Advice, a Violet Beetle and a Lady in Blue

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.

Approaching the end of my six-month placement has been a mixed bag to say the least. On the one hand, it’s the busiest time of the year for ecologists, cramming in the last bat surveys of the year whilst also trying to stay sane writing reports. On the other hand, I have been offered a job, have finished my master’s degree (bar actually graduating) and have gained a lot of experience and knowledge through my placement. This final blog post will cover some of my advice for the final push for MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills (MScSISS) students, as well as a few of my highlights from the last couple of months.

The Portfolio

My Portfolio Cover Page. Probably my favourite page of the whole document.

My Portfolio Cover Page. Probably my favourite page of the whole document.

Finishing my portfolio took up a lot of my spare time during month 5 of my placement. This was tough on top of working the 40-hour weeks which involved late nights and early starts for bat surveys. Still, with the final push on the weekend before it was due I managed to complete it to a standard I am proud of (we’ll see if my final mark reflects this). Some advice I would give to any future MScSISS students is to keep on top of your portfolio throughout your placement, or at the very least keep notes on important details/projects so that you can recall them later. Luckily, I kept track of this through a colour-coded table of every project and report I had worked on. This meant that when it came down to summarising my time here and presenting what I had learnt I had an easy reference to go by. The second piece of advice I would give would be to get as much of it done prior to bat season starting. This is because during bat season you will be tired from working unusual hours and the motivation to work on such a large piece of work in your spare time will be extremely hard to force, trust me.

The Final Symposium

As month 5 came to a close, and my portfolio had been sent off for scrutiny, it was time to prepare for the final push. This was the final “symposium” held at the RSK office in Coventry. The symposium was nowhere near as formal or scary as everyone had been worried about. Firstly, it was not in front of a huge crowd like everyone was expecting, just fellow MSc SISS students, Dr M, and a member of RSK’s ecology team. Secondly, the interview was very informal, and the questions were the same for every student to ensure fairness. This meant that it was not really in the style of an interview but more of an oral exam. Be prepared for a long day and a lot of overlap in the content of the presentations, especially when it comes to the ones focusing on bats. My presentation was on common pipistrelles and we were tasked with presenting as if to a potential client about the survey methods we would typically use, and common mitigation strategies ecologists would recommend. I would highly advise picking a species that you are comfortable with, ideally one that you have done a lot of work with during your placement. I picked common pipistrelle for this very reason as it was almost certainly the species I most often encountered. I found that this helped me have a less formal presentation where I could openly discuss the relevant ecology and mitigation as if it were just any normal interaction with a client.

Overall it was a rather unusual end to the masters, with Dr M taking his obligatory photo at the end, and that was that. The final marks should be with me some time in the near future and graduation is the only thing keeping me from thinking of myself as an official and true adult (probably a few years too late).

Obligatory end of degree photo courtesy of @DrMGoesWild. Try and avoid it, I dare you.

Obligatory end of degree photo courtesy of @DrMGoesWild. Try and avoid it, I dare you.

The Spookiest Survey

The roof – featuring spooky window.

The roof – featuring spooky window.

My final bat survey of the year was one of my most interesting (and mentally straining) of them all. This was due to the location of the survey itself, as well as my position which was unusual to say the least. The survey took place at a large manor, which is apparently one of Berkshire’s most haunted properties. The ‘lady in blue’ was my company for the duration of the survey as I sat on the roof of this 16th century manor. My position was less than ideal. Whereas in previous surveys I have been sat in the gardens of residential properties, or on the side of the road, this survey had me on the roof of the building immediately adjacent to a creaky window, with another window directly opposite. Both windows were right next to the features I had been tasked with observing. Now, I have never believed in ghosts before that night, and I’m happy to say I still don’t, but that did not stop Ben from trying his best to scare me, nor did it stop my eyes being constantly drawn back to the windows expecting to see the screaming face of some spectre. Still, the survey was interesting, and I kept in mind that it would be my last survey of the season which kept me going.

Moving Newts

Carabus violaceus , sometimes called the violet ground beetle.

Carabus violaceus, sometimes called the violet ground beetle.

During September I took part in a great crested newt (GCN) translocation near Aylesbury. This was a welcome break from all the bat work and it gave me a chance to finally see some more GCN on the job. The translocation involved walking the perimeter fence and checking all the artificial refugia and buckets for GCN before moving them to one of the designated receptacle points off of the site. The first few times I took part in the translocation were fairly disappointing with the only action being a lot of annoyed carabid beetles and single common toad. Carabid beetles are usually quite large and very impressive to look at, a lot of them are nocturnal and are often overlooked so being able to see them alive and close up was still quite exciting, especially the quantity that ended up in the buckets. One of these beetles, Carabus violaceus has a particularly impressive violet hue on the thorax and fringes of the abdomen when held under sunlight (pictured above). I spent a lot of my mornings in September removing these beetles and various other invertebrates from the buckets with not a newt in sight.

After several weeks of intermittently visiting the site (the buckets were checked on a daily basis but not always by me), I finally saw my first GCN in months. At this point I had also seen hundreds of carabids and other inverts, several smooth newt juveniles and a few more toads, likely because the weather had started to turn slightly more wet from the insanely hot and dry summer that we had. By the end of the translocation we were actually seeing several GCN per day indicating that the change in weather conditions had caused them to become active. Prior to this I was beginning to question why we had bothered setting up the translocation in the first place. I think the final count was in the tens, so it was vastly more successful than the first couple of weeks had suggested.

My Experience

I thought I’d round off my blog posts with a short summary of all of the various surveys and tasks I have been involved with. This is so that any potential future candidates for a placement or graduate job at Ecology by Design can have a look at the types of work their day-to-day will potentially involve, and so that anyone interested can see what the day-to-day job of an ecologist looks like. Obviously, this changes on a yearly basis, next year there could be a lot more water vole work for example, or surveys for hazel dormouse. Therefore, this should only be seen as a general guide to the sort of work you might experience and by no means is it an itinerary for next summer’s work!

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It’s more than likely that I’ve missed a few things off of this list, especially when it comes to office-based tasks as I was less diligent about recording these. But, as you can see, I’ve experienced a lot of the most common tasks expected of graduate ecologists. In fact, my experience was a lot more varied than I was initially expecting and I had a lot more responsibility than I was expecting also, something that I enjoy. Some of my course mates at other consultancies were treated mostly as extra bodies for health and safety purposes so it was nice to be trusted enough to carry out tasks unsupervised, whilst still having the whole team just a phone call away if I needed advice. Not only this, but I have been lucky enough to participate in a lot of training for free (courtesy of Ben) that I would otherwise have to have paid for by myself. It goes without saying that I’ve enjoyed my placement thoroughly and am optimistic about my career in ecology. My extremely unbiased opinion therefore, is that anyone looking for a placement with variety at a flourishing consultancy should look no further (as long as, like me, you ain’t afraid of no ghost).

If you have any questions about the blog, ecology, or anything specific to a placement at Ecology by Design, please feel free to message me on either Twitter or Instagram or contact me via my work email: joe@ecologybydesign.co.uk

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