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.

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2 thoughts on “Butterfly Surveys and Harnessing Volunteer Knowledge

  1. Pingback: Bat Calls and Knob Twiddling at Dusk | adventures in conservation

  2. Pingback: Not a Proper Book Review – H for Hawk and Hedge Britannia | adventures in conservation

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