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Thursday, 20 May 2021

Early career ecologists and hamster-powered scootering

My recent post, suggesting ways early career ecologists can take charge of their own skills developments generated a lot of positive feedback (Field skills for early career ecologists). So here are another couple of suggestions for ways to circumvent the shortage of volunteering opportunities, get on that hamster wheel-powered scooter (souped up wheelie-bins are so unfashionable these days) and make the most of this summer (or whatever we have that vaguely resembles a summer).

I suggested that developing your bird ID would be useful, but don't forget bird calls. Now this is something that terrifies all but the most hardened bird-watchers. Like most people, I bought a CD of bird calls years ago and found it difficult to fix the different calls in my addled little mind. The problem is that, whilst birds like Chaffinches have a nice, easy to remember call sequence, many species have more complex characteristics, which are a lot harder to make sense of, especially with no one to guide you through the maze. 

I don't do many bird surveys, but when I'm doing a dawn bat survey, the dawn chorus is a wonderful thing and it really bugs me if I can't sort out who's who in my head, so I've recently returned to trying to expand my repertoire of calls I can ID. I've found two excellent resources, which have helped a lot.

The first is a series of radio programmes, originally broadcast on BBC Radio Four, in which ornithologists Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss, listen to birds, discuss the calls they hear and explain how they identify each call in a chatty and accessible way. You can buy each of the five series (garden, farmland, coastal, mountain and moorland and water birds) as CDs, though I've downloaded them as audiobooks and listen to them in the car. After listening to each one a few times I found the call characteristics finally started to cement themselves into my addled brain.

The second resource is an excellent app, which allows you to easily record bird calls using your mobile. It analyses them for you and suggests what species they are. Like all auto-id software it has to be treated with caution, but at worst it gives you a starting-point as to what the bird could be. In practice, I find it's remarkably good at picking up fainter calls and the accuracy is better than I expected. The app is called Birdnet, produced by Cornell University and is a free download from the app store. I found it astonishingly effective and easy to use.

There's a more advanced version from the same source called Merlin Bird ID. My go-to person for ornithology advice, Scott Bland reckons it's the bee's knees and Scott knows his stuff (that's a polite way of calling him a bird-geek).

When looking at any professional technique it's easy to fall into the mistake of thinking 'I can't do that', but, as my granny used to say, you don't know what you can do until you try. Phase 1 habitat surveys are an excellent tool for broad-brush assessment of habitats on a site, but the technique is actually easier to use than you might think. The new UKhabs habitat classification is starting to edge into the industry, but Phase 1 is so well-embedded in the industry it will be a long time before we see the last of it, so it's worth learning. The good news is that the handbook is freely available and I strongly recommend getting a copy, going out into the field and giving it a go. You can buy a copy, but if pennies are tight you can also download it free of charge from the JNCC website: Phase 1 habitat handbook.

You'll need a base map of the place you're practising (nature reserve, farmland, wherever you like) to write all over and there's no better place to get that for free than the Magic website (, from where you can print a large-scale map segment. Need a bigger map than A4? Sellotape is your friend!

There are a couple of things to bear in mind when you do this. The handbook will have you record each patch of habitat onto your map, using a specific brand of coloured pencils. This is very enjoyable, but not really necessary in this day and age, unless you like colouring in (my engineer step-sons seem convinced that's what I do for a living anyway). I scribble notes all over my map and then produce a fair copy later. If you're a whizz with the free GIS package QGIS you could produce a great map using that, but the object of this is to practise the field skills of identifying the many habitat types in the field, using the descriptions in the handbook.

Secondly, nowhere is it explained the scale you should work to, which confuses some people. The answer is quite simple - it depends on the purpose of the map you're creating. I have seen Phase 1 maps of entire counties, which inevitably have a "broad brush" approach. On the other hand, I've seen a supermarket car park beautifully mapped, with the different habitats within the flower beds all identified and marked. What earthly use the latter was, I do not know, but it was really colourful and pretty!

So, give it a go. Stoke up the hamster with some high-energy rodent treats, shove him in his wheel, get on the hamster-powered scooter and get out and about. Spend a few sunny days, pottering about, practising some Phase 1 mapping and identifying bird calls. Whilst you're at it, remember to stuff some field guides in your bag - species identification skills only come with practise - lots of it. Not only is it enjoyable and surprisingly therapeutic, what you learn will help give you a step up the career ladder and set you aside from those uni. class-mates you're now competing with for jobs. 

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Friday, 14 May 2021

The squircles of bat-worker hell

Regular readers of the revelations I occasionally reveal here will know that bat-work (and especially professional bat-work) is governed by a capricious, malicious, devious and mischievous bunch of bat-gods, who derive much pleasure from toying with us, like a cat toys with an unfortunate mouse (Ignore the gods of bat-work at your peril).

You may also have heard that, when a bat-worker snuffs it we may hope to be swept up by a scruffy-pipistrelle-standing-in-for-a-valkyrie and taken to the bat version of Valhalla, where the gods of bat-work will do their dodgy best to emulate the feastings halls of Norse heroes (Further news from the gods of bat-work). 

But what happens to bat-workers who fall under a bus, but have angered or disappointed the gods of bat-work, preventing entry to the chiropteran Valhalla? What happens to those who have not kept up their Bat Conservation Trust subscription or even - I hardly dare say it - never joined at all? If the bat-gods ever heard you use terrible utterances such as "It's only a common pip" or criticise the level of bat activity on your survey, then bat-worker Valhalla is not where you'll be going, my friend.

A gratuitous Noctule!

There is a deep, dark and terrible place where the gods of bat-work send expired bat-workers whom they consider deserving of terrible vengeance and suffering. In homage to the vision of hell in Dante's "Inferno" they have created five squircles of hell for you to suffer in. They should, of course be circles, but have you ever tried to draw a circle with just a wing to hold the pencil? Also, Dante's vision had nine circles, but like all aspects of wildlife conservation, the bat-gods are working to a tight budget. 

The first squircle of bat-worker hell seems innocuous enough. You'll be ushered to a comfortable, ergonomic swivel-chair before an enormous desk. When you open the top-end lap-top upon it your favourite bat call analysis software will be loaded, ready for you. But when you analyse the calls you find they are all Pipistrelles with a peak frequency of 50kHz, or Myotis calls with those subtle characteristics nicely jumbled (as they so often are in real life). In fact, every call you look at will be cryptic or confusing and, when you open the desk drawer in search of helpful books by Messrs. Russ or Middleton you will find nothing. And then you'll discover there's a deadline...

In the second squircle of bat-worker hell you will also have a nice lap-top and a mobile phone too. You will soon receive emails and phone calls from lots of cheerful people, all of whom really want to commission you to survey their enticingly interesting property. "This can't be bat-worker hell", you think. "I must have been sent to the wrong place, by mistake". But then they all say variants of the same fatal phrase "I've looked in the attic and there aren't any bats". Your heart sinks, as you realise you are doomed to listen to that phrase, as though on a tape-loop, for all of eternity...

At first the third squircle of bat-worker hell seems like you are participating in a normal sunset bat emergence survey and perhaps you begin to relax, thinking the worst is over. Then you hear them approaching and in a few moments the first of an ever-growing phalanx of grubby, snotty children arrive on a fleet of bicycles, scooters, skateboards and go-karts, all of them gathering around you. "Whatya doin?" "Whassat?" "Will bats eat my gran's cat?" "Do bats fart?" At first you try to answer their questions, but gradually the cacophony grows, you realise none of them are listening to you and as their numbers swell you feel yourself sinking to the bottom of a sea of inane chatter.

In the fourth squircle of bat-worker hell you find yourself strapped to a chair and forced to read a continuous flow of truly awful bat survey reports. You're subjected to a never-ending stream of Swallow droppings interpreted as bat roosts, barking mad conclusions drawn from minimal evidence, field mouse slaughter sites labelled as BLE feeding perches, site plans with inadequate surveyor positions, out-dated equipment used with pride, pointless job-creation sunset surveys of negligible suitability buildings, recommendations of illegal actions and so on, ad infinitum. When you feel you can take no more and begin to say "wibble" repeatedly, they bring out their pièce de résistance: a letter from a pest controller, explaining that he sat in the attic for half an hour and didn't see any bats.

The fifth squircle is where you realise you have definitely landed in hell and it is as bad as you might imagine. It is night and you are walking through the countryside, holding the bat detector of your dreams, but no sound comes from it. You walk for miles, but the detector remains silent. This is when you realise you are in a vision of the future. There are no bats - excessive use of pesticides, habitat loss, poor conservation funding and short-sighted policies have rendered them all extinct. And you're condemned to walk this bat-less land for eternity.

You should've paid your BCT sub, shouldn't you? 

BCT membership page

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Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Right place, right time - Daubies in the moonlight

Despite owning all sorts of camera equipment, it's a given that, whenever I see something I'd really like to capture, I don't have any of them to hand. Happily the latest iphone has solved that for me. I must be honest - I bought the very latest model just as it came out, only because I needed a new phone anyway - trend-setter I ain't!

So there I was, in one of those "wow, look at that" moments and for once I had the means to capture it in my pocket. A group of around 10 Daubenton's Bats, hunting over a moonlit lake in Northumberland last week, showing their prowess at grabbing prey from the water's surface. 

Beautiful and impressive.

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Monday, 10 May 2021

Field skills for early career ecologists

Every spring and early summer we receive a flow of emails and CVs from students and recent graduates, looking for ways to get a foothold in professional ecology. We have around 30 seasonal field ecologists working with us, but for everyone we hire, another half a dozen are disappointed. By early summer we see the more desperate emails, offering to work for nothing, just for the experience. 

This is of course a result of the profusion of ecology courses which spit out lots of shiny new BSc's with plenty of theoretical knowledge, but lack the field skills which would equip them for the world of professional ecology. The standard advice that seems to be proffered is "volunteer with local consultancies and with volunteer groups". It's excellent advice, except that consultancies should pay for your time, even if you're still developing your skills. Volunteer groups do what they can, but the increasing flood of demand outstrips the opportunities. 

This year, after a long period when Covid meant the only opportunities were on-line workshops (some of which were desperately insubstantial), I suspect that the demand will be even greater than ever. If you can afford to attend some of the better courses available (Field studies councilBatability etc) so much the good, but what if, loaded down with student debt or with a limited income, you simply can't afford that?

Here are my three suggestions for some self-directed, low-cost ways you can build up useful field skills this summer and make yourself attractive to potential employers.


1. Get your hands on a botanical field guide. Borrow it, steal it, but preferably buy it. Top of the list is the Francis Rose Wild Flower key. This is the most-used botanical key and balances ease of use (and pictures) with a professional standard of identification. Don't expect to pick it up and just use it - you'll need to spend some time studying how it's laid out. It includes plenty of advice on how to use it and an excellent glossary of terms. You'll also need a x10 hand-lens, often sold on eBay as a 'jeweller's loupe' for not a lot of money. 

Next get on your bike (or bus, car, scooter, souped-up wheelie-bin, or whatever is your transport of choice) and start visiting nature reserves, river-banks, woodlands, hedgerows etc - as wide a range of habitats as you can. At each site, aim to spend several hours simply trying to identify all the plants you find. Initially, this will frustrate you, but keep at it and you will gradually build up a knowledge of common wild flowers - an essential skill for any ecologist. 

It's a good idea to carry a hard-backed notebook and write a site species list on every visit. The species you find will, of course, change through the season, so keep going back. If you write out both the scientific name and common name for each species, each time you see it you will start to fix the scientific names in your head. It's also worth recording three or four bullet-points about each species, recording the key reasons you're able to identify it - this will force you to think critically about identification characteristics. 

Just as importantly, record everything you can't identify. Take photographs. Work out why you can't identify it - what's the blockage. Then when you get home you can search for the answer - there are lots of on-line resources to plunder!

2. Get a bat detector and learn to use it. A simple Magenta heterodyne machine will cost around £80, but if you can borrow one, so much the better. Don't think that you have to have a professional grade machine to learn the skills - you don't.

The National bat monitoring programme has lots of free resources and workshops to help you learn basic bat call ID skills. Get into the habit of going out in the evening in as many places as possible (be aware of your personal safety!) and finding out what bat species are about. What are they doing? Are there feeding buzzes or social calls? What visual behaviour is apparent? Consider everything you hear or see critically.

Apart from being enjoyable, being able to identify bat calls easily and rapidly is a core skill for anyone applying for work with an ecological consultancy. You can further develop these skills (and impress potential employers) by taking part in the National bat monitoring programme - doing field or waterway surveys near where you live and contributing to our understanding of bat population change. What are you waiting for?


3. Get a good bird guide (there are loads) and a pair of binoculars (good ones if possible, but a cheapie pair from Aldi is better than nothing). As with botany, get out and about, visiting different habitats and trying to identify everything you see. Keep notes on what you identify and niggle away at what you can't, trying to iron out those blockages.

There are many on-line resources and social media specialist groups, which can be a great help. Experts who don't have time to devote lots of time to helping you are often happy to spend a couple of minutes on Facebook or Twitter, correcting your identification or pointing you in the right direction when you can't separate two 'little brown birds' or all sedges look the same.

I could go on, but of course this approach works with almost any species group. I've just started moth-trapping and this is precisely how I'm learning (slowly!) to identify some of the many hundreds of moth species. 

Back in the 1980s a Tory minister was ridiculed for suggesting some of the 3 million unemployed 'get on their bikes and look for work'. Ill-conceived though that comment was, making your own opportunities often works. As an employer, I can tell you I will pay more attention to an applicant who tells me they bought some field guides, ransacked the internet and tried to build their skills than one who learned their skills on a course. The latter will have learned some valuable field skills, but the former has also displayed resourcefulness and energy - qualities all employers value.

So, if the help you need isn't available, don't despair. Have confidence in yourself and get on your bike (or souped-up wheelie-bin) and have a go. Take a friend (forcibly if necessary - it'll do them good). You'll be amazed what you learn and in a few months you'll be a lot more employable. And don't forget to submit all those valuable records you've made to your local biological record centre.

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Monday, 3 May 2021

An attic search

Creaking joists. Dusty cobwebs sweep my face. Trying to be silent whilst hunched and balanced. Progress is slow as I sweep my torch carefully.

Amongst the dust clogging my nostrils comes the hint of a different odour: organic, with a tang of urine. The ‘nose’ of bats. I cast around like a bloodhound, searching for the source.

Mouse droppings scattered about, like tiny bricks. Searching for the crumbling ones. Dodging the protruding nails.

The hint of a scratch? Maybe a scuffle? Edge closer, dimming the torch. Peer round a rafter. Scritch-scratch. There! A dozen faces stare back, ears erecting. Expressions like offended spinsters.

I slowly reverse. Stiff, dusty and delighted.

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