Bat Calls and Knob Twiddling at Dusk

Following on from Butterfly and Bees last week, last night was time for another volunteer training event as my duller, identical-and-yet-oddly-slightly-less-attractive twin’s workaday life once again intruded on my precious complaining time.

This time it wasn’t me – ahem, I mean my twin – running the training, but an actual, proper, real-life expert from the Bat Conservation Trust who knew what he was all about and everything. Most disconcerting. I might actually have to put a little more effort in for my next event if my volunteers begin to expect this level of knowledge. As Mr BCT went about his training, showing me up for the disorganised, improv, make-it-up-as-I-go-along teacher that I am, I happily retreated into my natural role of putting the kettle on and ensuring everyone had a hot cup of tea and biscuit. I think I’ve missed a calling.

A photo of people standing around in the dark.

A photo of people standing around in the dark.

After a couple of hour’s background and quizzing on pitch, repetition rate, tonal quality and rhythm, we headed out onto Battersea Park with our heterodynes to see what we could find. Passing a cricket match, still ludicrously and inexplicably continuing in the murk, we got our first click; excitement! But alas, it was merely my rather fetching yet static-inducing waterproof scrapping against itself. We didn’t have to wait too long, however. Dodging the lunatic runners and suspect dog walkers you encounter in the urban greenspace gloaming, we soon got our first Pip, diving and swooping along the edge of the lake. A knob twiddle gave the deepest audio at 45KHz indicated that this was, as expected, a Common Pip. Working around the lake, we soon got our first Nathusius’ Pip, swooping in low, all curiosity, over our heads. Later, there was apparently a Leisler, but this must have been while I was off doing something super important and I missed it. Annoyingly, this would have been a first for me.

As the cold started to bite, I reverted to my childhood and had a crack at ‘Bat Stoning’. A little research reveals that this is neither a cruel form of medieval animal cruelty, nor is it something that I just made up. Indeed the art of tossing small stones in the air to trick a bat into swooping for it apparently made an appearance on that bastion of environmental education Springwatch a few years back. I think it was the hairy one and the smug one having a go. I wonder who taught me? Perhaps my granddad. Either way, last night they weren’t biting.

So what did I learn? Well, that Serotines are basically Jazz Noctules and that I’m good at judging call rhythm (formerly a (rubbish) bassist), but not so good at judging pitch (old man ears and too much Tom Waits turned up to 11). I learned that my ‘sonic memory’ is slowly improving, but that there’s no substitute for actually getting out there and having a go when it comes to species ID (OK, I already knew that). I also learned that some of those childhood wildlife games you play might be more universal than you think and that it’s hard to keep up the pretense of a secret identity for even 535 words.

Butterfly Surveys and Harnessing Volunteer Knowledge

Finally, after a number of aborted attempts, a couple of weeks ago it was finally warm enough for me to run my much anticipated (well, by me at least) butterfly and bee ID training days. I know, I know, you wish you could have been there too, and you’re right to do so. You missed an absolute treat – 2 peacocks, 1 red admiral, a small tortoiseshell, a comma and a Hairy Footed Flower Bee. It was a bonanza!

Bizarrely, for someone generally so curmudgeonly and introverted, I really do rather enjoy running training sessions for volunteers. Perhaps it’s a sign of my egocentricity winning out over my misanthropy.

But it was, of course, bound to happen. It always does. It’s happened on pretty much every volunteer training day I’ve ever delivered – particularly those around species ID, or a specific site. There’s always a volunteer with more knowledge and experience than you. But don’t fear it, embrace it. Don’t feel as though you need to assert your authority (this really isn’t the right sector for that kind of thing at all). Don’t feel the need to become overly didactic and dispense instructions, just to see that they are followed. For this particular survey and training event, I’ve harnessed that knowledge. My volunteer, with bags of local understanding of butterflies on the Common, has been consulted and co-opted into designing the form and route of my butterfly transect. Without this, I wouldn’t have known about a particular frequenting of a specific tree by Purple Hairstreaks. My original route completely avoided this area.

For me, this not only highlights my own la-di-da, commie, inclusive philosophy to training and volunteering, but also the need to get some pre-training information about your volunteers. It’s always advisable to send out an email asking about relevant experience so you can properly target and organise.

It’s tempting to search for any slight error in their knowledge and pounce on it, but that lends itself to pettiness. Start a conversation. There’s a prevalent aversion these days to discussing what we don’t understand, that we need to know a definitive answer for everything. Ecology is just as, if not more, prone to individuals of a smart-arse, know-it-all persuasion. You might feel it unedifying to admit ignorance, particularly in a subject you are supposed to be delivering training on, but it is not something I’ve ever had a problem with (and a good job too, I hear you say).

And so we wound our way around the Common, working through our early-showers, the adult hibernators that I’d rather hoped my volunteers would already be familiar with. Next were the tricksy, flighty Whites that never stop still long enough to get a good bloody look at their wing-tips (for discerning Large from Small) or underwing (Female Orange Tips, Green-Veined).

white butteflies

White butterfly from L to R: Large, Small, Female Orange Tip, Green Veined. To differentiate between Large and Small, look at the wing -tips (more black around outer edge in Large), don’t rely on anything as ephemeral and subjective as size. Good look spotting the difference in flight. Green Veined and Female Orange Tip can be distinguished by distinctive underwings

Small and Essex Skippers: Just as a quiz*, I showed my novices a Small and Essex and asked them to spot the difference. They managed it. The first reader to tell me which is which and why wins a lifetime subscription to the blog and a cryptic name-check in my next post

Small and Essex Skippers: Just as a quiz*, I showed my novices a Small and Essex and asked them to spot the difference. They managed it. The first reader to tell me which is which and why wins a lifetime subscription to the blog and a cryptic name-check in my next post

Then the Browns, the Skippers and on to the Blues. This is where I professed a little ignorance, having previously largely surveyed through woodland and only really regularly come across one or two species. Rather wonderfully, my expert volunteer picked up where I left off, and I learned a whole lot more than I already knew about my Holly, Small, Adonis and Common Blues. That’s the point I’m trying to make, I suppose. Training can be as much about teaching yourself as it is about teaching others. I know that sounds hideously mawkish and sentimental, especially coming from my keyboard, but to drop a stat I’ve recently seen – we retain 90% of information when we teach it to another person. Or as my old mentor used to say ‘See one, Do one, Teach one.’

Of course, this all well and good until your self-proclaimed expert is wrong. What if he’s one of the many volunteers (indeed, people) who just thinks he knows? Well, for those occasions I advise carrying a large stick.

*And if you fancy another, here’s a butterfly ID quiz I made for some volunteers a few years back – I recently tried it and didn’t get 20 out of 20 and I wrote the bloody thing.

Green with Envy

A quick pop quiz for all you environmentalists out there. Tell me if any of the following is familiar:

I'm getting the most out of some of my stock images

I’m getting the most out of some of my stock images

You’re in the pub with a group of greeny type associates (of course you are, where else do environmentalists gather?) In turn, they each mention that they are; Working on a really cool project at the moment, thanks very much; Have just got their newt/pesticide/bat license; are starting their own niche company combining artisan beer and bushcraft or are about to jet out to the Amazon to study an obscure type of annelid worm. Do you:

a) Congratulate them and buy another round as a celebration, even though it’s not your turn.

b) Quickly make up something really great that you’ve been doing at work recently, when in reality you’ve been stuck in the office all week entering species data in excel.

c) Brood over your pint and secretly want to stab them in the eye while also being grudgingly happy for them.

OK, I’ll admit it, I put a) in as a bit of a laugh. But be honest, it’s c) isn’t it?

I’m not going to claim that this is something unique to environmentalists. It’s just that of course we tend to have differing value systems to many, so this jealousy is not generally of the ‘how much’ variety*. We tend to get jealous about the oddest things.

What’s this got to do with Conservation, you might ask? Where are the Adventures? Where’s this coming from (and where the hell is it going)? Well I tracked back my irritation this week to this post by a former volunteer chum of mine:CCpic

Now, I know that Facebook is just one giant, universal game of brag concocted by our Lizard overlords to keep us all distracted, but this was beyond the pail (pale?). This had gone past one-upmanship. This had effectively ‘won Facebook’ for me. How can you compete with this? My friend has essentially dropped into visit, told me all about her amazing project and left before I’ve had a chance to make something up about my life.

On top of this I get regular updates from two other former colleagues, lounging around in far-flung corners writing blogs of their own. I’m not sure Adventures in Conservation, with its tales of misanthropy and barely concealed contempt for its fellow man can compete with that from its concrete home in the grim urban environs of Stockwell.

It’s not just the readership, though. It’s the growing pool of experienced and qualified applicants and a diminishing well of opportunities and resources in the sector. You see, I didn’t just think of a good title and then decide to write any old nonsense after all – this was merely a ruse to make a point about the competitive nature of my field and how some of us get to do really cool stuff and the rest of us just sit at home writing about it. I don’t know, maybe you don’t suffer these pangs of envy. Maybe I’m just a self-centered git.

And yet…and yet given all this I’m still glad (through the gnawing jealousy) when an associate gets a great new job, starts an interesting project, gets some good publicity or, damn them, swans off to some far-fetched part of the globe to prance around in the jungle counting monkeys or some such.

Still, I’ve got my chainsaw license and I did chase Wallabies around the Isle of Man for a couple of months. I’ve got that to fall back on at least.

*As an aside, trust me on this, some people from other walks of life can get rather angry when you reject the value system they have imposed on themselves. Which amuses me no end.

Larkhall Park Dawn(ish) Chorus

Today, I thought I’d combine an ode to urban green space with a spot of Citizen Science, but as it turns out I’m far too lazy to get up for a proper Dawn Chorus. I just don’t have the constitution and innate masochism that would consider 5 am as a reasonable time to get up. And so it’s a not-entirely-pathetic 7 am before I bimble (if one can bimble at 7 am) the embarrassingly short distance to my local park.

'Welcome to Larkhall Park'

‘Welcome to Larkhall Park’

Larkhall Park, if I’m being brutally honest, doesn’t have a great deal going for it. It appears to be one of those green spaces the local council has earmarked as an important local resource and has thus taken the logical step of tarmac-ing over it and installing ‘facilities’ to enhance this amenity value. But I digress, I was here to talk about birds

I may be late, but the birds are still active and chirping away and there’s a low mist still hanging over the Park like a bad metaphor. It’s the kind of early morning haze that were I of a more artistic persuasion might provoke a particularly verbose elegy. But I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing.

First, I hear the House Sparrows whirring and churring in the climbers by the wall, bombing in and out, back and forth. They’re much more active at this time of day than is decent. They’re not the only ones. It seems the people of Stockwell are also wide-awake, but then I’ve always suspected they are not entirely right-minded round this way.

Robins and blackbirds are, of course, ubiquitous, as are Blue and Great tits. One of the latter appears to be mucking about with his song, throwing in odd ad-libs just to confuse me. They tweet as a young woman walks past, staring at her phone, (this is where, had I been made of sterner stuff, I would not have baulked at making a joke about both using tweets to announce their location and activity. But I didn’t. So that’s all right then). She’s rather emphatically attired for this time of day and I hesitate to say ‘walk of shame’ but…well…

Robins know no shame, though. They’re busy with their back and forth barrage, each declaiming their own hard-earned property and demonstrating their superior vigour and strength to all these other pretender Robins. An early morning exerciser (or, more accurately, lunatic) also stakes out his territory and shows his fitness. He claims the outdoor gym equipment, helpfully installed for those without the imagination to exercise without mechanical aids, as his own. I feel ever so slightly inferior, but also safe in the knowledge that my own choice of bird watching as a past time is much more attractive to the opposite sex. At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe.

Eastern European men drink their pre-work Zwyskie, but the only avian migrants I hear are a solitary onomatopoeiaic Chiffchaff in the trees, going through its dull repertoire. Seriously, Chiffchaff, change it up once in a while. No Blackcaps yet. I am, thankfully, too early for the rendering screech of the Parakeets (are they ever described as anything other than screeching?).

Avian Marmite

Avian Marmite

A mistle thrush lands, lonesome, in the middle of the football pitch, parades around a few seconds, before making for the trees in a bobbing flight, one of the three dogs being walked across the Park giving desultory chase. Goldfinches sit atop a squat tree near the exit. They’re not going through their full twitterings (which, due to some odd connection in my brain, always recalls Tie-Fighters. Don’t ask), they’re merely squeaking back and forth, much as the dogs are grumbling at each other.

The pigeons (all Feral, I think) sit silently, and patiently, in an all-but barren tree that my poor winter tree ID suggests is a completely novel species. They’re waiting, I’ve no doubt, for the old lady who strews a whole loaf of stale white beneath their perch. The less said about that, the better. There’s something sinister about them in this mist – I wonder if they’ll turn on us if she doesn’t arrive on time?

I’m about to leave when I think I hear something utterly baffling and it’s only after I turn my good ear back from whence I came (yeah, ‘whence’) that I pick out the source as yet another one of the peculiar thrums and beeps that periodically emanate from Stockwell bus station. Not for the first time, I think to myself that I’m glad I don’t know what goes on in there (trust me, it’s nothing to do with stationing buses). I’ll leave that to the pigeons. They know something, I’m certain, but they’re not saying a word.