Bats, Mats and Automobiles: My first month at Ecology by Design

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Hi, my name is Joseph and I’m a student studying MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills at the University of Reading. I’m currently on my placement at Ecology by Design and have decided to write a blog to document my progress.

I’m writing this blog both for my benefit – keeping track of everything I’ve done during my placement – but also for the benefit of anyone considering a career in ecology. I’ll update it about once a month with highlights from my placement, both good and bad, in order to document my experiences from a more human perspective.

My first day was relatively uninteresting compared to every other day, but there were some highlights. The only one I’ll talk about, however, is my welcome talk with the company director Ben Gardner. We headed over to the on-site café for a chat about what I was hoping to gain from my placement here, and I had a chance to ask Ben some questions to help me with my assessment later down the line. The informal chat reinforced my reasons for wanting to work for a smaller, and less corporate company from the get-go; a more personal relationship with my bosses and co-workers, as well as being valued more as an individual. Ben made this clear by informing me that if there was any area I had a particular interest in specialising in, he would make this happen by providing me with/paying for the training I need. I told him I was particularly interested in invertebrate and bird surveying and here, just two weeks in, I’m already booked on to help Sam with moth trapping – something that I enjoy and have experience with from my undergraduate dissertation. The diversity of tasks I have been assigned already was far greater than I was expecting from my first two weeks, and although it is a lot to take in, it is clear that practical experience is the best way to cement knowledge, especially in ecology. 

On my second day I headed up to Birmingham to complete a preliminary ecological appraisal (PEA) on a small site in central Birmingham. Now you may be thinking a central Birmingham location would be devoid of all nature, but you’d be wrong. The habitat we surveyed was interesting both in terms of what was there, and the location it was situated in. The site also had numerous records of black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros). Knowing this prior to arrival meant that every bird I spotted seemed to morph into a black redstart before revealing itself to be something far more common, like a robin (Erithacus rubecula). The habitat itself seemed relatively uninteresting on first arrival, but Lindsay – one of the more senior ecologists out with me - noticed the diversity of habitats across such a small site, which qualified as open mosaic habitat, making it particularly important for invertebrate biodiversity.

My third day started with putting out reptile mats on a small piece of land in the Oxfordshire countryside. Although this was only walking around a field dropping mats alongside its margins, it still involved being out in the sunshine as opposed to being confined permanently to an office - this was definitely the sort of thing I wanted to be doing. I also compiled a bird and plant list for the site whilst I was there with the help of Kate which made the trip a little more interesting, although there was nothing particularly rare or unusual at this site. Later in the day I was out on my first preliminary roost assessment with Emily. After assessing the attic of a small house for any potential for roosting bats, we made our way outside to have a look for any access points bats may be using. It was outside in the sunshine when I spotted my first comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) of the year. We also found some interesting wasp nests on the ceiling of the garage which were unfortunately (or fortunately depending on who you ask) unoccupied.

The second week (my first full week), started with office work, a short meeting, and some surprisingly good cake. After a short catch up/cake meeting, I used the morning to work on my portfolio alongside this blog (before deleting the first draft in its entirety). The afternoon however was far more interesting, grass I.D. training run by Sam. Although this was something covered during the teaching part of my MSc, the small size of our “class” meant I gained a lot more out of it than I expected – despite getting distracted by a 22-spot ladybird (Psyllobora vigintiduopunctata) half way through.

Joseph Chidzey
 What happens when you give your co-workers your phone to take pictures for the blog!

What happens when you give your co-workers your phone to take pictures for the blog!

My first trip away for work was on the Thursday of my second week. We were heading up to Telford to survey a few ponds for great crested newts (GCN). This involved a long drive up to Keele first to put out some reptile mats for a reptile survey, before heading back in to Telford and the small village of Shifnal to check in to the hotel. Afterwards, we went for a curry at the Shifnal Balti – even more delicious when you don’t have to pay for it yourself – before heading to the ponds to put out bottle traps (pictured) and do some torching. The following morning, we had a fairly early start to check the bottle traps before any potential captives suffered from the rising sun. Unfortunately for me my first newt survey turned up a grand total of zero newts from start to finish, but a trip back to the hotel for breakfast and use of their gym and sauna numbed the pain of disappointment. The afternoon of the last day of my first full week was a bit more of a slog, sitting through a 3-hour training meeting for an eDNA project we would be working on. The training probably could have been condensed a bit but despite this and a late finish on the Friday due to the drive home, my first full week had been really enjoyable.

On the first day of my second full week, I got to try out the eDNA skills practically after listening to the training on Friday and watching my mentor Jo’s eDNA training video several times (including once in the training itself, here’s a link if you want to see for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiQzGafwihE). It was as straightforward as it sounded, instructions were even provided with the sampling kit, so there was little scope for things to go wrong. It was a pretty sparse day in terms of things that I needed to do, so I spent most of the rest of the day researching for my MSc portfolio which I have to complete as part of my placement assessment (you’ll know all about this if you’re an MSc SISS student). I did however, also get the chance to join in on a meeting, brainstorming ideas for an ongoing ecological development project in a small parish in Buckinghamshire. This was a great chance to listen in on ideas from more experienced ecologists, as well as suggest a few of my own.

The second day was a bit more of a drag - ROLO training in Guildford. ROLO stands for register of land-based operatives and is essential health and safety training for anyone working in the land-based sector. Despite the course content being extremely common-sense orientated, and the fact that I had completed similar courses in previous jobs, Estelle who ran the training managed to make it relatively painless. It was a long day however and we decided to plough through most of lunch in order to finish early (I was hoping to miss the traffic). Unfortunately, despite completing the multiple-choice test as rapidly as possible, this was not the case and I ended up being home later than normal. The e-mail informing me that I’d passed a few days later made it all worth it though, and now I can get on with preparing for my CSCS (Construction Skills Certificate Scheme) card exam (another multiple choice test don’t worry!), which I obviously can’t wait for.

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The Wednesday was another late start - after midday. This is always great as it means missing the horrific Reading commute traffic. The late start was because we were doing invertebrate sampling – which includes moth trapping in the evening. The project was on a site in Gloucestershire, where the owners were hoping to build a house under paragraph 55 – a clause in planning policy which allows exceptionally designed homes to be built in rural areas. The basic conditions to meet the requirements of paragraph 55 are that there should be a net-gain in biodiversity after the house is built – hence the need to monitor invertebrate biodiversity beforehand. This will hopefully be an ongoing project in which I can participate in the future as it would be really interesting to see if the house does have a positive impact on biodiversity. We found some interesting species whilst Sam carried out the sweep netting, including a Dotted bee-fly (Bombylius discolor), a species I had never seen before that Sam effortlessly removed from the net and grasped by its limbs, giving me a chance to get a great photo (right). I also saw another new butterfly species to add to my year list in the form of the Green-veined white (Pieris napi), amongst two other species I had already seen; the Comma (Polygonia c-album) and the Peacock (Aglais io). The site however, didn’t seem to be particularly biodiverse in its invertebrate assemblage – something that became apparent when moth trapping turned up a total of only three unique species (and only 5 individuals). We would have expected more moth species in the trap on such a warm night, but hopefully this will be something that the construction of the house can actually improve in future when we return to monitor it. The nature of moth trapping meant that it was a very late finish - almost midnight by the time I had driven home – but as we manage our own time and the rest of the week only involved eDNA sampling I had a chance to start later than normal the next day. Besides, I got to eat at a fancy pub as compensation (spiced lamb tagine pie, one of the best I’ve ever had).

Monday of week three was another 10:00am start, so I had another chance to have a lie-in and miss that dreaded traffic. The reason for this was that we were driving up to Leicester to stay overnight doing a GCN survey on a golf course. This was alongside another company and in total there were 8 of us to put out 500 bottle traps. It might sound like a lot but between all of us it didn’t take too long to get all the traps out for the night before retiring to a nearby pub for dinner. The pub wasn’t quite as fancy as the one me and Sam had eaten in the week before, and unfortunately this translated to the WORST pie I’ve ever been served in a pub – a mere 5 days after my god-like pie in Burford. I won’t go into detail on the pie as this is not a food review blog – but calling it bad would be complimentary. After dinner we headed back out to torch the ponds (that is, shine torches on them to look for newts, not set them on fire – a much more difficult task I’m sure).  This was when I got my first fleeting glimpse of a newt whilst on the job. The ponds on the golf course were generally good quality in terms of both suitable vegetation and water-quality (they all had a highly diverse invertebrate assemblage at a glance), so it was no surprise that newts were present. This got me excited for the morning as I might finally get a chance to see some newts up close, something that I had been previously deprived of on my trip up to Telford.

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The next morning arrived, and it did not disappoint. The first pond turned up a total of two male smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris), these were awesome to see up close, but these were not the newts I was looking for. In the second pond we found more smooth newts, three females this time, this was clearly where all the ladies liked to hang out but still, no GCN. The third of our five ponds was newtless (at least the traps were), but I did find an impressive great diving beetle (Dytiscidae – Dytiscus marginalis), which I’ve included a picture of. Finally, at the fourth pond we found what we were looking for – a large male GCN (Triturus cristatus). This was my first chance to see one up close and I managed to get a great photo of Kate demonstrating the proper handling technique before he was returned to the water. All in all, a successful day of bottle trapping.

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Overall, my first month has been far more varied that I was expecting it to be. The number of different tasks on my Outlook calendar (on my fancy new work phone might I add) was initially daunting, but this was unwarranted as my colleagues were more than happy to share their wisdom and help me learn. I am yet to do any evening or early morning bat work, something that many ecologists dread, so the next blog may be of a different (slightly sleepier) tone, but for now everything I’ve done has been enjoyable - even the long drives to some of the sites.

To follow my progress more, check out my Twitter (@AlfrescoJoe) or my Instagram (Josefchidzey).