What did you see today?

This year we’ve been keeping a record in the office of all the different things we encounter while on the job. There are are lists for birds, plants, mammals, herptiles, moths & butterflies, and poo. Something can only be entered on the list once, there are no winners (because if there were, Simon would thrash everyone and it’d be no fun), we just want to see how much we see in a year between the 10ish of us.

It has the pleasant effect of turning every job, even the potentially dull ones, into a potential new find. Today I paid a visit to a waste water treatment works we surveyed for great crested newts last year which still has some fencing in place, to inspect the fence and check it was still a functional barrier. The filter beds with their revolving sprinklers attract birds in large numbers, who feed off the insects which the beds attract. Each round circular bed has a ring of wires leading from a central pole to the rim. Today the wires were bedecked in carrion crows giving them the appearance of macabre big-tops. Pied wagtails ran around on the stones below them. Some old, now defunct, beds have long overgrown with bramble scrub. A tree sparrow observed and chastised me from above as I walked past, and I caught a glimpse of a rabbit’s bottom disappearing into the thicket.

When I reached the fence line I started my perimeter walk and out of habit rather than necessity I turned over some of the left over carpet tiles, remnants of the bucket traps and carpet tile trapping surveys of last summer. Earth worm heads flinched back down their holes and centipedes flowed over and under stones or clods of earth. The contracted bodies of many slugs clung to the underside of the tiles but there was little else under the mats yet. The myriad of beetles were still absent.

Under an old plastic panel lying on the ground I watched a field vole zoom through its exposed labyrinth of tunnels in the damp, yellow grass. Then, under a tile I found two frogs and toad.  All three appeared still to be in a torpid state and I gently placed the mat back down. I returned to the mat a few minutes later having considered it and decided to move them. Ordinarily I wouldn’t disturb animals in this state but as they were on the wrong side of the fence it wasn’t right to leave them there. So I fetched an empty bucket, lined it with vegetation and placed them in.

I have a fondness for all wildlife, but I love toads. I genuinely love them, they illicit an emotional response in me that other animals don’t. When I look at a toad I get the feeling you get when you run into a really good friend. I can’t help but anthropomorphize them they just have such wonderful faces. This was my first toad of the year and my day was instantly made by finding it and I handled her with the usual care, plus a little extra due to her docile (even by a toad’s standards), dozy condition.

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I don’t anthropomorphize frogs. They exude wildness. Reflexive, instinct driven, dynamic and slightly repellent in their curiousness. If you pick up a frog they throw in everything they have to kick, leap and headbutt their way out of your hands. These two took only a moment to come to life and become alert and escape driven.

I placed them in the hibernacular, constructed for  surveys last year and carried on, finding no more. Towards the end of my walk a buzzard dropped from a nearby tree, in that heavy fall then suddenly weightless swoop of theirs. Jackdaws yapped their disapproval and song thrush and blackbirds went about their business along the field margin. I wondered if I’d seen a raven, sat up a tree on the other side of the site, but it was just another crow. I scanned along the tree line through my binoculars and was rewarded with the sight of a male kestrel, glowing almost pink in the afternoon sun. I followed him as he flew from his tree, over the field I stood in and hung in the sky, treading air above me for a half a minute before going on its way.

Frog, toad and field vole all firsts for the work list. Not bad for an hour’s fence check.

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2017 Ecological To Do List

I recently read Inglorious by Mark Avery. Aside from the compelling subject matter, at one point in the book Mark mentions that in his first blog of the year he sets out a few things that he wishes to achieve over the coming 12 months:

I’ve written it down and published it, and even if no one notices then I need to do it.

Having recently become a father my ecology life outside of work has quietly, politely stepped into the background as I expected it would in these chaotic early days. Naively, predictably I had underestimated how long it would be waiting there, but as 2017 appears on the horizon, and I’m getting >5hrs sleep a night, I find myself looking forward to reintegrating ecological pursuits back into my outside of work life.

So, taking a leaf out of Mark’s book, here are a few achievable goals for the coming 12 months:

Gorse Hill Urban Botany Project

My little local project to create a flora of The Gorsehill Estate is all planned and ready to go, having been put to one side after all the planning (and a couple of surveys) had been completed.  The nice thing about this is that there are no deadlines, it can happen at its own pace, but I suspect that once I get going with it my enthusiasm will gain momentum. My plan this year is to start on some residential streets that can be quickly completed (unlike last year where I started on the canal tow path which was interesting but the biggest job on the list). That way I’ll have the satisfaction of being able to shade off chunks of the estate on a map. My son is now robust enough to join me on these surveys too which will provide me with the chance to wave leaves under his nose, avoiding his ever grabbing hands, and tell him what they are.

Birds

I say every year I’m going to work on my bird ID skills. This year I intend to get down to my adopted stretch of the Mersey embankment, once a month if I can and do some recording. I was given some good advice by a work colleague, Simon, recently. I was complaining that so often when I’m out attempting to work on bird ID I can see but not hear them. Simon’s advice was to find the birds I could hear and have a look at them. It seems obvious but it had never occurred to me to diligently hunt down the mystery singers. So I’ll be doing more peering, loitering and rummaging on my walks this year.

Herptiles

I saw my first sand lizard last year, just a glimpse of a female.  I’d like to see more. So I’ll be getting back out with my local ARG group on their habitat management days in the hope of helping out with their monitoring later in the year.

Saw my first #SandLizard in the wild today. #WellChuffed

I’d also like to contribute to the Biodiverse Society Project which aims to enhance and update the information on wildlife sites in Lancashire and North Merseyside.

Trees

Having recently visited the National Trust property Biddulph Grange Gardens which boasts Britain’s oldest Golden Larch, I thought it’d be fun to seek more oldest British trees. It’d be over ambitious to aim to make it up to the Fortingall Yew in 2017 (one day though), but the Talley Abbey Ash should be doable. If I make it to any other oldest/biggest/tallest example of a tree this year I’ll consider this achieved.

If I do all the above, and see some spiked speedwell and an aesculapian snake,  I’ll consider 2017 a job well done.

Wishing you a happy and productive 2017. What’s on your list?

Life on the bat line

I joined South Lancashire Bat Group two years ago today. Truth be told bats had not been a stand out interest of mine before then. I was interested in them in the same way I am about most things that fall under the umbrella of ‘nature’ but if you’d asked me to list the things I liked best they wouldn’t have come immediately to mind.

As a protected species however, they are unavoidable in the field of ecology and one of the main pieces of advice I was given by my mentor (who I met via the uni’s ‘mentor-match’ programme) Richard when we first met was to join my local bat group and get as involved as possible. After a while you may get the opportunity to work towards your bat licence with them, he said.

So I joined South Lancs Bat Group and started going along to meetings and events. Over the past two years with the group I’ve learned an interesting lesson which is that there is more than one route to acquiring a passion for something. Some stuff you’re driven to do, it’s been an interest for as long as you can remember in some form or another and it never fails to inspire you. For me that’s botany. Other things happen slowly, you work at them because you understand it’s a good idea. Then one day you notice that it’s become a hobby as well. That’s bats in my case. I didn’t have my eureka moment when I first laid eyes on a bat as some people do. For me it happened slowly…

One of the things I like most about bat work, be that the consultancy bat work I’ve been doing on my work placement or voluntary work through bat charities, is that the difficulty they provide in working with them breeds a host of interesting and unusual methods with which to counter the difficulty. They’re elusive, nocturnal, silent to the human ear and they fly. As a result studying them requires all sorts of cool kit that at times make you feel more like a Ghostbuster than an ecologist.

Entering the world of bat groups and bat work is like discovering a secret society of hackers, crackpot scientists and explorers. Except they’re perfectly sane and their methods are scientifically tested and peer-reviewed. Coordinated  gangs of people meeting in the woods at night with gadgets to hear and record the unhearable, gatherings of people in quirky function rooms on weekends to teach each other how to tell the difference between bat species, people up trees or canoeing on canals, DNA tests and night vision goggles…it’s cool even without the bats so it wasn’t hard to show up and join in.

But it’s been the bat line that has really won me over. Our group has a phone number that people in the area can call if they find a grounded or injured bat (or if they want bat-based advice).

There are people who man the bat line. This involves checking an answer phone for messages every couple of hours on your allotted day, returning the calls, answering any questions and arranging for a bat carer or roost visitor to liaise with the caller if required. Then there are the bat carers and roost visitors who are those trained to care for injured bats or those with licenses to visit roosts.

I trained to man the bat line last December and have been dealing with calls every Tuesday since. In that time I have dealt with a variety of calls from a variety of people.

One man was concerned with the tree felling taking place in his local park. He believed there may be bats roosting in the trees. Later that week I saw a picture of him in the paper, he’d climbed a tree and was refusing to come down.

A vicar called. He’d found a bat in his church and someone had helped him put it in a box. He was terrified of it. The bat in the box was making him afraid to even go into his church. He wouldn’t have liked my mum’s local crematorium. She told me a story about a funeral she’d been to there where part way through the service,  bats had begun flying around the room and then dropping to the floor around the guests. Members of staff had to creep about picking up bats and putting them in a box while the vicar did their reading.

A lady called complaining about the bats in her garden. They were swooping around her children she said. And there were lots of bat droppings on her door step. Why might that be she asked? This is a good example of the PR work required on the bat line, and one of the things that has fuelled my enthusiasm for bats. I found myself talking to a stranger on the phone who didn’t like bats, probably had a bat roost in her house and didn’t yet know about it. I told her all about how great bats were, and how they are clean and not smelly. I asked her what she thought of midges? She didn’t like them either. Bats eat up to 3000 midges a night I told her. She quite liked that. I asked if she’d like one of our roost visitors to come to her house and have a look and give her some advice. She liked that too. Job done. Onto the next call.

An elderly couple had sat in their garden one evening and observed 129 bats fly out of the loft. We’ve got bats, she said and asked how she went about getting rid of them? I found myself talking to a stranger who obviously considered bats to be like having mice in her house and I was about to tell her it would be against the law to disturb them. What do you think of midges? I asked her…

A man called with a harrowing tale of two bats he’d found in a storage tub in his garage. One was dead and the other was clinging onto it, barely alive. He emailed me a photo so I could see how dead the dead one was. Like many other calls I’ve taken like this I took his details and had a look at our google map of bat carers and roost visitors to see who was nearest. Then I spent some time getting hold of different people until I found one who was able to take in an injured bat that night. I passed on the man’s details and they liased to exchange the bat and hopefully nurse it back to health and release it.

That’s the last I hear of individual cases on the bat line. At the monthly meetings the bat care secretary delivers the stats for that month. How many injured bats in, how many released, how many die and how many need to be euthanized. Some make it, others don’t. A lot of people dedicate a lot of time and energy to achieve the result of some of the bats taken in being released. Disproportionate you could argue…

One of my favourite science-fiction stories is The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury. After stepping on a butterfly while on a time traveling trip to the Jurassic era, a man returns home to the future to find it’s not as he left it. That butterfly was food for another creature and ancestor to a billion others who all had their place in history. Without it things just weren’t the same. I like to think of the bats that get successfully rereleased this way. They are the potential ancestors of and food to countless others. You’re not just adding one creature back into the mix, the effects can spread far further than that.

Earlier this year I trained as a bat carer and last week I got my rabies form back from the doctors confirming that I up to date on my jabs. Now I can experience the other side of the bat line. Yesterday was Tuesday, my day on the line. One call: a couple on Chorlton had found a bat in their porch. Perfect! Chorlton is ten minutes down the road from me. I arranged to collect it when I got home from work. I left work early so could tidy the  spare room in preparation and read up on the bat care workshop notes, People at work wished me luck…

Having recently (finally) passed my driving test I was able to drive to the person’s house. When I arrived he was stood on his doorstep looking into an open shoe-box. Sadly the bat was dead. Some make it, some don’t.

My first injured bat as a bat care for South Lancs Bat Group. Sadly this little fella was already dead when I collected it. Holes in its wings and the cat at the property give you a good idea how it died.

I had a look at its wings and they had puncture holes which I imagine would have matched the cat’s teeth which was winding around its owner’s legs when I collected the bat from them, Cat’s can of course not help their predatory nature. It was this bat’s misfortune that the two animals met.

Fingers crossed next time will be a more positive experience. What’s nice is that after making the effort to get into bats, putting in the time and work, I am now genuinely excited about the prospect.