hear it.
Some of the most fun, interesting, valuable and/or rewarding experiences I’ve had have been on jobs that given a few minutes to think of an excuse the voice in my head would have loved to have wriggled out of.
2) Say what you’re thinking
What no one tells you about ecological consultancy work before your first day is that one of the most important skills you need to succeed is the ability to sit in a car with someone for four hours and it not be awkward. Not just car journeys in fact but countless dinners in pubs, service stations, hotels etc. In my old job you could sometimes go all day without speaking to the people sat next to you. You went in at 9am, got your head down and got out at 5pm. Ecology is not like that. You can spend more time in week engaging with the people you work with than the people you live with.
The first time I met my supervisor Sarah was for a brief chat on the stairs where she told me we’d be working together later that week. Later that week I met her for the second time. We drove 4hrs to Cumbria, spent the day doing a Phase 1 survey of some agricultural land, had dinner then went out and did a dusk bat survey followed by a dawn survey. We did some more Phase 1ing then drove back to Buxton. In the 30 hours from us leaving the office to us returning to it we were driving, working or eating together for around 23 hours.
My point here is that I learned quickly that my usual social survival technique of quiet and polite was not appropriate for this environment. It would have been really uncomfortable if I’d sat smiling in silence for the majority of the job. Eventually she probably would have given up trying and I’d have become a somewhat eerie figure lurking silently in the background, smiling politely.
For a long time I’ve lived by the rule that if you wonder whether it’s a good idea to say something, it probably isn’t and you should keep your mouth shut. Well I threw caution to the wind last July and have been merrily blurting out whatever comes into my head and damning the consequences ever since! Every attempt at humour, every movie reference, every “ever notice how…?” and every potentially stupid question, I’ve said them all and it’s been fine. Truth is people would rather listen to just about anything other than an uncomfortable silence and the things that pop into your head are who you are. They might like you for them.
I feel this should come with a small disclaimer however. Try it for a day and see how it works out. If those around you are visibly offended perhaps have a rethink.
A placement is an excellent place to learn. You might never again have a job where you can so openly and cheerfully not know things. So never miss the chance to ask questions. The first time you work with people find out what they specialize in, what they do for fun, what they did at uni, and remember it.
In my ongoing mission to become a passable botanist some of the most significant progress has been made out on jobs pointing at things I don’t recognize and asking what they are. Sometimes those jobs have been habitat surveys, other times they’ve been bat, newt or badger surveys but I happened to know one of the people I was working with was a skilled botanist. In my first week I was on a water vole survey with Helen and Anne. Anne is an excellent botanist and by the time we’d walked from the car to the ravine I knew what Woody Nightshade looked like, and tufted vetch, and how to tell the difference between Phragmites and Phalaris.
I also remember learning that day how badass ecologists are. When we arrived at the ravine I took one look at it and assumed that we wouldn’t be going in. It was covered in brambles, full of silt and swarming with horseflies. The sun was baking down, it looked like hell in there, probably full of shopping trolleys, disguarded weapons and dead bodies I thought. I turned around and Anne and Helen were already climbing in.
4) Know your place and embrace it
An important thing to get your head around from the start is where you fit into the company. If you’ve spent the last couple of years studying and anticipating a placement, then trying to and successfully getting a placement, then the placement will feel like a pretty big deal to you. It’s less of a big deal to the people you’ll be working with. The fact that a new placement student is due to start, or has just started at the company will be one piece of information among many they have received that week and if you start as I did in July then they’ll already be in the middle of survey season and really busy.
My approach was to embrace my position as lowest rank and set about making myself indispensable in any way I could. During survey season I did this by saying yes to every offer of work going. Bat survey? Yes please. Water sample collection? Righty-ho. Data entry? No problem. I figured what I lacked in experience I could compensate for in other ways. Personally I wanted to contribute as much as I could. I anticipated getting a lot out of my placement year but I think it’s important that you don’t see it purely as resource to be plundered. Ecology is a small world, you’re making friends and contacts as well as gaining skills.
In the winter months when there was less work I approached Josanne and Heather, two of the secretarial staff and asked them to teach me how to archive old files. There is always archiving to be done. I photocopied and scanned, I changed light-bulbs, swept up the leaves from the car park…no job to big or small for the work placement guy I told people (literally, in an email with this picture attached).
My thinking was that I didn’t want to be idle. The sight of me sat twiddling my thumbs was not the image I wished to project to my colleagues. It’s the kind of thing that makes people feel uncomfortable or worse feel sorry for you. By keeping busy and throwing myself into every job, big or small with the same level of enthusiasm I had a better time and became more accepted as one of the team. When survey season came around again this paid off with more work and more responsibility coming my way. I even got to be lead ecologist on a couple of projects after appropriate training. So mucking in doesn’t get you labelled as car park sweeper, more as a hard working team player, and that’s how you get the good jobs. As it happens sweeping the leaves up in car park was alright. A crisp November morning, headphones in, broom out. Those leaves didn’t stand a chance.
5) Stay positive
I invented a game this year. It’s called ‘Stay Positive for the Whole of Newt Season’. No one enjoys newt work more than me, but even my apparently limitless enthusiasm can be tested by a combination of bramble-rage, mosquito attack, barbed wire snaggery and pond fatigue. Happy to say I am the current reigning champion of Stay Positive for the Whole of Newt Season.
Consultancy work is great but it is tough too. It’s physically and psychologically challenging, especially if you’re used to a 9 to 5 office job like me, or you’re new to the world of full time work.
The hours are really weird. Sometimes you are up late, then in bed for just a few hours in a hotel somewhere before getting up at some peculiar hour to go and do a bat survey in the dark. The next day you feel jet lagged and bumbley.
Other times you’re wearing waders, trying to move around in a pond that smells weird and has mud on the bottom so you keep nearly falling in. Sometimes you do fall in and the weird smelling water goes in your waders and you realise you didn’t bring a spare pair of socks and have hours to go yet. Then later someone walks in on you in the pub toilet trying to dry the trousers you’re wearing with a wall mounted hand dryer…
Stay positive. This is still 100 times better than working in a call centre. Trust me, I’ve worked in a few. I’ll take a horse fly in the ear and pond water in my pants over another minute in sales or customer services any day!
A bat survey can be just a tree and no sleep if you let it, but it doesn’t have to be. Enjoy the absurdity of some of the situations you find yourself in: Moody derelict buildings; isolated meadows and ponds; wind farms; former industrial sites turned over grown brown field sites; empty city streets at dawn…
…Relish in the fact that you have a tan and your friends don’t because you’ve been outside for every nice day of the year so far. Notice the wildlife extras you get, like the hedgehog that bumbles past you on a bat survey, or the fox cub that poos on Kelly’s weather writer. Or the buzzard that dive bombs you when you get too close to her nest, and the countless toads that turn up apparently just amuse you.
Also, no one likes a misery guts. Sugar helps. Skittles are my personal choice of emergency survey pick-me-up.
6) Have an ecology bucket list
If you want to see an otter, tell people. If you want to see every species of Speedwell in the UK, tell them that too. Whatever your thing is, talk about it. It might not happen straight away but if people know you really want to do a thing then if it comes up they might just think of you. For me it was reptiles. I hadn’t seen any British reptiles a year ago. So I put it top of my list of things to do and set about emailing various people trying to see if I could get a look at an adder on their nature reserve, with no joy for ages…
But thanks to a couple of excellent reptile survey jobs I managed to be part of I’ve now not only seen adders but caught one and translocated it, an amazing experience. Not just adders either but dozens of common lizards. Grass snakes are next on the list. No luck yet but everyone knows I want to get pooed on by a grass snake so it’s only a matter of time.
7) Make notes
Sounds obvious but have a note pad on you all the time. You’ll be surrounded by people who’re really good at IDing things. When they do, ask them how they did it and when they tell you write it down. Keep your note pads and keep another note of what’s in what pad. This is a good way of wringing every bit of value out of the placement. If your experience is like mine you may be pretty skint for some of the time but if you’re gaining experience and knowledge that gets you a job one day that has a value of its own and not taking advantage of it is a waste.
Also, keep a note of all the jobs you assist on, and keep a log of all the bat experience you gain. This will be useful for future job/licence applications.
8) Make contacts
If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, set one up and add your new work colleagues to it. Do the same for any other professionals you meet while you’re on your placement. Same goes for Twitter but remember if you’re using it for anything other than ecology stuff your colleagues will see what you tweet! This way after you finish your placement and lose your work email address you wont lose touch with the people you’ve spent a year working with.
9) Repetition is good
Don’t be in a rush to try everything. Variety is good but one of the most valuable things you can gain from a sandwich year is repetition. It’s what makes you good at a thing and what means that when you put it on your CV and get asked about it in an interview one day you will talk confidently about and be able to demonstrate. Click here for more on this.
10) Work towards a licence & write reports
OK this is technically two tips in one but it keeps the list at 10 and I’m funny like that…
A class bat and/or newt licence will make you more employable. Graduating with one or both of those will put you ahead of many other graduates and a year at a consultancy is the perfect place to do it.
If you’re reading this before you start your placement, it’d be a good idea if you haven’t already to join your local bat group and local ARG (Amphibian & Reptile) group. Experience with them will give you a good foundation to build on during your sandwich year. If you don’t have time to do that before your placement starts then start while you’re on the placement with the aim to continuing to work on it after you leave.
Tell your employers and colleagues that you’re interested in working towards your licenses. This will mean they know to train you up while you’re on the job.
Something I only discovered recently as I happen to know some people who have had interviews at consultancies, is that at such interviews they may ask to see an example of a report you have contributed to. One person described it to me as being “the difference between an ecologist and a consultant”. I had thought we were all just consultant ecologists but now I think about it it makes sense. Being good at field work is really important, perhaps the most important thing, but if you can write a report too, there’s a reason for them to employ you between the surveys.
So knowing that I have recently produced my first ecological report on a project I worked on with Kelly. I emailed my first draft over to her and she returned it with a road map of tracked changes on and told me not to freak out at how much she had changed. Far from freaking out I congratulated myself on figuring out I needed to learn to do this while I still had access to people who would teach me for free!
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Inevitably every placement will be different. Even future placements at the company I worked at will probably be nothing like mine. Personally I have found it very rewarding. I’ve gained not only skills and experience with which to compete with other professionals when I graduate but perspective too over the industry I’m attempting to break in to. I know what’s good about it and I know what’s tough about it and I still want to do it.
Placements might not pay very well or at all, but the above tips have helped me capitalize on every opportunity and benefit from every bit of value I can. I hope you have found this useful and wish you the best of luck with yours.
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.
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.
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.