10 tips for making yourself super employable after your ecology degree

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…

 

  1. Self belief

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.

  1. Start now

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.

  1. Volunteer/join stuff

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.

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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.

Notice hat and gloves match. #StyleIcon #bat #hibernation survey #NorthWales

  1. Buddy up

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.

Moorhen carcus & Tom          Fleur and her new friend

  1. Seek advice 

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.

  1. Act on it

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.

  1. Do a placement

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.

  1. Work on your ID skills

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.

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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.

  1. Do extra courses

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.

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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.

#LesserSilverWaterBeetle  hunting...

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  1. Interviews

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.

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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.

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Phase 1 CAN

Final course of the 2014/15 season with the Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN).

Tom’s car going through some stuff so we traveled in it only as far as Fleur’s where we switched to her mini and bombed off to Knutsford this Sunday morning. The venue was Cottons Hotel & Spa which Tom and I in particular have come to love thanks to it’s comfy seats and complementary coffee, boiled sweets and mechanical pencils. It doesn’t get much better than that.

It seemed fitting that the final course of the season was to be lead by Rachel. In the two years I’ve been a member of CAN Rachel has been chair and events organizer, present at most of the events I’ve attended. But this was the first one I’ve been on that she’s lead and we’d been looking forward to it.

One of the good things about CAN is that you get a real mix of course types. Some are things I might not have considered investigating if there wasn’t a course running, like harvestmen or diptera. Others are full on industry specific, work skills stuff, like the GCN courses I completed in my first year which lead to me getting my newt licence.

This Phase 1 course was like that. If you know anything about ecology consultancy work you know that being able to deliver a good Phase 1 Habitat Survey is a string for your bow that’s well worth working at. I have some experience of Phase 1s. Not enough to go out and do one on my own professionally yet but enough to understand the size of task you’re facing when you decide to pursue it as a skill.

A couple of years ago I attended the FSC introduction to Phase 1 surveys, lead by Johnny Stone at Flatford Mill. That was back when I had a habit of arriving at courses convinced I would leave an expert in whatever it was on. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson after Using a Flora. Among the things I learned on the FSC course was that Phase 1s are not a set of facts to learn and then apply. It’s more like learning a language than a list of rules. And like learning a language its something that improves with practice and is best learned by learning from those already proficient in it.

So the FSC course was a start. I’ve shadowed colleagues on surveys since then and each time you learn another little trick or fact that informs your understanding of the process a little more.

This CAN course was essentially a chance to gain more tips, more advice, from someone who’s been doing them professionally for 14 years. Attending were people who were absolute beginners, experienced ecologists who conduct the surveys regularly, and people like me with a little knowledge looking for more.

We spent six hours discussing the main habitat types as featured in the ‘JNCC Handbook for Phase 1 habitat survey’ and what defines them. Things to watch out for. Things to make your life easier. The handbook is available as a pdf here: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/PDF/pub10_handbookforphase1habitatsurvey.pdf

Personally I like the bound copy which is available from the JNCC website I believe…

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I’m a fan of the Phase 1 process. I like how it enables communication about the features of large expanses of habitat. Some people don’t like the fact that the process necessitates as they see it the pigeon-holing of dynamic environments which cannot neatly defined as one thing and not another. Personally I think they’re missing the point. The Phase 1 acknowledges its flaws. It knows that habitats are dynamic and enigmatic. It is objective. You classify habitats objectively and you interpret reports objectively. The result is a level of communication between ecologists, developers and legislators that isn’t possible by other existing means.

The key to this, like so many things is not to see the learning process as having an end. There is always going to be a useful tip someone can give you to improve your method. This course provided me with loads of useful info which now adorns the margins and spaces of my handbook ready for future me to rediscover it on a rainy day in a field somewhere…

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Water Beetle ID course (CAN)

CAN Waterbeetles ID (08/14)

This was my first course of 2014, my second year as a member of the Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN). Last year was a veritable course-fest with my first starting much earlier on in the season so I’ve been looking forward to this.

I am now a licensed newt worker and spent much of the newt season knee deep in ponds across the north west, counting and identifying amphibians in the traps I’d set. Along with the newts, frogs and toads though there were almost always at least a couple of water beetles, paddling earnestly away against the sides of the trap until I returned them with an unceremonious plop back into the pond.

Many of these were impressive looking creatures, emerald greens and amber shades like living jewels, equipped with great rowing appendages so they flipped about in your hand, or zoomed about the vegetation along the water’s edge. Not a smooth zoom like a torpedo, more a lolloping zoom as each heave of their legs accelerated them forward a way.

I’d ask what they were and my colleagues would call out a suggestion, but we were there to survey newts so the identity of many of these enigmatic little chaps remained a mystery.

A couple of days before the course, Fleur messaged me asking if I could give her friend Karen a lift there. As it happens I know Karen, an example of what a small world ecology is, we’d had our brains put through the botanical mangle on FSC Using a Flora with Ros Bennett at Flatford Mill back in 2012. Fleur and Karen are both doing the Biological Recording masters at MMU and their stories about it make me want to do and not want to do it in relatively equal measure. It sounds intense!

Karen and I drove through what was left of Hurricane Bertha to Fiddlers Ferry Education Centre near Warrington, arriving fifteen minutes late due to my phone’s ever erratic behavior necessitating some improvised Google maps team work by the two of us to get there at all.MY phone is going the way of my old Furbie back in the day. Poor old Ka-Da started sleeping with his eyes open and talking nonsense.

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Our host at Fiddlers Ferry, Eamon, was running through the health and safety details of the power station as we found available seats in the classroom. Power stations are, as you can imagine very health and safety conscious. You always have to reverse park in the car parks which I guess is so you can all make a quick get away in the event of an emergency.

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Andy Harmer, CAN founder and chairman delivered the course. Andy knows his water beetles. If you google ‘water beetles’  you don’t have to look far to find his photos. The format of the day was straight forward, we worked in pairs at microscopes using ‘A Key to the Adults of British Water Beetles‘  (the key is free online!) to ID specimens, some of which were there already and others we netted out of a pond on site half way through the day.

CAN Waterbeetles ID (08/14)

You get a good mix of people at CAN courses. Familiar faces Felur and Abi were there, a few new faces I didn’t know who I took to be consultant types, and a couple of the die hard invert enthusiasts that you only see at the CAN bug based courses.

One of my favorites of these is Ralph who I’ve seen on the diptera and invert trapping days. There’s probably not much delivered on these courses that Ralph doesn’t already know but he is clearly passionate about invert ID and has probably been practicing it longer than most of us on the course have been alive. It’s encouraging to see and he’s a wealth of useful information too. I now know how to preserve specimens. You don’t, as I naively asked, just full on pickle them.

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I paired up with Ivor who like me has moved from a totally non-ecology work back ground into consultancy work, and like me hadn’t tried to ID water beetles using a key before.

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I was prepared for it to be hard. The last CAN course I did was fly ID last December which had been both inspiring but also comical in its difficulty level. It was a pleasant surprise to find water beetle ID was achievable. I’m sure it is easier than diptera ID. There are much fewer species for a start but I also get the feeling that I’m getting better at observing the diagnostics of invert ID keys on the specimens.

CAN Waterbeetles ID (08/14)

We had a few dead ends, re-starts and cries for help but by the end of the session Ivor and I had ID’d at least 5 specimens to species level. Our brains were objecting to the work out by 3pm but we weren’t broken or defeated.

I came away with what I’ve come to know as The CAN Effect. Stacey asked me how the day had been? “All I want to do now is ID water beetles” I replied.

Newt Season

My first newt season to be precise. I’d been looking forward to it…

I had completed the Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN) course the previous year which taught me Great Crested Newt (GCN) surveying and ID skills (which included ID training in all British amphibian species), and counts as one of the two references I would need in order to apply for a GCN surveying licence one day. But I hadn’t managed to get involved with any newt work before the season ended and my work placement year at an ecological consultancy began in July. I knew there would be newt work come the new season. There’s always lots of newt work said the ecologists.

Newt work has an element of mystery to it. It’s like the breakfast cereal in the advert that the dad tells his kid they wouldn’t like. Ask a newt worker what newt work is like and they’ll tell you the hours are antisocial and the ponds are smelly. There often aren’t any newts at all and you get bitten by mosquitoes they say. And the terrain is annoying to walk on, and you might fall in a pond and…oh and weil’s disease! You might get weil’s disease which in the most severe cases includes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, inability to control physical movements and uncharacteristic violent behavior. Newt work can literally turn you into a vomiting zombie bog creature.

So as I say I’d been looking forward to my first newt season because newts are cool and the worse you tell me something is the more curious I get about trying it. There are two types of people in this world. Ones to who if you say “Try this it’s disgusting” will try it and ones who wont.

Look at this hansom chap  #GreatCrestedNewt

When you actually go out and do newt work you discover that there are pleasures to it which compensate for all of the above and that those same newt workers who extolled its negatives actually rather like it while they’re doing it. I got my first taste of this on a job in Cheshire where Tom, Damien and I assisted Rebecca in several visits to a scrubby area of woodland behind an industrial site which contained a big pond and several little ponds. Our job was to establish population size using terrestrial (checking carpet tiles previously laid out by Victoria and myself on a another visit), bottle (setting bottle traps late afternoon and checking them early the following morning) and torch (surveying the water by powerful torch light after dark) survey techniques.

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Wearing waders – Waders are like having a key to a secret garden. I wish I’d had a pair as a kid. So many times while exploring in the holidays my friends and I would come across a random water body full of who knows what but unable to explore it in our trainers we’d sit on the jetty and just look out (probably for the best).

Waders bring with them a set of challenges however. A leaky wader is as distracting as a mosquito in the ear. The water pressure might mean the wader doesn’t leak until you move into shallower water then it leaks a lot and you try to hurry to a level where the hole or tear is out of the water. Hurrying in a pond is living dangerously.  When you wear waders a lot you get used to them and if you suddenly switch back to wellies you might go marching into a pond up to the knee without thinking about it.

Water Vole surveying

On my first visit to the Cheshire site I discovered the weird world of pond legs. You tentatively try the submerged and obscured ground beneath the water in front of you one foot at a time, like an animal learning to walk. Your arms stick out reflexively in different directions for balance. As you move around your confidence increases and you move faster but then your back foot gets a little stuck causing you to lose balance and your legs suddenly cross themselves in a way that might help, on land. Pond work means you experience that strange other side of yourself that takes over control of your body when you stumble and keeps you upright with a flurry of jerky movements and “wuoOo-uh!” sounds regularly. Most times it works a treat and I’m often reminded of when a flight attendant told me that plains “want to stay in the air”.

#GreatCrestedNewt #GCN #Newt #Cheshire

A right smoothy...

I also discovered the perils of the false floor. You put your foot on it and press down. Feels like the floor so you put your whole weight on it and it suddenly drops, submerging your leg to above the rim of your wader. Water floods in as you sluggishly heave the now very heavy leg out of the pond. I called over to Rebecca and Damien before emptying a pint of pond out of my wader. May as well share the moment I thought. That was unfortunately only 15 minutes into the first pond so I had a wet leg, foot and sock not only for the survey but also during dinner in a local pub. When a member of the public observed me attempting to dry my trouser leg with the wall mounted hand dryer in the toilets I didn’t even bother trying to explain what I was doing.

The traps – Bottle traps if you don’t know are made from clear 2 liter plastic bottles which have been modified so that when a newt gets in it can’t get out. This is less to do with the complexity of the trap and more to do with a newt’s inclination to search for an exit around the side of the trap rather than in the middle. The skill with trapping, which necessitates training and support, is setting the trap such that it contains enough air for the newt to survive. Trap design varies so different techniques may be needed for different traps but for all of them, no air at all and the newt will not last the night and you do not want to find a dead newt in your trap.

It's a trap!

(these are alive by the way)

Another skill to learn is to carry many traps at once. Too few and you have to make repeat journeys to your kit pile. Two many and you become clumsy. I could be imagining it but I’m sure I have stronger fingers now than I did at the beginning of the season. Newt workers hands. I imagine I’d be good at rock climbing now.

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Most important when it comes to traps is your ability to remember where you set them and find them the next day. This doesn’t sound like it should be difficult and with a few simple techniques it is always possible but when you’re setting traps in water deep enough that only a foot or so of your cane is exposed and there are horsetails and various other vegetation obscuring your view you encounter a variety of problems. For example what you could see from a certain angle the night before may be invisible from the slightly different angle the next day. For this and other reasons I have learned that it is not unusual to collect your traps in, count them, and discover you are one short. With so many other variables to consider from balance to wildfowl it is inevitable and that’s why you keep good notes as to how many you have put in, and count carefully how many you have taken out. If you come up short, you retrace your steps and find the one you have left behind.

You never leave without bringing all your traps in. The traps are simple in design but they work. If a newt gets in, it can’t get out. And once in, it attracts other newts, especially if it’s female. That’s why one trap may have none in, and the next, 2 meters away might have 10 in. If you leave the trap in the pond the newts will keep coming and they’ll all die in there. Being too proud to admit you’ve lost a trap would be a very bad quality in a newt worker. If the trap is there, it can be found, you just have to keep looking.

Newt-fest #GreatCrestedNewt #GCN

The other pond life – One of the things I like most about consultancy work is that as well as the species you are there to study you invariably see a host of other creatures too. On bat surveys you see foxes and hedgehogs, on badger surveys you see birds deer.

On newt surveys you see frogs and toads. Frogs are fun, you find them in the traps sometimes. They must have invested some effort to squeeze themselves into the trap only to find themselves stuck. Upon releasing them you have little chance of getting them in the hand, they hop skillfully through your fingers and into the pond where they plop and vanish. Toads I like even more. Their tactic is just to sit in your hand and wait until you get bored and do the plopping for them. Both species go about their business in the ponds as though you aren’t there, or they don’t care that you’re there. As you scan your torch across the surface you sometimes see a toad lounging casually half out of the water on a floating reed stem.

Sexy toad

Then there are the diving beetles. Emerald giants the size of an old 50p but a smooth lozenge shape paddle around the vegetation or rattle in your trap as you empty it.  And the larvae, nightmarish mini monsters, one day to be dragons thrash in the traps. They make me think of that old TV show Land of Giants where people find themselves the size of a key ring and spend an entire episode trying to get away from a cat or off a kitchen table. Dragon fly larvae would have made a great beast if they’d ever found themselves adrift on a pond.

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The peace and quiet – When the traps are in and you’re back doing your torch survey, the sun has gone down and there’s just you slushing carefully through the reeds towards the open water, or along the bank. Maybe it’s spotting with rain but you’ve got waterproofs on and your hood up, torch in hand. The occasional rusting of a coot and the sound of you in the water and your colleagues near by. Your own torch lighting up the water in front of you and one or two others in the distance around the pond. Peace and quiet. Even after a hard, long afternoon of setting traps out, people don’t mind heading back out into the field in the dark because it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the work.

The newts -My first proper newt survey began with frogs and toads as we set out the traps. If the water is clear you see them sat on the floor of the pond, minding their own business. The cloud of silt stirred by your feet washes over them like a macabre aquatic dust cloud, like those created by a fallen building. They don’t move so you must remember where they were and avoid the spot with your feet as you move on.

It was later on the torch survey that I saw the newts, my first glimpse since the CAN course a year prior. The flash of a tail in your peripheral vision like a waved ribbon disappears into the silt as your eyes snap over to it. Another just missed flurry of action and another…then your eyes scan over a shape on the floor and something in your brain sends them back for a second look. Amid the many slender willow leaves, dark and decomposing on the pond floor is a willow leaf with legs. On closer inspection it’s no leaf, and has a rounded head at one end. You shine your torch on it and it remains dead still. You waggle your torch beam back and forth over it and tickle the beast into action, an energy packed split second sends it off like a kite tail in a gale, off into the silt or vegetation. You make a mental note.

If there are many newts on your torch survey you might keep a check score on a note pad of species and gender, or if you have a good memory you might keep track in your head. Someone recently told me their trick for keeping track of having female and males either side of a decimal point. So 24 female GCN, 5 male GCN, 14 female smooth and 19 male smooth would be 24.5, 14.19.

The next morning I discovered the pleasure of checking your traps. Finding newts in the trap you’ve set is good for two reasons: you know you did a good job setting it; and you get to see a newt close up. Newts are awesome! They’re exotic looking and they don’t try very hard to get away from you until you put them back into the water. If you have one in your hand you can look right into their eyes and wonder what on earth you look like to them. Then they clamber over your fingers like a monster in one of those old movies where they filmed tortoises close up to make them look giant.

#Monster

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Newts are like watching Malcolm in the Middle. My favourite changes depending on who I’m looking at. A big male GCN in the water with their crest visible, a big female GCN in the hand, a female smooth creeping through the vegetation or a male smooth close up, they’re all such impressive beasts and after seeing hundreds this season I’m not bored yet. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of several newt projects, some with more newts than others. It’s great when there’re lots, but when there are few you get even more excited finding the odd one in a trap after several ponds or traps with none.

I’ve put in for my licence now so will hopefully soon be a licenced newt worker. I’ve loved my first newt season and look forward to doing it all again next year. With the new eDNA technique being trialled this year it’ll be interesting to see how newt work evolves. I was lucky enough to get to try the sampling process recently. I’ve heard some say that this will be the last newt season as we know it. It certainly has the potential to change the industry but I suspect there will still be need for newt workers to trek through long grass with arm fulls of canes and traps for some time yet.

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I was on a bat survey with Helen the other day. We were walking though a field in Staffordshire on a transect survey when Helen suddenly exclaimed: “Hello! What are you doing here!”. There was a large, female GCN romping through the grass in front of us.

Repetition, repetition, repetition…

How to get good at ecology by poking badger poo with a stick.

Recently I’ve taken part in a badger based project which necessitated the repeat inspection of 40 badger latrines found within an area of farmland. Prior to this I have had some badger experience including a course on badger set monitoring and badger law, and badger survey sections within wider habitat surveys I have taken part in. So I knew the techniques and signs to look out for but this experience was sporadic.

A few years ago I was talking to an ecologist friend of mine, Richard, who I had met through my uni’s Mentor Match programme, about what I should look for in a work placement. He said I should try and find something really repetitive, doing the same thing over and over again. I remember thinking this sounded like strange advice. Surely he was supposed to tell me to get as much experience in as many things as possible? No. Repetition was his advice. That, he said, was how to get good at something, and then you can tell people you can do it and it’ll be true.

Last year I was on an FSC course at Flatford Mill, (Introduction to Phase 1 Habitat Surveys). I got chatting to a girl on the same course one evening about her experiences in ecology. She told me about a very boring job she’d once had to do which amounted to knocking on doors in a small town and asking to have a look in people’s garden ponds to see if any newts had laid eggs there. She surveyed over 500 ponds in total she told me, and it was so boring. I bet you’re dead good at finding newt eggs now, I said. Oh yes, she said. I can tell if there’ll be newt eggs in a pond almost straight away.

So I’ve spent several days recently on this badger project. I’ve worked two weekends on the trot. Walking around my set route (around 8 miles in a day) checking badger latrines (pits they dig away from their sett entrance to do their badger business in) for badger poo. In this time I have seen countless badger trails, many badger claw marks and foot prints, set entrances and spoil heaps, snagged hairs on fences, and more badger poo than most people will see in a life time, which I have hunkered down next to and poked with a stick scientifically.

There be #badgers

#jackpot

On a CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists) course on invert trapping a while ago someone introduced me to the concept of Target Vision. This is where your brain is looking for one thing in particular within the environment you’re in so everything else gets semi-ignored. I had this while Stacey and I were out on my Wider Butterfly Survey for Butterfly Conservation last year. I was looking for butterflies and she was looking for blackberries. By the end of the afternoon I couldn’t stop noticing butterflies and she couldn’t walk more than a few steps without zoning in on a juicy blackberry. Well now my badger poo target vision has been turned up to 11.

Not only can I spot it but I can age it with some confidence having seen the same poos sometimes for four days in a row.

How helpful for the humble badger to have such a toilet routine. You learn a lot about an animal by poking its poo with a stick. You can tell the ones that have eaten nothing by worms and the ones who’ve been munching down nuts and seeds for a start.

#work

So while the pursuit of badger turds may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, I am very grateful for it. It is one thing learning the signs on paper but it’s been the repetitive experience which means I am now significantly more confident at my badger surveying skills. Repetition! That’s the key.

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I hope you enjoyed this blog. I’m an enthusiastic naturalist who blogs on all things ecology from badger poo to botany. I currently work for an ecological consultancy on a years work placement and will go back to uni at Manchester Metropolitan University for my 3rd year this September. Comments this or other blog entries or just experience sharing are always welcome.

Bird Ringing CAN course

Back to Norton Priory, this time for the CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists) bird ringing course with bird-ringing legend David Norman.

Norton Priory in Runcorn is becoming quite familiar to me now. I was there not long ago for the CAN Diptera course which if you’ve read my blog on you’ll know I loved. And I’ve been there one other time too…

Fleur and I were out checking small-mammal traps with Tony of the mammal group, accompanied by Paul who works at Norton Priory. On that day along with a successful haul of field mice, I met an enigmatic character emerging from some trees in the Priory grounds as Paul was giving us a tour. This chap produced a long-tailed tit from the bag he was carrying. I was captivated. I’d never seen a wild bird that close up before. I then had my mind blown when he reached into the bag and gently produced several more long-tailed tits which flew off as he opened his hand. Quite the spectacle to someone like me who has very little birding experience.

As you’ve probably guessed that was David. I didn’t know it at the time but he’s a very well know member of the birding community in various forms from author to ringer. On Friday I was getting a coffee in the staff room and mentioned to Chloe what I was doing on the weekend. That’ll probably be David Norman, she said. And it was.

When Tom and I arrived on Sunday, slightly late, we joined the group of twenty or so other attendees plus Andy, CAN Chairman, in more or less the same spot that I had met David coming out of the trees that time.

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The course wasn’t teaching us to bird ring as that’s a very long process of apprenticeship. It was a demonstration of the process and a chance to hold and release a bird which had been ringed and an introduction by David to the process, history and conservation benefits of studying wild birds in this country. David has ringed over 100,000 birds.

We were treated to close up views of an array of birds. Goldcrests, long-tailed tits, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds, chaffinches, robins, redwings and jays all made an appearance. As someone who hasn’t done any work to do with birds and has limited, garden bird knowledge the thing that struck and enthused me was the nature of a bird in the hand. When you’re used to seeing birds sat in trees or flying you see only a limited aspect of their personalities and that can lead you to view them as rather simple characters.

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(Goldcrest)

With the sight of a small bird held safely in the ringer’s grip, boldly pecking and biting at a finger before apparently deciding to wait and see what happens next, you realise that these are robust creatures that experience trials and adventures every day of their lives. They are primed to face adversity and they fly off in a flurry of what seems more like victory than panic. I’m  anthropomorphising I know. I’ll stop now.

I was first to hold a bird. There’s that moment when the question is asked, would someone like to release this one? You all want to. You wait and see if anyone else volunteers. They don’t. You pluck up to courage and say out loud “me” but everyone else has been running through the same process in their heads and three of you say it within a second of one another. 

I was carefully handed a male redwing. Instinct tells you to place a hand underneath to support the bird but David instructed not to do that so as to avoid crushing the bird’s tail. Its head goes between your index and middle finger with your remaining fingers wrapping around the body. It feels secure this way and it’s reassuringly easy to judge the pressure you need to apply. When handling mammals I’m forever applying too little pressure through over caution, resulting in wriggle-based control problems. Thankfully not so with the redwing in my hand. I held it for a just moment before opening my hand enjoying the split second of action before it was off and away.

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(Redwing in David’s hand)

It was an excellent course and we were also treated to tour of the grounds with Paul and a visit to the bone collection from the sites archaeological dig.

Something that really struck me from the day was David’s answer to a question about how long birds like these were likely to live. He pointed out that the longer they live, the longer they are likely to live with the first year being perilous as young, inexperienced birds face life’s trails for the first time. So some birds may live years but with so many dying in the first few months, an average life expectancy could be described in weeks rather than years.

If I were to anthropomorphise once more I’d say it looks exciting to be a bird. They’re ready and equipped to face whatever weird thing happens to them next, and when Tom dropped me off later I viewed the sparrows in the tree of a neighbour’s garden with an enhanced curiosity.

[Thanks to CAN for the use of their photos for this blog]

Buzzin.

Another day course with CAN (Cheshire Active Naturalists). This weekend was the Diptera Workshop held at Norton Priory Museum.

As the year has gone on, the time since I booked onto my CAN courses has increased. It’s a little different anticipating a diptera workshop a few days away than it is booking onto one along with a load of other ecology courses. People ask you what you’re doing on the weekend and you say: “On  Saturday I’m going to a course to learn to identify flies”. They look at you like you are a fly.

I suppose you can’t blame them. Flies are kinda gross. Someone suggested to me once that we’re predisposed to dislike flies because they spread disease so we find them naturally repellent. I’ve no idea if that’s true.

None the less I found myself rather looking forward to this course. I got really into harvestmen after that CAN course. But like flowers to a botanist now all the harvestmen have died off and I have nothing to play with. But you can generally rely on there being a fly somewhere. Not only that but unlike everything else you can get into in the natural world, flies come to you. Sit there long enough and a fly will find you and land on you. Or whatever you’re eating.

I picked Tom (who I’ll refer to as Tom S for reasons which will become clear) up and drove us from Manchester to Runcorn on Saturday morning. He was hungover and relieved to hear that the whole course was to be indoors (though would later come to regret the excessive layers he had worn in anticipation of a day outside). Either Tom S or Fleur have driven on the other CAN courses I’ve been on so it was good to be able to return the favor. We arrived on time into a full classroom of around 15 people sat around a ring of desks packed with microscopes, lights and tools. I recognized several of the people there. There’s obviously a bit of an invert gang as I’d seen them on the invert trapping course and none others. They’re magnificently geeky and I mean that as a compliment. These guys really know their invertebrates.

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Rachel and Andy, the founders of CAN, were both there and the course was lead by Tom Mawdsley (who I’ll just call Tom) who has clearly spent many years refining his fly-D skills and is very good at it. Thing is, it’s not really enough just being good at something like flies. As it turns out fly ID is really hard and you could be easily put off it as soon as you start it, but Tom has a way of appearing not to take the subject too seriously. A kind of shrugging “may as way learn to ID flies” manor that puts you at ease as you take your first uncertain steps down the microscope lens, and means you don’t notice how horrifically hard it is until you’re already hooked.

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I LOVE flies now. Not ‘love’ love obviously. More a kind of ‘I want to kill you and pin you to a piece of plastazote and keep you forever’ kind of love. I heard Erica McAlister on Radio 4 once talking about how beautiful flies are. I thought it was cool that she thought that but I couldn’t imagine what she meant. I made a mental note to find out one day though and on Saturday looking at flies under a microscope I saw it. You expect the eyes to look impressive and they do but the colours were what really got me. Golden hairs on grotesquely beautiful faces like alien re-imaginings of Egyptian myths. I’ve spend some time looking at aquatic inverts but to me they have none of the charisma of true flies. You can’t see it in any of my pictures. You have to have a good look down a microscope.

Fun with flies

When we first arrived we got a coffee and sat down and as Tom was introducing himself a fly landed on his finger. This gave him the appearance to me of some kind of fly whisperer. Turns out it was just a very dopey fly. It later committed suicide in  Tom S’ coffee.

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Tom S and I spent the 5ish hours of the course working our way through the key provided on the course, identifying samples of what must have been hundreds of specimens Tom has collected over the years. I only noticed afterwards that the date of one of the specimens I had photographed was 1988. We asked a lot of questions. We ID maybe 5 flies to at least family, some species. As with any fiddly IDing, having someone to show you when something is what you think it is and when it is in fact the opposite of that even though it very much looks like it is, is vital to get you off to a good start. A transverse sutre may not look like is isn’t viable in the middle, but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘not visible’.

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upload(Lidya suggested the inclusion of the coin as she has small hands so the scale might not be obvious!)

This was in such contrast to the harvestmen course which I had also enjoyed so much. Twenty-nine UK species of harvestmen, most of which are quite distinctive with a hand lens. There are nearly 7000 fly species in the UK and many are distinctive only by the positioning of a hair! One of the things I like most about natural history is that it seems to create these wonderfully obsessive characters who have taken the time to figure all this stuff out. I worry that they are a dying breed.

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Tom very kindly gave me one of his pooters (a fly catching device). I’m sure he didn’t think too much about it but I was well chuffed and left full of enthusiasm to pursue this. In the 24 hours that followed Tom S bought a microscope having been equally enthused by the day. I could do with a microscope. One of the pieces of advice on the day was to visit the Dipterists Forum for help with all things fly. I popped on and picked their brains about microscopes. I think I’m going to have to save up. I have access to microscopes at both my works, uni and now Tom S’ house to no point in buying something cheap and useless now.

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I have used my pooter though. As you wander round your house in December, pooter in hand, hunting out any unlucky flies that might still be about you can’t help wonder when exactly you turned into such a weirdo?

My first #pooter