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.
I’ve heard people refer to Lake Vyrnwy several times since I started my placement here but I’ve never heard of Lake Vyrnwy outside of work so all I knew about it was the information contained in overheard conversations in the office:
So I was surprised when upon telling my mother on the phone where I’d be going the next day she said she’d been there with my step-dad to stay.
I met Damien at MacDonalds in Stockport at 7am. It’s a convenient meeting place as it has a car park and is situated on the A6 which leads from Buxton to everywhere north of Buxton. He arrived in the huge four-wheel drive which I’ve seen in the work car park. You could fit the hire cars I’m used to traveling to surveys in, in it’s glove box.
Damien is one of the main GIS people at work. I picked his brains about GIS and his career so far as we crossed country to Wales, stopping at a Spar shop famed for it’s generous cake portions. I bought a slab of flapjack for £1.30 and we set off to check and empty the 8 auto-sampler machines dotted around Lake Vyrnwy at various tributaries.
When I caught my first glimpse of the lake my eyes widened, both because it’s very beautiful and because it’s so big. Not just the lake but the trees and surrounding hills. It reminded me of a holiday I had in the Wye Valley as a kid. I remember thinking this must be what America is like because the landscape looked wild and big and exotic. But the stone dam dispels any fantasies of America.
Like the landscape it’s big. Victorian big. It looks like the wall of an ancient city. In the distance on the other side of the lake I could see a tower that wouldn’t have looked out of place on top of Hogwarts.
The routine at each stop was the same:
Locate, empty and reset the auto-sampler. This is a device which looks like a legless R2D2 and contains a months worth of bottles, a pump and a computer. You open it up, empty the water samples into sample jars, reset the computer to take the next months samples and put it all back together again.
Locate the stilling well and download the data. This is essentially a scaffold pole somewhere near R2D2 with a locked lid. Inside is a connection for your laptop at the top and a sensor on a wire hanging under it, down the pole, measuring among other things the rise and fall in water level.
Damien showed me the whole process for the first couple of stops but for the rest we split the task with me emptying the autosampler while he downloaded the stilling well data and returned to watch me reset the computer. This way we were able to move through each site quickly and efficiently (and I wasn’t left with any niggling doubts that I hadn’t reset the computer properly).
The only breaks from this routine were a lunch break at a picnic spot…
… and our ramble onto the moorland to collect a spectrolizer. This involved a rollercoaster offroad bounce along a dirt track followed by a twenty minute walk in the warm afternoon sun to where the spectrolizer was screwed to a rock, measuring the colour of the water.
Walking there was as fun as any walk in the British countryside. Walking back was more like the time I bought a TV from Argos in the Arndale Centre and tried to carry it to the bus stop on Oxford road. The equipment is very heavy and an awkward shape. We both had protesting backs and arms by the time we made it back to the car.
We finished the 8th and headed across the dam and away. Back in the car the tiredness hit me but I made sure I didn’t nod off. We’d been very lucky with the mosquitoes apparently. It’d been a beautiful day and I have to say I’m keen to go back soon, whether that be with work or just a weekend away, such a nice place.
Back at work the samples will be tested and the data, along with the data downloaded from the other equipment will be used as part of an ongoing project to do with the colouration of drinking water.
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’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.