A Trainee Ecologist’s year

Winnall Moors Nature Reserve © Deryn Hawkins

Working within the ecology team has been a fantastic opportunity to develop my skills and knowledge for a career in ecology and conservation and have a lot of fun exploring Hampshire’s lovely countryside.

Throughout this year I have been able to take part in surveys for species that were completely new to me, and to also develop my knowledge and experience in surveying for species that I have worked with before.  In all cases, working with the ecology team has allowed me to gain a better understanding on how the information gathered during surveys can be used to inform site management and further work.

Here are some of the highlights of my time here:

Freshwater invertebrate surveys

These are a crucial part of determining the health of rivers and still water bodies and something I did not have much prior experience of. It has been fascinating to learn about how surveys are carried out and more about the creatures that live in freshwater. My highlight was catching an eel during a Riverfly survey at our Winnall Moors reserve. These distinctive fish are listed as Critically Endangered on the ICUN Red List and have suffered large declines, particularly attributed to the increase in weirs and dams in waterways restricting their movement to the sea to breed.

European eel in sampling tray

 European eel Anguilla anguilla caught during a Riverfly survey © Mariko Whyte 

One of my favourite experiences has been helping carry out surveys and being involved in the conservation of our native white-clawed crayfish – see this earlier blog post for more on the Trust’s work in this area.

Terrestrial invertebrate surveys

As well as general butterfly transects and dragonfly and damselfly transects I have carried out targeted surveys for rarer species. This has included grizzled skipper and purple emperor surveys during which I was lucky enough to get my first sighting of both of these relatively scarce species! One of the other trainees wrote a great blog post about the Purple Emperor earlier this year.

I have also been able to assist on surveys for the rare southern damselfly. This is a geographically restricted species which is protected in the UK and Europe, and surveys which involve capturing or disturbing them require a licence. They can be challenging to survey due to their similarity to other small blue damselfly species - the key to their identification is the ‘mercury mark’ on the second abdominal segment, named for the alchemical symbol it represents (☿)! Hampshire is an incredibly important place for this species, with the New Forest and floodplain meadows of the River Itchen and Test considered to be two of this species’ UK strongholds.

Southern damselfly resting on grass

Southern damselfly Coenagrion mercuriale  male ©Ben Rushbrook

Reptile Surveys

These form a key part of monitoring a range of sites as part of long term conservation management and to provide baseline information for planning and development purposes.  The surveys I have carried out this year have mainly found slow worms and common lizards, our most common and widespread reptiles, but it has been useful to familiarise myself with the survey methods and identification of these species.

Three juvenile slow worms hidden in grass

There are three juvenile slow worms Anguis fragilis in this image – can you spot them all? ©Mariko Whyte

Bat surveys

There are a number of different methods you can use to survey for bats, depending on what you want to find out. This summer I was able to assist during a Phase 1 survey for bat roost potential – accompanying a licensed surveyor conducting a thorough inspection of a church for any signs of active use by bats and any areas that bats could use to access roosting sites.

I have also carried out a number of emergence and re-entry surveys for bats to identify exactly what access points bats use and how many are present. Emergence surveys are carried out around dusk, to coincide with bats leaving their roosting site to forage during the night while re-entry surveys are carried out at dawn to identify bats returning to their roosts where they will stay through the day.

This experience is essential for a career in ecology as all bats and their roosts are protected by law and can be affected by all kinds of human activity and development.

Set up for a bat survey with bat detector and dog

Making friends with the locals on a bat emergence survey ©Mariko Whyte

Other mammals

Other mammals commonly surveyed as part of ecological monitoring programmes include the hazel dormouse and water vole. I was able to take part in a few dormouse surveys and was lucky enough to see some of these incredible animals up close (again, accompanying a licensed surveyor). One of the things that took me by surprise was just how quickly they can move!

Water vole surveys consisted of thoroughly searching a fixed stretch of watercourse for field signs including droppings and latrines, feeding signs and feeding stations, grass nests and burrows. It was really interesting to explore the world of water voles, following their runs through the long vegetation and discovering hidden patches of chewed vegetation and well trampled droppings marking territories.

A water vole feeding station of chewed vegetation with a few droppings

A water vole latrine and feeding station showing the distinctive ‘tic tac’ shaped droppings and freshly chewed fragments of vegetation ©Mariko Whyte

Bird surveys

Ornithology is definitely not my strong point so it has been great to learn more and contribute to some of the projects that the ecology team has been involved with. During the summer, I was able to spend an evening in the New Forest, listening and watching for the enigmatic nightjar as part of a mapping project to reassess the status of this species

Although the main survey season for most wildlife occurs between April and October, bird surveys are a great reason to get outside through the winter too. I have been part of a co-ordinated team mapping wader and brent goose movements on the Isle of Wight in the last few weeks and also assisted with winter farmland bird surveys, both of which have given me a chance to get my binoculars out and practise my ID skills!

Brent geese and lapwing seen through binoculars

Brent geese and lapwing seen through binoculars on the River Yar ©Mariko Whyte

As well as learning valuable skills, I have had a lot of fun working with the friendly and enthusiastic ecology team. These placement positions would not be possible without the generosity of the Trust’s supporters and I am grateful to have had this opportunity to contribute to the Trust’s amazing work in Hampshire!