Zoo Nights and Hairy Pappus

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.

So, as it turns out the reptile translocation project has mostly been done in my absence and disappointingly there were hardly any reptiles anyway, lucky me I guess. I have been doing numerous bat surveys over the past month, including one dusk/dawn in the same day which was extremely hard to stay awake for! This month has also included my first full report write up - probably the simplest preliminary ecological appraisal (PEA) I could have hoped for - which I completed with minimal stress!

Above:  The aviary, you can just see the sun starting to rise in the background.

Above: The aviary, you can just see the sun starting to rise in the background.

The bat surveys have been great so far. I feel as though I have learnt a lot and I had the opportunity to go into a zoo at night, which has been a dream of mine since I was young. It pretty much lived up to my expectations (although it wasn’t as noisy as I’d expected/hoped). I had a chat with an owl (it kept asking me “who?”) and me and Lindsay spent some time after the survey watching the tawny frogmouth, one of the zoos more unusual bird species. The survey itself however was pretty uninteresting, with only a single pipistrelle being picked up on my bat detector the whole time. Still, my view of the sunrise through the huge outside aviary was incredible and worth staying up for. I’ve included some pictures, but they don’t come close to doing it justice.

Above:  Some of the inhabitants of the aviary, some sort of Ibis species I think but there wasn’t a plaque to read for information.

Above: Some of the inhabitants of the aviary, some sort of Ibis species I think but there wasn’t a plaque to read for information.

I have to say that at this point (and I may regret saying this), dawn surveys haven’t been anywhere near the level of deadly I had been led to believe, I’ve actually enjoyed them. Driving to the survey is definitely the worst bit, waking up from a two-hour nap at 01:30am to drive for an hour is not high-up on the list of things I enjoy about this job. Nevertheless, sitting there with my dawn gear on (jumper, jacket and a sleeping bag for my legs) is actually quite comfortable and the chances of actually seeing bats is increased as it is often too dark on dusk surveys to get a proper look. The dawn chorus is also great and seems to come out of nowhere as all the birds start singing at almost the same time. Some of my more memorable moments working for Ecology by Design so far have been during dawn surveys, including the appearance of a barn owl (Tyto alba) at a survey in Oxfordshire the other morning. It entered the barn from the opposite side to me and I was worried that I wouldn’t get a look, but about 40 minutes later it decided to exit on my side, a silent swoop and it was gone.

By now, I’ve gotten used to looking incredibly strange, sitting in weird places at weird times with my high-vis on looking for bats. One of my surveys the other day in Great Milton had me sat on the side of the main road through the village for the duration, looking at a building opposite. This was my first experience of sitting by the road during a survey and it was pretty amusing to note the amount of people who slowed down thinking me and Amanda were mobile speed cameras. One person slowed down so much to stare at me that he actually stalled his car in the middle of the road right in front of me and had to hurriedly restart his engine – embarrassing I’m sure. After hearing my comments on this, Anthony, one of the other surveyors said that he’s had it numerous times with someone even slowing down once to shout “get a real job” at him, obviously again assuming he was a speed camera and not simply looking for bats.

One of the more memorable days in the office also occurred a few weeks ago when we had Sam – the resident botany expert – give us a dry run of a course he intends on running in the near future. The course was entitled ‘An introduction to using botanical keys’ and was a useful refresher for everyone in the company. The course ran smoothly and was a lot more fun than I was expecting to be honest, botany has never been at the peak of my interests. A few botanical terms had people laughing, my favourite of which being hairy pappus. I’m not entirely sure what a hairy pappus is still, but it sure is memorable. I haven’t had much of a chance to work alongside Sam during my time here, which is something I would like as he is extremely knowledgeable in areas where I fall short (botany, but he’s also an expert on Diptera). Hopefully this will change after mentioning it to Ben at my review last week. If you are reading this as a potential future placement student for Ecology by Design, don’t let the mention of a review put you off, it was more of a casual meeting to ensure I was getting the most out of my time here than anything scary.

My first full report was a PEA that Jo and I  carried out, it was a 1.5-hour drive to a site that would take half that time to assess. It was however my first chance to fully complete a PEA on a site. We completed a preliminary roost assessment (PRA) at the same time, looking for potential roosting features and access points into the four buildings on-site. We also looked for any direct evidence of bats but found nothing. We did find butterfly wings (like in my previous blog post), but unlike last time these ones lacked the head that bats will usually leave and were therefore not direct evidence of bats, more likely spiders or birds. We did find a blue tit nesting on one portion of a building as well, which would need special consideration as nesting birds are protected, however it is unlikely this nest will still be present when any building works go ahead. All in all, I enjoyed the experience and the responsibility of completing a PEA from start to finish, even though it was a fairly straightforward one. Getting involved in all stages of the process, from field-work to report writing, is one of the best parts of working at a growing company like this and something that a lot of my MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills colleagues are missing from their particular placements. This obviously means that the pressure to get things right is higher and so are my responsibilities, but I feel like I am getting a more genuine experience of what it is like to be an ecologist, rather than just a field surveyor/health & safety buddy like a few of my fellow MSc SISS students have mostly been used as.

As I approach the half-way mark of my placement, I have had time to review my current progress. I feel I have come quite far already in developing the knowledge essential to effectively carry out most of the basic surveys expected of me; PEA’s, PRA’s, great crested newt surveys, and bat surveys. It takes years to gain the knowledge and experience to be an expert at any of these, but I feel like I have a good start where I am now. Having the responsibility of writing my own reports and suggesting appropriate mitigation strategies has also given me a greater sense of achievement than simply conducting fieldwork, as I feel more like I am positively contributing to wildlife in a more tangible way. The only thing I have been disappointed in so far is the minimal reptile work and lack of any reptiles at any of my surveys so far – hopefully this will change in the future and I’ll see at least one reptile by the end of my placement, but we will see.

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