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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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.

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?

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.

Audrey – Portrait of a Pipistrelle

Another Tuesday, another day on the Bat Line. Only one call, a message from someone at the Bat Conservation Trust asking for someone to call them. I dutifully returned the call and was passed the details of a member of the public in Bolton who had contacted them to say they had an injured bat. By the sounds of it the bat was in a bad way. After trying to find a member of the group local to them with no success I decided to collect the bat myself.

I’ve not long passed my driving test and the heavens opened up on me as I drove north to collect the bat. Rain so big people in other cars couldn’t see me waving sorry as I blundered my way through a couple of tricky junctions. Stacey had come with me and helped me out with decisions and fed me boiled sweets. I picked up the precious cargo and headed over to the home of one of our injured bat consultants (IBC) who helped and observed me weigh and measure the bat, ID and record the gender too. It was an adult female.

She had cat teeth shaped holes in both wings and a tear in one too. On her back was a large gash. We cleaned her with a saline wash. She weighed 3.17g. Despite her ordeal she put up an admirable resistance to inspection, displaying good teeth in the process. I ID’d the bat as a common pipistrelle and an adult. The size of the bat and shape of the snout (pointier than a soprano pip) were the key ID features. The minimum release weight for this species is 4.5g. Our IBC provided me with some rehydration fluid and some mealworms and some advice and off I went. I was to care for the bat and take her to a vet to look at the gash on her back and her left shoulder which according to our IBC felt loose.

If she was coming home with us it seemed appropriate to give her a name rather than continue to call her Injured Bat as we had been. Stacey suggested as she was my first injured bat why not choose a name starting with A? Audrey it was.

Back home I gave her some rehydration fluid from a small paintbrush. This was the first time I have ever seen a bat’s tongue…

That's more like it :)

While you enter into bat care keeping in mind that this is a wild animal, a piece of wildlife which you are minding temporarily in an attempt to get it back into nature as quickly as possible, the sight of something that small licking the end of paintbrush would melt the coldest of hearts. Your eyebrows knit reflexively in and up and your mouth opens in a silent “R”.

That night I woke up unintentionally at 3am and after lying in the dark wondering for a while I got up and crept into the spare room to check on her. She was alive and acting unsuspicious.

The next day I texted Frenchi to ask for the number of the vets she used to take her canary, Bird,  to in Chorlton. Frenchi has a baby and we shared experiences in our text conversation about finding it impossible not to go and check on our respective dependants.

I made an appointment at Ashley Vets for that evening, after confirming that they take wildlife cases. When I left work I called Stacey. Was she home yet? Could she look in on Audrey? What was she doing? Hanging upside down? Is she moving at all? Moved her head a bit? Good. When I got home the three of us headed to Chorlton.

The last time I was in a vets was in 1988 with my gerbil, Sooty. I remember feeling like I was going to cry when the vet gave her an injection. She died two days later on Christmas Day. When my dad told me she was dead I didn’t know how to react because I was eight and nothing had ever died before so I blew a raspberry at him. His reaction was one of amused and endeared bafflement.

This vet experience was very interesting. The vet explained that normally when an animal bite like this has scabbed over they would remove the scab to clean it as there will likely be bacteria underneath but that in this case due to the size of the scab and the large surface area it covers would not be advisable.

An x-ray of her shoulder showed that the muscle had been pulled away from the scapula bone. Whether this healed would determine whether she flew again. No guarantees could be given on this. Had a bone in arm been broken or her shoulder been dislocated, the kindest thing would have been to put her to sleep there and then as with an animal as small as a pipistrelle it is not possible to pop the shoulder back in or mend certain broken bones.

I assisted with the x-ray by helping to tape Audrey down to a table. This was neither cruel nor dignified as the tape comes easily off the wings afterwards. Again she made it as difficult as possible and two x-rays were taken on account of her wriggling partly free as the first was taken, resulting in a blurry image. The second image showed the muscle/scapula problem and I was asked how I wished to proceed…

Audrey

I made the decision that as she was not in obvious distress I would not euthanize her there and then and would take her home and attempt to nurse her back to release-worthy health. I discovered that it is very difficult to make decisions purely with your head and not your heart in these circumstances. Especially as vets have a habit of tagging your surname onto the name of the animal you have brought in. But she wasn’t a pet and I made sure I kept that in mind. She may very well still need to be put to sleep if the shoulder didn’t heal. She was not destined to become a pet. The whole point of this, all this effort was to try and release a wild bat back into the wild where she belonged.

Back at home Audrey ate some meal worms. This was another highly rewarding aspect of the bat care. I had never hand fed a bat before and the gusto with which she scoffed down the meal worm guts I offered her gave Stacey and I cause for optimism. By the time she’d had enough the meal worms were beginning to look quite appetising. We went and had chilli instead.

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For the next couple of days we fed her in the evenings and each day she took more meal worms than the days before. She also lapped the antibiotic dilution from the end of a syringe without any fuss. At one point while she gobbled a meal worm up Stacey asked me: “Could you have imagined you’d be doing this 6 years ago?”. It was a good question. I couldn’t have imagined it back then and it’s a nice barometer of my progress so far on my journey from one life to another.

You see people doing stuff like this on TV and wonder how they came to do it? You might even look into it and you discover that the people doing it have been involved in conservation for years and work in the field. You resign yourself to the fact you’ll never get to do that kind of thing. So it’s nice when you find yourself on the other side of the effort to get into wildlife conservation, and you’re the one looking after an injured bat, nursing it back to health.

On Saturday morning I went and bought some more supplies from Pets at Home. Before I left I noticed that Audrey was climbing around the cage. She still wasn’t opening her left wing out and when she was on the roof of the cage she let out the occasional distress sound as though her shoulder was hurting her.

In the evening we went to feed her. I’d checked earlier and she’d been in the half closed box inside the cage, the dark area there containing a soft cloth above a low watt heat mat. When I checked I’d seen her move around a little. Now in the evening I took the lid right off the box and waited a moment for her to stir. I was surprised she wasn’t already becoming active.

Sadly the moment went on. I blew gently on her to try to elicit a response but there was no movement besides that of her fur which moved in the indescribable way that the fur of a mammal recently alive but no longer, does. She’d died some time in the past few hours.

I was very disappointed. Too disappointed. I’d clearly become too attached to this little bat. I had prepared myself for the fact that she may need to be put to sleep but I hadn’t expected this. She’d been eating and drinking and taking her antibiotics. I had really wanted this to end well.

So a sad ending but by no means a waste. I’ve learned a great deal from this. Next time I will be better at not raising my hopes too high and I may not be so quick to give them a name. But I do think it’d be a pity to become too cold to the process. If there is a realistic chance they are going to make it it’d be a shame to choose pessimism just to avoid feeling hurt if they don’t.

You can’t help but project the robustness of people onto them. An air steward once told me on a flight during turbulence: “Aeroplanes want to stay in the air” and I’ve come to view people like that. Our natural response is to live, we rarely just flicker out like that. But bats aren’t people. Their physiology requires a finely tuned equilibrium which when disrupted can be fatal immediately or in the efforts to restore it which follow.

We can only do our best and hope they make it. This one didn’t but I’m wiser for it and grateful for the chance to see close up, such a charming and interesting little creature doing what appeared to be her best too.

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.

Back to Cumbria (Placement days 24 & 25)

Back in the car with Sarah to Cumbria. Journeys always seem to go faster when you know them and we flew through the counties, peaks and traffic in no apparent time at all.

I continued to pick Sarah’s brains for botanical ID tips. I am either coming across as relentlessly enthusiastic or relentlessly annoying.

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The sun was back out after a week of rain and as we drove along hedge lined country roads in Cumbria, what looked a lot like a bat flew across the road and in front of the car for a second or two, in broad daylight. After a moment of me rerunning the image in my head before bringing it up Sarah said: “Was that a bat?!” A rare sight indeed.

Upon arriving on site we cracked back on with the Phase 1 survey we had started the previous week and I was allocated a hedge to work on a species list for…

Red Clover leaf, as evident by the angle (>90°) on the veins from the centre stem

Annual Meadow Grass. Crimped leaf.

#Betony

#Yarrow

#Feverfew

#Dogrose

Heliotrope

#MarshFoxTail

#BlackKnapweed

#Meadowsweet

Once again the Phase 1 took longer than expected and we had to wolf down our dinner back at the hotel. I’d been feeling progressively worse as the day had gone on. It was painful to swallow and my head hurt. I felt pretty rotten. I mentioned that I thought I might be coming down with something as I didn’t want to come across as though I was quiet because I was bored. Sarah said she had noticed I’d gone quiet and suggested that during survey season it isn’t unusual to feel as though you’re coming down with something when in fact you’re just run down.

That definitely sounded like something my subconscious would do so I resolved to pull myself together, put on a happy face and made an effort to say more. I then asked Sarah if she had noticed me perk up which kinda defeats the object but she said she had and inquired what had happened? I said I’d just pulled myself together and stopped being such a wimp.

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A plate of scampi, a glass of coke with ice and a 20 minute power nap and I was feeling markedly better as we headed through the fields to our dusk bat survey site. The cows have young calves and are paranoid and confrontational around people which made getting to the site a challenge. On walking through one field they all started approaching us. We left that field and began walking around the parameter but the cows followed us on the other side so that when we came to the point where we needed to climb over, they were there, so we had to wait until they’d all passed by. Then when we climbed over and began crossing the field they began hurrying over to intercept us. As we reached our point of no return it was clear if we carried on they’d beat us to the middle so we had to hurry back and over the fence again!

With a detour we eventually made it to our survey site and I settled in to watch the sky darken behind a large old ash tree. I’ve discovered I don’t like staring at ash trees. Their pinnate leaves create the feeling of double vision as they cross at different levels. All was quiet until nearly 10pm when we were treated to acrobatic pip foraging as at least 3 bats swooped around us and one another. One flying so close to my face I exclaimed: “WOW!”

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It’s funny the things that go through your head as you stare at the trees and the sky, waiting for the bats. I’ve leaned my brain acts as a randomized juke box with songs appearing out of nowhere and playing on a loop. This night I was treated to ‘Jimmy Mac’ by Martha and Vandellas.

On our way back through the fields we were met by the cows again, headed by the big old white bull with a limp, or ‘Limpy’ as we’ve come to know him. So again we rerouted, through dark fields, over barbed wire, back to the car, to the hotel, and finally I was back in my room and more than ready for the three and a half hours sleep I had before our dawn survey.

No cows to avoid, at dawn I stood on the dirt track watching Sarah’s torch light make it’s way over to a tree in the distance,. When she got to it she pointed it up into the tree, lighting the whole thing up like a cathedral.

Frogs croaked with gusto from the vegetation behind me, lapwings squeaked in the field in front and an owl hooted in the distance. I watched my tree.

Dawn tree 1
Dawn tree 2
Dawn tree 3
Dawn tree 4

Morning doesn’t break smoothly. It comes in surges as though the sun is being heaved over the horizon by an unseen titan before finally rolling down over everything.

Dawn bat survey in Cumbria #PAASvy

The next day we returned to the site to finish the Phase 1. I took the field of rushes, compiling a list of the species in the hedge first then carefully hopping across (and occasionally into) the many, and sometimes discrete, water courses.

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