Have you ever seen an adder?

My experience of British reptiles consisted until recently of the following two incidents:

In 1986 William brought a slowworm into school to show the class. We were 6 years old. He said his parents had found it in their shop, a news agent in the centre of Weston-super-Mare. Now I come to think of it that sounds unlikely but it was a slowworm in a box and I can vaguely remember looking at it.

In 1989 we were walking our dog Heidi in the amusingly named Velvet Bottom in the South West. I was off exploring and happened upon what I believe was a basking adder. I glimpsed it for a second before fleeing in a burst of adrenalin and terror, sure that the beast was pursuing me with malicious intent. I have a vivid imagination. It’s a gift and a curse.

So really I haven’t seen any British reptiles. Not properly. I think you need a clear memory for it to count. The adder of Velvet Bottom was inflated in my memory to the size of a python and the character of a fairy tale wolf (informed probably in part by the adder from The Animals of Farthing Wood).

Adder Farthing Wood

Skip forward 20+ years and grown up me is a budding ecologist who’d really like to see an adder. Would really like to see all of our native reptiles, but the adder is for whatever reason the golden snitch of our reptiles and the one who I set my efforts upon catching a glimpse of.

I emailed a few nature reserves which I’d read had adders and was advised that yes they were known to be present and potentially I could see them there sometimes maybe but nothing came of it and for a time I abandoned the search.

I’ve been on my placement now for over 8 months and in that time I have often heard people talking about work on a site in Canvey Island. Most of the talk revolved around the long stays and caravan park accommodation. It didn’t sound like much fun. Then came my turn to assist on a set of newt surveys at our site there. I was to drive down with Rebecca on a Wednesday and return on the Friday.

By this time I had discovered that I like newt surveys and so wasn’t dreading it, especially as the accommodation was a hotel not a caravan these days. Then a couple of days before we left Rebecca mentioned in passing that the visit also included reptile surveys. “Will I see an adder?” I immediately asked. “Yes probably” she replied, as though I had asked if the hotel had windows. There would most likely be adders and common lizards on the site I was told. Two potential reptile firsts! I got very excited and told everyone so. Colleagues, friends, family, Facebook, Twitter… ”I really hope I see an adder tomorrow”.

We arrived in Canvey in time to set out our newt traps. We would complete a reptile survey the following day. That night the last thing I thought before I fell asleep was that I really hoped I saw an adder. Next day we were up early and back on site collecting in our newt traps. The sun was out and the temperature increasing fast. Rebecca speculated that the perfect conditions for adders may be past by the time we finish with the newts and moved on to the reptiles. I bet I don’t see an adder, I thought.

We began our reptile survey mid-morning. It involved looking on and under the many roof-felt tiles already distributed through the site which provide a warm place for reptiles to raise their body temperature and hide from predators ready for a day of reptilian shenanigans. The first tile I turned over had a male and a female common lizard under it.

My first common #lizard :)

I met a guy on a fungus ID course once who told me common lizards were his main interest. How common are common lizards? I asked him. There are probably some in that hedge, he said, pointing at the hedge we were walking alongside. He said if I was ever at a rural train station on a warm spring morning I should look at the stones between the tracks and I might see a common lizard.

I’ve been staring at stones between tracks at rural train stations on warm spring mornings whenever I’ve had the opportunity since but never seen a common lizard. What excellent little creatures. ‘Slinky’ was the word that came immediately to mind. And ‘fluid’. They seem to pour across the ground as much as run.

As the survey went on I saw more and more common lizards. I probably saw in excess of my first 20 common lizards. And that was great…but no adders. I came to terms with it. Getting your first look at things takes persistence and there would be other opportunities. I had now seen common lizards and that was great. I’d seen my first 3 watervoles the night before too so I had already had an excellent set of experiences. Then I lifted a sheet of corrugated iron and saw an adder.

My brain did that thing it does when it sees things for first time and tried to tell me it was something else. The adder was coiled up and obscured in part by grass. My brain tried to convince me it was bit of cloth. I pointed it out to Rebecca. “I hope you get to see another one” she said, “that’s a rubbish view of an adder”. I said I was happy I’d seen one at least. “No you can hardly see it” she said, “you can’t see its head”, not catching on that I was attempting to convince myself that I had achieved my goal…

Less than a minute after replacing the sheet of iron Rebecca swore loudly and called me over to where she was surveying. She had just stopped mid stride as an adder was passing under the spot where her boot was about to be placed. She and the adder had frozen in their tracks. This was a perfect view of an adder. This was what I hoped seeing an adder would be like. I managed to take a couple of photos and have a good look at her before she slithered away.

I saw an #adder !

#adder #Essex

Adders are smaller than I expected but more charismatic. What a face! What they lack in size they make up for in dangerous looks. Those red eyes, like the red eye of Sauron! I felt great. Like when you get the thing you wanted for Christmas. Boglin-great.

The next day we saw the one under the iron sheet again and this time we saw her beautevil red eyes too…

Female #adder

Back in the office Pete, whose project it is, told me there are certain reliable places to see adders. “But you’ve seen one now so I don’t suppose you need to know” he said. I said yes I did and that I wanted to see more adders! Pete emailed me a map which had the letter A and an arrow drawn on it pointing to a surprisingly specific area of heather in Derbyshire. Here are some photos of the adders Stacey and I saw there. Stacey was as excited to see her first adders there as I had been in Canvey…

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I’ve seen four adders now. I don’t imagine I’ll ever get bored of seeing them. A snake going about its business in the British countryside is a captivating and majestic site indeed.

Now can anyone recommend a good place to see grass snakes?

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Bat hibernation survey – Pooles Cavern

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…

Natterers Bat Andy Keen

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 ears
Ears too short for Natterer’s
Ears 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 pinky
Fur – medium shagginess, Natterer’s would be smoother
Greyish 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 wrist
No white crescent of fur behind the ears
No reddish forearm (although it is in shadow, I can see its brown, but not dark enough for W/B)
As I write this I notice that the three/four species in question are lined up on the BCT poster by my desk. A reminder that bat ID isn’t supposed to be easy…

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…but that’s part of the fun.

Ratty & Batty (Placement days 8, 9 & 10)

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.

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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…

Phragmites

Reed Canary Grass

Woody Nightshade

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.

Water Vole surveying

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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.

Cole food pile

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.

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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.

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Green veined white

Water bunting

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Creature of the Wheel (Placement days 6 & 7)

Glorious sunshine spread like honey out of the weekend and into the second week of my work placement. Manchester Piccadilly had a bright and cheerful atmosphere as I caught my train to Buxton, looking forward to my first bat survey with Penny Anderson Associates.

Another sunny start to my second week on my placement...

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.

Back at work Helen gave me a crash course on using Analook sound analysis software. There was a short test at the end which I did well on making us both pleased with ourselves for our respective teaching and learning skills.At half 4 I climbed in the back of the car and set off to Liverpool with Helen, Kelly and Paul. The journey there painted a beautiful picture of the Peak District national park which Buxton is situated in. Our hotel was on Albert Dock which shone in the afternoon sun, surely the best skyline in the north west. I had fish and chips for tea. So far I was thoroughly enjoying being an ecologist.

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.

omegaUnlike 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.

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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.

No bats. We headed back to the hotel and said our good nights. I set my alarm for 3am. I woke up convinced I’d slept through it but checking my phone in the dark it was only half past 2. I could hear someone snoring in another room. At 3 I got dressed and headed down to meet the others. Hotel night staff asked if I needed anything in the way retail staff are told to engage suspected shoplifters. There was upbeat funky music playing in reception. A couple wearing going out clothes came in holding kebabs as we set off out, back to the site.
 

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The sky was still a kind of blue even is late. It mustn’t get completely dark this time of year. We took up our positions again, around a different building this time, and waited for bats and the dawn. Dawn arrived on time but still no bats. The gulls returned a few at a time. Maybe they’re the reason the bats stay away?

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One gull in particular took up a position above where I was stood and mumbled anxiously at me for over an hour. Occasionally I’d hear bird poo splat on the floor near by. I stopped looking up at the gulls reasoning if I was going to get pooed on I’d rather they pooed on my head than my face.
 

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We headed back to the hotel some time after 5am and went back to bed. It was a humid night and I didn’t sleep well but I’d enjoyed myself. This felt like the first proper work I’d done since starting my placement. Playing an active part in a survey for a client. And while there were no bats, the survey was still necessary regardless of the result. On top of that I got to know some the consultancy staff better and we had a laugh as we headed back to Buxton.Paul and I continued our invert work in the lab before heading home early. A Manchester train was pulling away as I entered the station so I sat on the platform and ate my lunch, before cracking on with this blog as a pigeon sat on the announcement board above me preened its self contentedly in the afternoon sun.

 

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Day 3 – Library & Lab

Today I was supposed to be going to Wales with Andy to collect some autosamples from a lake. I had been advised to bring wellies and suitable clothing to cover up from a promised mosquito attack. Rather than attempt to be in Buxton for 7am (possible with a bus but requiring a 4am start) Andy kindly offered to collect me from the MacDonalds near Stockport station.

I travelled to Stockport via Piccadilly passing the Vimto statue as has become a morning commute landmark…

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At MacDonalds I got a call from Andy. They couldn’t get to Stockport due to an incident on the motorway so I headed back to the station to head into the office instead. The anouncement board at Stockport listed my train as being on platform 0. I now know this does not mean it is yet to be allocated a platform, there is actually a platform 0. I felt like Harry Potter when I checked this with a member of staff.

Wales would have been interesting but this turn of events has meant I was in the office with time on my hands on a day when Christine the librarian is in. I asked if she had time to give me an introduction. First we went through the electronic library at my excellent vintage desk…

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This blew my mind. Christine has invested so much work in it that she is part library, in sync with the various files and folders. The electronic library is vast and well organised. I’m presently somewhat overwhelmed by it but with practice I think I’ll get the hang of it. Next I was introduced to the physical library which is a fantastic looking room with bay windows at one end and three walls hidden by floor to ceiling shelves of books, files and journals. In amongst these are various cabinets from various decades all adding to the aesthetic. It’s the brain of the building.

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On my way back to my desk to practice my new found library skills I bumped into Helen from day 1 who said I could help out in the lab again in the afternoon. So all in all, what began as a disappointing day became a productive one.

Day 2 – Rose End Meadow

I came bouncing through the door at about half seven last night. A much longer day than I’m used to but I’ve always maintained that good days don’t wear you out, not like bad days do anyway. Stacey had laid on a banquet of bread and butter, fried eggs, chips (healthy ones) and baked beans. Not just any baked beans, the ones in a spicy sauce. I asked if it was my birthday?
 
Up early again today, easier this time and back on the 07:52 from Piccadilly to Buxton. It’s already feeling like a routine. I noticed the same lady who looks like someone from my old work stood on the other side of Hazel Grove station as my train passed through, and I winced for the second time in two days as excited school children screamed at each other on the train between the last few stops. These are the new characters in my new routine. They replace such characters as Purple Girl and Shouty Man.
 
My only task this morning was to familiarise myself the online system. I sat at my desk, a beautiful  teak thing straight out of the 70s which I love, and read various articles and PDFs about wildlife legislation and ID. As I did this I was booked in for three more bat surveys this month via a lady called Helen who I hadn’t met yet, by email.

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After lunch I went out to Rose End Meadows with the work experience guys Scott & Ella, and members of staff Kelly and Helen. Turns out I had met Helen, and Kelly, when I’d been shown around during my interview. The meadows are beautiful, unimproved grassland with many species everywhere you looked. The sun came out and we spent an hour or so there practicing plant ID before departing with the arrival of the rain. I’d happily have stayed it’s so nice there

Rise End Meadows

(Common Spotted Orchid at Rose End Meadows)

 Sweet Vernal Grass

(Sweet Vernal Grass which has the amusing brand specific ID tip of having roots which smell like Savlon)

Scott and Ella amused us with stories of which teachers they did and didn’t like and we got back to the office in time to pack up and head home. I sat on the station and wrote my blog facing a view I suppose I’ll be seeing a lot of for the next year.
 

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First days are the worst days

There’s nothing I like anticipating less than a first day at a new job. I suspect that I was more than a little institutionalized at my old place of work because the closer I got to my last day there, the day I’d dreamed of for so long, the tighter the knot in my stomach became at the thought of leaving there and starting my dream work placement.

This condition isn’t helped by the fact that everyone is really nice to you on your last day. People you’ve hardly ever spoken to hug you and give you book tokens. People you’ve known for years cry, actually cry, because you’re leaving. You start to think it’s actually quite good there. But you know it’s not really. I handed my pass in and left the building for the last time along side my good friends who as we exited the building I handed my umbrella, bag of presents and ruck sac to before jumping up and down for joy on the pavement. “OK, OK, some of us still work here you know” they said.

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(My good friend Noah on my leaving do, who lives with my other friends Luke and Rachel)

After a good night out with the gang all that was left to do was start worrying about my first day. I know from experience that I relax as soon as I arrive at my new place of work or study and as a rule enjoy myself, but that does little to stem the flow of anxiety I insist on marinating every new experience in. And of course as I arrived at the front door of Penny Anderson Associates I felt the familiar evaporation of stress and began what was by all accounts an enjoyable first day.
I bumped into Jacky, who interviewed me, at the door and was shown around the building and allocated a desk then introduced to a guy in the lab who looked after me and the two work experience kids from a local school for the day. Their names are Scott and Ella which I am remembering as the two Fitzgeralds.

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We spent the day identifying aquatic invertebrates from a Somerset river sample. After an hour or so a man called Gerard introduced himself and asked if I liked bats? I said I did. “Great you can assist on the dusk and dawn surveys in Liverpool next week” he said. I imagined myself sat in a festival chair in Liverpool all night but have since found out you stay in a hotel between the dusk survey and the dawn survey.

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A short while later Gerard came in again and asked if I liked Water Voles and as I answered to the affirmative another item was added to my calendar. Wow it’s actually happening, I thought. This was the placement I had applied for but it’s a strange feeling when you’re suddenly living it as opposed to guessing and imagining it. If Gerard ever asks me if I like dead arms I’ll worry.

Caddis Fly

On my lunch break I took a walk into Buxton center and bought myself a coffee in Cafe Nero. I called Stacey and told her about my morning, reassured as I heard the excitement in my own voice.

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(Spotted this on my way to lunch)

Before I left I was given a company mobile phone. It felt like being in The Wire. I’m referring to it as my burner. I have my outlook account and calendar set up. I’m going to a meadow tomorrow, Wales on Wednesday and bat and vole surveying next week. Work placement has begun.
I went and said goodbye to Jacky and as I headed out of the building I bumped into Penny Anderson herself. Slightly star struck I introduced myself and left into what has become a sunny day to make my way back to Manchester…

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Are all Ecological Consultancies like this? Everyone is cheerful and friendly. Day one done, so far so good.