Have I Got Newts for You...

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.

This is my second blog post now and I’m writing this at the beginning of bat survey season. So far, I have been on two dusk surveys, but as it’s still relatively early in the year sunset isn’t too late and therefore neither are the finishes. Dusk surveys start at around sunset so the later the sun sets the later I get home to bed. So far, it has been really interesting, but I’ve only had the chance to see a handful of species - something I hope will change by the end of the season. The first time I was out I had all the usual worries – is my bat detector even on? How will I know what species it is? Why on earth didn’t I bring bug spray? – everyday things that everyday people worry about. Luckily, we have walkie-talkies which allow us to communicate with each-other during the survey and I could ask questions as we went. So far, my sleepiness isn’t taking too much of a toll but I’m sure this will change once I am put on one of the dreaded dawn surveys which start about 2 hours before sunrise.

See the pipistrelle? See? (It was better in person)

Listening to bats on the bat detector was new to me, they emit a very strange sound when flying in order to detect prey and analyse their surroundings, this is called echolocation. Different bat species have different sounding calls depending on their preferred method of foraging and the habitat which they utilise the most. I spent a few hours last week reading up on bat echolocation whilst listening to bat calls on the computer in an attempt to learn some before I went out. Some of the calls are distinctive enough that this was relatively easy, whereas others are almost impossible to tell apart without taking into account other factors such as geographical location or flight pattern. Watching bats dart about whilst foraging is great, but I can’t help but wish I had some fancy night vision goggles straight out of James Bond that would allow me to see them properly - damn bats and their nocturnal habits (and damn night vision goggles for being so expensive). I did get a chance to see a bat in daylight during a PRA (preliminary roost assessment) the other week which I’ll include a (rather rubbish) picture of. We were doing a follow up on an out of date roost assessment and the old report mentioned a single bat lodged between the concrete and outside cladding of the barn, sure enough there was a bat in a very similar position during our survey (although it’s unlikely to be the same bat).

great crested newt eft
juvenile new

It hasn’t all been bats though, just because it’s bat season doesn’t mean the variety has stopped. One of my highlights was the Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) licensing course that I participated in at the start of May. This involved a 3-hour lecture on British amphibians which went over their I.d. features, ecology and conservation status. We also learnt about the pros and cons of different survey techniques and which of these would require a GCN license. The second part of the course involved the practical side of things where we went out to a BBOWT (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire wildlife trust) site and torched and bottle-trapped some of the ponds. This ran late into the evening and involved a 5am start but it was worth it to finally get to handle and see A LOT of GCN alongside a fair few smooth newts (Lissotriton vulgaris). We also got to see some GCN efts which I have included a picture of, you can tell it’s a young GCN by the black speckling which develops into the toxin glands under the skin of the adult newt, giving it it’s warty appearance. I also had to complete an online test following the course in order to obtain a reference (which can be used to support my application to Natural England for a GCN surveying license), I’m still waiting on the results, but fingers crossed!

bat feeding remains

I have been on another PRA recently in the Oxfordshire countryside, it was an interesting one because we had been advised to keep our eyes open for any evidence of Barn owls (Tyto alba) nesting in the barn. Unfortunately, it seems that this warning was unwarranted as there was no evidence of a Barn owl ever making use of the barn – disappointing stuff. However, we did find evidence of bats in the form of both droppings, and a moth/butterfly graveyard. Jo did inform me that this wasn’t necessarily bat evidence as birds will also consume butterflies, but one difference is that bats will usually leave the head, something that was evident on a lot of the husks including the one pictured. As there were bat droppings present they were collected to be sent off for DNA sampling if necessary to determine which species they belong to. The droppings were also sufficient evidence for dusk/dawn surveys to be carried out on the site in order to assess if it is currently being used as a roost, I look forward to revisiting the site on the off-chance it has a very secretive barn owl living in it – but this seems very unlikely.

I have spent most of my time so far working out in the field, participating in various projects as a field ecologist. As a result, I haven’t had much time in the office (something I’m grateful of thanks to the wonderful weather) – but this changed at the end of last week when Lindsay asked me to complete a background desk study (BDS) for her. After some initial confusion I completed the report alongside another with few amendments needed from Lindsay. She informed me that it takes a while to get the details sorted but once you do it is second nature, I’m looking forward to it coming as naturally to me as it does to her. I have since also spent time contributing to a Reptile survey report which will be completed sometime near the end of the month (May) once all of the data has been collected. So far, there’s been zero reptiles – but this may change before the end of the survey.

Since starting this second blog post I have also been informed that I passed my Great crested newt identification and surveying test and have since been sent a certificate of completion, so I’m another step closer to obtaining my surveyors license. Despite having seen a lot of newts in the last few weeks, I still haven’t seen a single reptile on the job yet, but hopefully this will change soon as I have been assigned to help out on a reptile translocation project later in the month. Ben said I’ll be sick of Slow worms (Anguis fragilis) by the end of it, and while this may be true I’d still rather be sick of them than sick of waiting for them to show up (damn slow lizards). So, expect to hear lots about reptiles in my next post (alongside more bats as bat season is in full swing!).

To follow my progress more, check out my twitter (@AlfrescoJoe) or my instagram (Josefchidzey).