*Photo courtesy of Andy Harmer
*Photo courtesy of Andy Harmer
I met up with Andy & Roy at Andy’s girlfriends house back in November 2019. We talked about their careers in ecology as well as their extensive extracurricular ecological exploits including Andy and Rachel Hacking’s now legendary Cheshire Active Naturalists (CAN) group. But the main thing I wanted to talk to them about was their current project, Cheshire Mustelidae: Coordinating the recording of mustelids in Cheshire, and sharing sightings, photos etc.
They say trying to see a stoat or weasel is like going out to find a rainbow, virtually impossible. So this project means cunning, stealth and ingenuity. To find the stoat you must become the stoat! So how do they do it?
*Photo courtesy of Paul Quigley (@iggyquiggy)
Long time no blog 🙂
I’ve made a podcast called ‘Ecology – Tales from the Field’. You can find it on the usual podcast apps and directories. Basically it’s me and my mate Fleur chatting to interesting people in the field of ecology and conservation. If you’re ‘into nature’ you should check it out. I think there’s something in this first series for everyone.
Episode 1 is out now. I’ll be adding a new episode every week for the next 6 weeks…
Epidode 1: Noell Leather, Volunteer Reserve Manager at Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Summerseat Nature Reserve.
Fleur and I met up with Noell who took on the management of Summerseat Nature Reserve over 40 years ago. The conversation covers what the Wildlife Trust was like back then and the joys and challenges of having your own nature reserve to manage.
More on vegetative plant identification. A useful stumbling block…
Attempt #3. Great Willowherb.
Keying out a dandelion and petty spurge using The Vegetative Key to the British Flora been reassuringly straight forward. I was feeling confident (cocky), so when I saw this growing in a wet ditch while out on a job I thought I’d have a bash at it…
That picture doesn’t show it very well but it was growing out of a water body. I had it in my mind that it was therefore going to be an aquatic plant. I don’t know my aquatic macrophytes very well so for all I knew it could be a young bog bean, marsh marigold etc.
The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):
Here is where I knew I’d gone wrong. I spent some time trying to convince myself that that the leaves could be described as lanceolate to ovate but they just aren’t! They are obovate if anything. I was seduced by the weakly toothed bit making it hard to let it go. You brain likes to latch on to a bit that works in a plant description making you blind to all the other bits that don’t.
So there’s lesson one: Don’t ignore the descriptive elements you don’t like. If it’s wrong it’s wrong.
Next it all kinda fell apart as these things sometimes do when you get stuck. I misread an early line of text and convinced myself I should have answered yes to:
Lesson two: Always read the key carefully and make sure you’ve understood it before moving on.
I started again and after a while trying and failing I admitted defeat and asked Miranda what it was. She took one look at it and said: “It’s great willowherb”. My heart sank. Oh yeah, I thought. “But it was growing in water” I said. “Yeah it often does” she said. “Oh”. I set about reverse engineering the key so I could see the route I should have taken.
It seemed to me that I would have needed a stem to use The Vegetative Key. I had another go using a young willowherb growing in my garden and again became stuck without a stem…
I consulted my favorite social media resources to check I was right. The BSBI on Twitter, and the ever obliging folk of Facebook’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland group confirmed my suspicions. I asked Sarah whether she had any advice on getting further than ‘willowherb sp’ with plants this size. Her advice was: “I’d walk on by…willow herbs are a really tough group, they also hybridise, and doing them vegetatively is tough enough without doing rosettes.”
Lesson three: You need a stem to identify willowherbs using The Vegetative Key.
The next day I was working in North Wales. I’d been rummaging around in some woods and was on my way back to the van, parked in a lay-by on a country road. I looked into the roadside ditch as I walked along and saw lots of young great willowherb (Epilobium palustre) growing there…
Lesson four: Mistakes and failures can be every bit as useful as simple successes.
It took more than the key on its own to get there but knowing a species at every stage of it growth is so useful.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found it useful or at least reassuring. Onward and upwards! More to follow…
Getting to grips with vegetative plant identification.
This is The Vegetative Key to the British Flora by John Poland & Eric Clement:
It’s a magic book that gives you the power to identify British plants in their vegetative state (no flowers) but leaves some of us mysteriously reluctant to use it.
I first heard of the book while doing a course in 2012. I was still getting my head around floral keys generally and the idea of vegetative ID was new to me. Someone asked Ros Bennett to recommend a vegetative key and she recommended Poland. She said it was good and that John Poland was younger than you’d imagine.
I went away and bought it with my usual good intentions, but as time went on and I began to gain a better understanding about how hard identifying plants with flowers was, the idea of attempting to ID them without got shelved along with bryophytes, diptera, Spanish and the ukulele.
Thing is, I knew it wasn’t going to be as hard as those. I had my copy with me when I attended an MMU day course in Shrewsbury, and Mark Duffel talked me through IDing something with it. The key is ever so slightly different to the usual dichotomous floras. It’s polychotomous with sometimes several options to choose from rather than the usual two. Mark drew a few lines in pencil on the opening key to major divisions and I got it…
The polychotomous thing really isn’t a big deal but it can be enough to put you off trying when you aren’t confident. So now I understood how it worked but I continued to procrastinate over veg ID. Four years after purchasing the key it still looked annoyingly new.
Well now I’ve given myself a project to do. As mentioned in my last couple of blogs I’m having a crack at producing a complete flora of the walls, gutters and random green places of Gorse Hill, where I live. Vegetative ID will be really useful to the project so I’m pulling my finger out and finally doing what I should have done all along and just use it so it.
I’m going to talk you though my practice attempts, where I went wrong, what I figured out etc, in the hope that it illustrates how good this key is and encourages a few people like me to get their copy out and have a go too.
Attempt #1. Dandelion.
I went into my back yard with the intention of IDing the first thing I saw. It’s a dandelion I thought. Let’s find out…
The key took me through the following features (my descriptions below are not always direct quotes from the key):
A good start. It didn’t take long. Next step will be to try something less familiar. Update to follow…
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been a member of Plant Life for a few years now but despite my best intentions have not submitted records to their National Plant Monitoring Scheme in the past. I was determined to do better this year…
Over the past few months I’ve moved my transects for the BTO WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey), BCT National Bat Monitoring Programme and Plant Life Wild Flower Count to the same patch, a kilometre of footpath along the banks of the river Mersey in Didsbury, a short journey from my home in Rusholme.
So far this has worked a treat. When I’ve been out on my WeBS surveys I’ve also recorded any non wetland birds, flowering plants and butterflies I’ve seen and am beginning to build up a satisfying spreadsheet of my own records which I will use to inform my various wildlife organisation transect surveys and submit to my local records centre (GMRC). And there’s just something nice about having your own records, data you collected. I was enthused and inspired by the recent Biological Recording Conference I attended in Manchester and have been building my data stash ever since.
Today I took advantage of the beautiful June weather and headed out to my patch, accompanied by my glamorous assistant/wife Stacey who despite claiming to have no botanical knowledge (she’s more at home with a sewing machine than a hand lens, here’s her blog: http://staceystitch.com/) is slowing absorbing ID skills and exclaims triumphantly whenever she gets something right. Though she does have a habit of guessing Green Alkanet at everything first. One day it will be!
By the end of our walk we had a list of 30+ plants and several birds and inverts. Not bad…
Sawfly gall (Pontania proxima). Thanks to @savrevert on Twitter for the ID help
A tasty looking Marmalade Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) on Wood Avens
Not great on my ladybirds. ID welcome?
Dame’s Violet (Hesperis matronalis). New to me, it has popped up all along the riverbank. Some white, some violet. Most with much bigger racemes than the above photos.
Yet to be ID’d. Need to pop back and have a look at the leaves.
Wood Avens (Geum urbanum) seeds
Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Dame’s Violet (both colour variations) and Hogweed flowers visible in foreground
Common Bistort (Polygonum persicaria)
A very fresh, glistening ladybird with faint spots. Presumably not long emerged?
I took my new Opticron 8×32 T3 Trailfinder Binoculars out for the first time having treated myself to them recently. Unsurprisingly useful for the birds with great views of swifts and some nesting grey herons, but also great for botany with confirmed IDs of some species on the opposite riverbank using them which were not possible by eye alone.
Then home to blog about it and update my records spreadsheet. A really pleasant morning recording. I’m a little wiser and browner, the mark of an excellent Sunday.
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.