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Tuesday, 3 September 2013

10 Pet hates of an ecological consultant

I'm a fairly laid back person and I learned long ago that its not worth getting wound up about things. But in my work as a Consultant Ecologist and bat specialist there are certain irritants that crop up time and again. I thought it might be fun to create a top ten, so here it is.

10 - People who think all bats are the same. We have 18 species of bat in the UK and at least nine here in Scotland. Each occupies a distinct niche, with behaviour, habitat, roosting habits etc entirely different from the rest. Why then do people (including some of the poorer consultant ecologists) insist on talking about bats as though they were one unvarying species?

9 - Jokes about "bat man". I like a joke as much as the next person. But I mean, really? Bat man? Satirical wit of the highest calibre it ain't! And guess what? I've heard it before! Just once or thrice.

8 - Rigid adherence to the BCT Bat Survey Guidelines. The word "guideline" gives it away. This document is an excellent starting point in planning a bat survey, but to rigidly adhere to its content, without consideration or understanding is just plain silly. You should be able to explain why you're deviating from the guidelines, but an ecologist who lacks the knowledge and experience to do so also lacks sufficient knowledge and experience to be carrying out bat surveys in the first place. Enough said!

7 - Sub-standard equipment used in bat surveys. It's simple: a good quality broadband bat detector and a means of recording calls during a survey for later confirmation of species if necessary. Yet often commercial bat surveys are done with heterodyne bat detectors, often cheap and nasty ones too. One large Scottish consultancy regularly sends out bat survey teams with only enough bat detectors for half of them to be equipped at all. And that verges on criminal negligence.

6 - Clients who ask for bat surveys at the end of September. Here in Scotland the bat survey season ends at the end of September. We told you that months ago. We wrote it in a report for you. We reminded you in an email. We even explained why. Next time should we tattoo it on your forehead? Would that help?

5 - Attention-seekers who pretend to be scared of bats. A tiny number of people have a genuine phobia about bats. Often they are also phobic about birds. It's hard for them and I'm sympathetic. But I have no time for the much greater number of people who pretend to be phobic because they want to be the centre of attention. I've seen genuine hysteria and it's very different.

4 - Clients who pretend they don't know about a bat roost in the hope we won't notice it. Really? You have 500 Soprano Pipistrelles in your roof and you seriously hoped I wouldn't notice? Not only is it very silly but if you need our professional assistance we need to work together and that involves trust. So stop playing silly buggers...

3 - People calling me a bat expert. The more I work with bats the more I realise how much there is we still don't know about   these amazing and enigmatic creatures. Yes I know some stuff, but I can't echolocate, I can't turn in high speed flight a whisker away from a wall and I can't  slow my heartbeat to once a minute. If you want a real bat expert ask a bat. 

2 - Garden centre bat boxes. There are many designs of bat box around. Some are more successful than others. Some work better for this species or that one or in certain types of location. What is never going to work is the type which is on sale in garden centres and pet shops with a horizontal plywood perch at the base, at a right angle to the entrance slot. The bats need to emerge from the entrance and dive to rapidly gain airspeed. If they do so with one of those bat boxes they'll get a sudden headache! Which is why they are a waste of money.

1 - Overly complicated bat detectors. I'm male, therefore I like gadgets. Big shiny gadgets with lots of buttons and knobs make my eyes go wide with excitement. Some bat detector manufacturers have seen me coming and are making ever more clever and complex machines so I can spend my pennies on shiny toys. But bat detectors aren't like other gadgets. We use them in the dark. At night. When we're cold. And tired. And fed up by the lack of bat activity. And when we keep tripping over things. And we're trying to juggle a detector, a recorder, a torch and a notebook and pen. By all means make them clever and fill them with whistles and bangs. But for heavens sake make them so I can work them in the field without needing a masters in geekiness and a 100 page manual!

So there's my annual rant. Now I can return to being calm, collected and relaxed about my work.

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Thursday, 14 February 2013

A bright new future for Anabat?

The announcement last autumn that Titley Electronics, manufacturer of Anabat had gone out of business was something of a blow. I have never had much good to say about Titley themselves - their abysmal customer service was only latterly mitigated by a helpful UK office. But the Anabat is an excellent bat survey tool and one that would be missed. Furthermore, it was a design that had a great deal of potential for future development (though Titley's developments of it tended more towards gimmick than improvement).

The reaction to Titley's demise was swift. Their only real competitor, Wildlife Acoustics appeared to step up their marketing and Anabats started appearing on eBay for surprisingly low prices. At the end of October came the welcome news that the ashes of Titley had been bought by Elexon, an electonics company specialising in mining equipment.

Since then things have been quiet, presumably whilst the new organisation settles in. Before Christmas I had an interesting conversation with Andrew Dobson, the new UK agent for Titley. Whilst it is too early to make judgements, Andrew is upbeat about Anabat and indicated that Elexon might be keen to fund further development of Anabat.

For those in the Uk with an interest in Anabat, Andrew is hosting an open day at the new Titley Scientific UK office in Coppull, Lancashire on Tuesday 26 February. Chris Corben, the designer of Anabat and Kim Livengood will be flying in from the US and will be delivering free training sessions on a variety of Anabat-related subjects. Having attended Chris and Kim's Anabat seminars in the past I can confirm they are always interesting.

The open day is from 9am to 5pm at the Titley office at Coppull Enterprise Centre, Mill Lane, Coppull, Lancashire PR7 5BW. If you are planning to attend and would like to suggest a subject for Chris to cover email Andrew Dobson:

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Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The return of "one-ear"

Each winter I regularly don my hard hat, waterproofs, torches etc and deliberately choose to descend into dark, wet, muddy and essentially unpleasant places. Hardly the act of a sane adult, but then nobody's ever accused me of being one of them! Surveying underground bat hibernacula (places used by hibernating bats) provides survey data for the National Bat Monitoring Programme (NBMP), creating useful information about bat population change. I am also undertaking a long-term study of how bats vary their use of underground sites through the hibernation period.

One site I visit regularly is a tunnel in the Dumfries and Galloway hills (See "A Most Peculiar Hibernaculum", 28 February 2009). Built several hundred years ago to channel a water supply for a small village, one end is now blocked and the open entrance is less than one square metre. Inside the tunnel opens up to a sufficient height to walk upright and continues through the solid rock for 350 metres (not quite the 500m I said in 2009, but I've measured it now!).

The entrance to the tunnel - about a metre across.

Four years ago I was carrying out a survey in the tunnel and found a Daubentons Bat (Myotis daubentonii) that was a bit different from the others: it only had one ear. The other appeared to have been torn off. Perhaps the ear had been lost in a predator attack, or maybe the ear had been caught on a thorn in flight. Whatever the cause, most of the ear was missing, though the tragus (the inner part of the ear appeared to be intact). 

Even more interesting was the fact that this bat was carrying a ring. Unlike birds, which are ringed wholesale, bats are only rarely ringed. This is because it isn't possible to ring bats round the leg in the same ways as birds: their tail membrane extend all the way to the ankles. Instead, bat rings are actually horseshoe-shaped and fit loosely over the forearm. The are difficult to fit and the chances of the bat being later injured by the ring is greater than for birds. For this reason bats are only rung as part of specific research projects, with clearly-defined aims. 

"One-ear" - you can see the ring on her left forearm and her missing right ear.
So One-ear's ring number was an important piece of information, but the number extends around the forearm, making it impossible to read without disturbing the bat. I decided to leave the bat and returned four weeks later, fervently hoping it was still there (I didn't want to return more quickly, to minimise disturbance to other bats). This time I was equipped with scales and measuring calipers, so that I could measure the bat's weight and forearm length and make an informed decision as to whether, having been disturbed, it was likely to have sufficient fat reserves to complete hibernation safely (A bat carer was standing by, in case it wasn't). Happily One-ear turned out to be a female and have plenty of fat reserves to see her through the winter.

Armed with the ring number I was able to discover something of her history. She had been rung at a summer maternity roost the previous August by Sue Swift and Iain Mackie of Aberdeen University, as part of a research programme. The roost was 35km away in a straight line, but given the hilly nature of the area it's more likely she had followed valleys to the tunnel, making the journey closer to 45km.

Since then she has turned up in the tunnel as regularly as clockwork every January. Whilst it's nice to see her (and she's starting to feel like and old friend) she is also a useful source of information. Normally I can't identify individual bats within the tunnel but One-ear can be easily identified, allowing me to track some of her decisions about where to hibernate within the tunnel.

Whilst I have seen bats with all sorts of injuries, One-ear is the only one-eared bat I have encountered...until last year, when another bat turned up in the tunnel with a very similar injury, but without a ring. So when I carried out the January NBMP survey this year I had my fingers crossed and I'm happy to report that not only was "One-ear" there again, so was "Lugless"!

It's interesting to conjecture the effect that having a missing outer ear might have on an echolocating bat. It is easy to assume that, with only one fully functional ear  a bat might be unable to gain a three-dimensional image of it's surroundings. The outer part of the ear acts in a similar way to a satellite dish, reflecting sounds into the ear and normally a bat can move the ear to channel sounds from varying directions. However the survival of One-ear and now Lugless shows that they are able to make allowances for this disability and carry on navigating and hunting successfully.

Remember it is a criminal offence  in the UK and Europe to disturb roosting bats without an appropriate license. Bats in hibernation are especially vulnerable. Please don't go poking about underground, looking for bats unless you have been properly trained to do so. Not only are you running the risk of prosecution (quite rightly), your actions may be harmful to bats and underground sites can be very dangerous for the uninitiated. If you'd like to get involved join your local bat group and learn how to do it properly (and legally). 

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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Biological recording on the hoof

My blog posts usually focus on my work as a specialist consultant ecologist or my bat conservation and research work. There are two other "hats" I wear, as chair of Lothians and Borders Mammal Group (LABMAG) and chairman of the board at TWIC, the biological record centre for south east Scotland. This post reflects a conservation issue which affects both organisations.

Biological records are the cornerstone of wildlife conservation. A comprehensive database of records allows us to understand species distribution and identify species which may be present at specific locations. This level of understanding facilitates conservation work and supports biodiversity planning. It allows us to ensure that species at threat from development are identified and action taken.

I once heard the manager of a local record centre say that, if the records held by his centre were anything to go by, the rarest mammals in their county were Rabbits, Moles and Grey Squirrels! Most recorders focus on rare or interesting species and overlook the everyday. Yet the decline of the once ubiquitous House Sparrow is a reminder that we need distribution data for all species.

I used to keep a notebook in my car, so whenever I saw a roadkill Fox, a Badger running out of the headlights or field signs whilst walking the dog I could make a note of it, to submit to a record centre. But the sticking point was recording an accurate location: getting a grid reference meant finding my location on a map or getting a GPS out and waiting for it to get a fix. With the best will in the world if a record takes several minutes to make then I am less likely to make it: I'm only human!
The solution lies with an iPhone app. called Record Wildlife. This draws a grid reference from the phone's internal GPS. All I have to do is type in a species name, quantity and any brief notes I want and the record is saved in the iPhone's memory. Records are saved as a spreadsheet, which can be emailed direct to you local record centre, or any other email address I choose. I experimented with this app to see if it was really as easy to use as it seems. I found I can make a record easily in about 20 to 30 seconds, making it viable to pull over the car when I see something, knowing I won't be delayed, or pause to make a record when out and about as it won't get in the way of what I'm doing. I have made 47 records of wild mammals in the past two months, easily and without any hassle, records I probably would't have bothered to make previously.

The Mammal Society recently launched a project to create a new atlas of mammal distribution in the UK. This long overdue project will give us distribution data of a type that was last updated two decades ago. I hope my records will make a small contribution to this project. If everyone with a smart phone in their pocket and an interest in natural history did the same the Mammal Society would have a great deal of extra records to work with, perhaps resulting in better conservation decisions over the coming decade.

The Record Wildlife app is available for iPhone and Android. Best of all, both apps are free to download from Android Market and iTunes.

Record Wildlife website:
National Mammal Atlas Project:

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