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Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Ode to a bat-hater

So you’re not at all keen on bats?
You seem to confuse them with rats,
Or birds or possibly cats.
Your thoughts on the matter,
Are mad as a hatter,
If unsure, why didn’t you ask?


Bats will get caught in your hair?

To the bat that’s really not fair,

And factually lacking in care.

Your fixed prejudice,

Is a load of old pish,

Though your truth-twisting’s done with real flair.


You firmly believe a bat ought,

For sucking of blood to be shot,

Or otherwise nastily caught.

Never forget,

The thing it just ‘et,

Was a midge and not you, you clot


Your hatred of bats I hear,

Is drip-fed by the press in your ear,

And based on irrational fear.

If only you’d see,

They’re actually twee,

The world would be better, that’s clear.

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Monday, 1 November 2021

Winter - when the gods of bat-work get sneaky

I’ve written previously about the gods of bat-work, the horde of devious and mischievous god-lets, who supervise all aspects of bat-work and amuse themselves at our expense. As we move towards winter bats begin to think about hibernation and bat ecologists relax. But the bat-gods stay awake. Without wakeful bats and busy surveys to interfere with they seek new ways to entertain themselves through the dark, damp days of winter…

They shift their attention from field-work to cosy offices, to seek ways to entertain themselves. Whilst we make the most of the warm and dry they are quietly poking about in our cupboards, drawers and storage boxes, seeking out bat detectors. With great glee the bat god of batteries changes our nice Duracells and Eneloops for manky old leaking horrors, so that when spring comes and we dig out our nice shiny bat detector we find it's battery compartment awash with disgusting chemical gunk, rendering the detector useless. 

Winter report-writing makes the bat-god of computing very happy. Over the years he has had to change his tactics, since auto-save robbed him of his favourite trick: making the lap-top crash with several hours of work un-saved. Now he has branched out into messing with broadband connections, so that just when you are trying to upload something big to the cloud, the bandwidth drops until it seems like the rest of your life will be spent, staring at that damned rotating circle.

Bat call analysis software allows the bat-god of echolocation many opportunities to have his fun. Almost daily the Insight and Kaleidoscope Facebook groups have plaintive messages from people who have found their favourite package doesn't work how it did yesterday in some subtle, frustrating and inexplicable way. Inevitably we blame the latest software update for those wasted hours, but the bat-gods know better.

Winter is the time when we bat ecologists re-discover a strange and half-forgotten thing called a social life and begin to enjoy going out in the evening, eating out, meeting friends and generally acting like normal human beings (you'll notice I say like normal human beings).

This disgraceful bat-free happiness infuriates the bat-gods, who believe that we should be entirely focused on them at all times. Inevitably their vengence is devious and nasty. Remember that office party when your 'hilarious' secret santa gift bombed horribly? Who do you think it was who whispered that idea in your ear? When you've a hot dinner date and your car won't start, it's not the cold weather wiping out the battery - there's a giggling little bat-god under the bonnet. And when you’re trudging miserably through ice, slush, hail and freezing cold, never forget it all exists simply because the gods of bat-work want you to look forward to the next survey season!

More about the gods of bat-work:

Ignore the gods of bat-work at your peril

Further news from the gods of bat-work

The squircles of bat-worker hell

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Monday, 11 October 2021

"Paid bat surveying is an actual, real thing! - Ash's first season

The best part of my job is working with people I'm sure will take professional bat work and ecology to the next level in the future and helping them to move their careers forward. Here, Ash Ronaldson describes her first summer with us as a seasonal field ecologist.

First, a quick introduction: I’m Ash, a mature student in the final year of my BSc in Ecology. I’ve worked and volunteered in many different sectors and roles over the years, but a career involving bats in some way has always been the dream. It took me an awfully long time to discover that bat surveying is an actual, real thing that I could get paid to do, but here I am at last! I enjoyed my first season so much that I wrote a little about it on my LinkedIn, and David kindly invited me to expand on that here.

I couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect summer job if I tried, nor a better company to start my ecology career with. I’ve learned more in these three months than I imagined possible; from bat ecology, calls and legal protections, to what goes into a survey report, how bat consultancy “works”, and radio tracking.

One of the biggest highlights was getting to see swarming behaviour during dawn surveys - I always knew that bats communicated to make group decisions about roosting locations, but I had never seen the process in action before. A bat will land briefly (indicating potential roost location) before speedily taking off again, somehow managing not to collide with all the others flying around it. This can continue for a while, sometimes with a few bats choosing to enter the roost or all going somewhere else entirely. On these surveys, my job was to keep track of the location of roost entrances (or exits on sunset surveys), counting how many bats entered or emerged from the area of the building I’d been assigned to watch. I have to say, this is far easier said than done when there are multiple roost entrances, hundreds of bats flying around you, and you’re a bit busy grinning like an idiot because it’s your first swarm and you can’t believe you’re really being paid to stand there.

Every surveyor has a detector with an earpiece, and we are given lots of training before embarking on surveys so that we can identify any species of bat present. It can be tricky though, and this is where surveys with multiple species (my record is five in one night!) were a particularly helpful treat. No amount of listening to online clips compares to having several species fly past you one after the other - suddenly the differences between calls “click” into place (somewhat literally!) in your mind.

(Photo by Scott Bland)

Also helpful with this learning curve is the way that surveys at DDAL (David Dodds Associates Ltd.) are run; when anyone sees or hears a bat, this is communicated via radio to the lead surveyor who is roaming between us. I picked up some great ID tips this way – if someone was unsure what they’d heard, they would describe the call, and the lead surveyor would help identify the species. When I heard the same call on my own detector later, I was able to identify it.

What I hadn’t expected was the lead surveyor spending time with each of us during almost every survey, and how invaluable these chances to chat with more experienced ecologists would be for me. I’m one of these people who craves knowledge; the more I learn, the more questions I come up with (and I had plenty to begin with – sorry, team!). Thankfully, it’s easy to learn from people so passionate about their work and happy to share their experiences. I enjoyed this immensely.

(Photo by Scott Bland)

To wrap up the season, I had the privilege of (voluntarily) participating in some bat radio tracking. To facilitate this, a tiny radio transmitter is carefully attached to the bat’s back (by appropriately trained and licenced professionals), and the bat is safely released where it was found. The challenge for the team each evening - paired up for safety and with radios for communication - was to use receivers with large antennas to track down the location of our roosting tagged bats, then follow them as they left to see where they would forage and eventually choose to roost for the night. Up and down hills, over rough terrain and slipping in mud we went, sometimes losing the signal several times in an evening, and wandering around in circles in the dark or triangulating with another team to find it again. Much as I grumped about the hills, it really was a lot of fun!

Sadly, the 2021 season has now come to a close. Although some nights were less enjoyable than others (drizzly urban surveys with far more humans than bats, for example), I genuinely learned something new on every single one. Being part of such a welcoming, supportive team has been a privilege, and I can’t wait to see what next year holds.

Ash | t: @NotFraxinus

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Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Seasonal field ecologists - the future of ecology

Part of our 2016 team at a training event. This group includes three future PhDs, four future consultant ecologists, four who went on to work with conservation NGOs and one who now works in wildlife rehabilitation.

In 2010 our company (David Dodds Associates Ltd) first began recruiting and training our specialist team of seasonal field ecologists who usually work with us for between two and four seasons. We tend to recruit early-career ecologists, undergraduate and postgraduate students or recent graduates and this gives a dual benefit. We can train them to carry out bat surveys to our specific standards and methods and we are also able to shape the future of professional ecology and equip some of the next generation of professional ecologists with a sound knowledge of bat conservation and ecology. To date 124 people have worked with us and many are now working in consultancies, SNCOs, NGOs etc in the UK and abroad, giving me a great deal of personal satisfaction, watching their careers progress.

We aim to maximise the benefit to our team of working with us, as this helps build a committed and enthusiastic team:

  1. We provide our seasonal field ecologists with full training at the start of their career and commit to ensuring that, when they leave us they have as sound and as broad a knowledge of bat conservation as possible and we do this in several ways:
  2. Every survey is treated as a training opportunity, with the site discussed beforehand, in terms of bat suitability, habitat etc.
  3. Each seasonal field ecologist has one-to-one time with the lead ecologist during virtually every survey, to discuss the survey and results and broader questions of bat ecology and conservation.
  4. We aim to provide additional training and resources, beyond that required for the specific work of the field ecologists, giving them opportunities to get involved in winter hibernation surveys, bat box checks and so on.
  5. More experienced members of our team are given the opportunity to train for bat licenses in-house, if they wish.
  6. We run a long-term project at Whitmuir organic farm, near Penicuik, where members of the team have the opportunity to get involved in advanced bat survey techniques such as harp-trapping, use of acoustic lures, radio-tracking etc.

We try to foster a team spirit amongst our field ecologists and reward success. We have lively (and often irreverent) private social media groups on Whatsapp and Facebook, we host an annual all-expenses dinner for the team and most importantly there is our ‘donut policy’. This states that, at urban surveys, surveys with low bat activity or ones with potentially irritating interactions with the public, donuts are provided at the end as a morale-raiser (on occasions pain au chocolat are substituted at dawn).

A post-survey donut feeding frenzy after a sunset survey in a rough urban area.

I always remind team members that they are intelligent, capable people. Just because they are at an early stage of their careers doesn't mean they can't have a good idea or spot a weakness in what we do. In fact, coming to it with fresh eyes means they are more likely to do so and we've adopted numerous suggestions and enhancements over the years. This approach of constant improvement ensures we keep reviewing and improving what we do and encourages all of our team to feel valued.

Wherever possible all promoted positions within our company are recruited either from within the current team of seasonal field ecologists or from previous team members, helping to show our commitment to them, as well as ensuring we promote people we already know to be competent. A great example of this is Charlotte Meyer-Wilson, who started with us whilst studying her MSc and was promoted to full-time Assistant Ecologist when she graduated. At the end of that season she moved on, working as a consultant with two other consultancies, before returning to us as a fully-fledged consultant ecologist and licensed bat specialist.

Charlotte Meyer-Wilson, surveying a Brown Long-eared bat roost near Edinburgh

I find that this approach gives us a highly committed and enthusiastic team of field ecologists, who enjoy their work and are dedicated to doing it well. I firmly believe that this is essential to the consistent delivery of good professional standards of survey work. Just as importantly, we can all enjoy our work.

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Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Chirps in the noise - the hunt for a missing bat

“Chirp…chirp…chirp.” I’m sitting on a clump of grass, with the farms and villages of the Dead burn valley laid out in front of me, one or two lights beginning to come on as the light begins to fail. “Chirp…chirp…chirp.” I’m holding a directional yagi antenna, pointed towards some farm buildings below me and on my lap sits a strongly-built radio receiver. The gain is set to maximum and the signal strength meter bounces to the right, in time with each sound. 

This is a pleasantly relaxing moment, watching the world winding down and waiting for my target to show its face. Before long I will leap into action, but for now I can just wait and relax.

A walk-in-talkie clipped to my jacket crackles. “Nothing yet.” says a remote voice. 400 feet below me and about half a kilometer as the crow flies, a couple of young ecologists with similar equipment are standing in the farmyard, waiting for a Common pipistrelle to emerge from her roost. We’ve been following this bat for several nights and are starting to build a picture of her nightly behavior. But a couple of times she has simply disappeared from the area where she spends most of her time and we haven’t yet succeeded in finding her before she returns. But tonight we’re ready for her.

Glued to the fur on her back with a special rubbery glue is a minuscule radio transmitter, half the size of my little fingernail, it’s hair-thin wire antenna trailing over her tail. It’s tiny battery produces a tiny radio signal - a steady series of chirps we can only hear if there is nothing between us and her. Not too hard perhaps in the flatlands of East Anglia, but here in the southern uplands of Scotland it’s an exciting challenge - every fold in the land is capable of blocking the signal, so that we hear nothing.


The radio crackles again. “She’s out.” The chase is on. Almost immediately the sound changes and the strength of the chirps vary, as she flies round the farm buildings, the old sandstone walls attenuating the signal. I slowly move the antenna to the left a few degrees and check the signal. It’s louder. To the right again. It’s quieter. Constant adjustments and checks allow me to keep track of her. The team below are doing the same and we constantly share compass bearings. She is roughly where they intersect on the map. They give chase, but my tack is to monitor from my hill-top eyrie and help them fill the gap.

True to form, after forty minutes of foraging around the tree-lined margins of a large pig-field she suddenly makes a move. I’m alerted by the fleet-footed team below and a moment later “we’ve lost her.” But I still have a faint signal for another few seconds before she disappears and I get that all-important bearing. A check of the contours on the Ordnance survey map reveal a fold  in the land in that direction, with a tree-lined pond. I vector the team onto it and off they go. Ten minutes later the walk-in-talkie crackles with a triumphant shout. “Got her!”


I sit back onto my comfy clump of grass, satisfied with another piece fitted into the jigsaw of this bat’s behaviour. With a sigh of satisfaction I change the frequency of the detector, to see what’s happening with the bat that team two are following.

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