My First Crestie

LS GCNOur second MSc research / placement blog comes from Species Identification and Survey Skills student Lindsay Stronge, who is spending the summer working with RSK. 

My first assignment for RSK was a Great Crested Newt translocation at a large site comprising 20 hectares of meadow and agricultural land. The fields were criss-crossed with black drift fencing and hundreds of pitfall traps were dug into the ground. I spent my first two days opening the traps for the season and waiting for the night temperatures to rise – if the air temperature is below 5oC newts are very unlikely to emerge from hibernation and the following day’s effort will not count towards the total number of trapping days required by Natural England. The traps are still checked daily for animal welfare reasons; other amphibians fall in and have to be safely removed from site too.

It was my third day in Sussex and a cold, misty morning. The grass was damp with dew and I could still see my breath. I had only checked a handful of traps when I looked in a bucket and saw the unmistakeable outline of a very large newt. She was female (no crest or tail stripe) with a beautifully marked, fiery underbelly and orange colouring that extended along the underside of her tail. I looked at her delicate, tapering toes, alternately orange and black and her black skin stippled with white spots.

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underbellyAfter making a few notes I moved her to the receptor site; a nearby breeding pond which will be preserved post-development. Four hibernacula have been constructed from logs, bricks and grass clippings and it was here that I released her. I watched her slowly and deliberately crawl between the logs to wait for the next night; she will soon return to the water after many months underground.

I will undertake dozens of newt surveys this season and become very familiar with the species over the coming years but I won’t forget the moment I found my first crestie!

Lindsay Stronge

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Butterflies

“It’s a feast or a famine with those buses, you wait half an hour and then 5 come at once, it’s a joke!” Ah yes, the wise words of my mother, spoken countless times throughout my teenage years, university years and well, actually it’s still a regular conversation anytime I go home. But who knew her wisdom extended beyond the realms of urban public transport scheduling? Not me! You see for weeks I have waited (impatiently) to see my first butterfly of 2015. There have been multiple, specific, butterfly hunting excursions to reserves and likely habitats but to no avail! Twice it has happened that the person I was with spotted one over my shoulder but alas, I couldn’t snap my head around quick enough to catch sight of the little minx. Who knew lepidoptera were such teases?

For weeks I’ve complained to anyone unfortunate enough to stand next to me that the butterflies were avoiding me and it was completely unfair and I’m pretty sure I was at least mildly irritating. And then, Easter Monday. Easter Monday in all its unholy sunniness finally delivered and in the space of twenty minutes as I walked from my flat into Reading town I SAW FIVE BUTTERFLIES. Five. Two brimstones, two red admirals and what I suspect was a large white. My mother was right. I was finally at the feast and boy did it taste good. My partner, unlucky enough to be escorting me on this outing at one point described me as a “deranged toddler” and did that thing the English do so well: looked around slyly and told me to calm down. Classic. But I was only delighted. Nature had revealed herself and (as we say in Dublin) she was a massive ride!

Red Admiral by Drriss & Marrionn on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Red Admiral by Drriss & Marrionn on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

But what has led me to being an audibly inappropriate, butterfly-spotting, bird-watching, nature-loving woman? That’s a long story and maybe I’ll tell you one day (over a drink, that you have bought me), but for now I’ll just mention the most significant part of my journey and that has been the last six months. In September 2014 I moved to Reading having been accepted onto the MSc Wildlife Management and Conservation programme. It’s difficult to summarise what happened next but what I can say is that it has been the most intensely wonderful six months of my life. It’s been hands on and terrifying. I’ve learnt how to tell a leafhopper from a treehopper, how to tell a dunnock’s song from a robin’s and how to set a small mammal trap and wield the creature it captures.

I’ve learnt about the tools available to conservationists and how and when to deploy them: reintroductions, habitat restorations, eradications, protected areas, the list is endless. I’ve learnt about the big issues for wildlife conservation and how they all really boil down to one big issue: people and the way we live our lives. Not only has my career path changed but also my daily routines. I eat substantially less meat and I only buy fish that is MCS (Marine Conservation Society) approved.

These are small things, but significant on a personal level. I’ve been thrown into the deep end for the last few months but the rewards have been well worth the stress and hours spent staring at a blank computer screen thinking “how does one actually produce an essay?” Having spent a few years ‘in the real world’, living at home, abroad and very abroad, working jobs that ranged from great to dismal, it has been a revelation to realise that there is a place in the world for me. In a few short weeks I will be starting my dissertation research, studying insect diversity in Berkshire forests. I can’t wait and provided it doesn’t go horribly wrong, I’ll try to keep you updated. Oh and to anyone thinking of applying for this course I’d say, don’t hesitate. It’s great craic altogether.

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MSc Projects & Placements

The School of Biological Sciences here at the University of Reading runs two MSc courses broadly within wildlife conservation and ecology: MSc Wildlife Management & Conservation and MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills (which has a special focus on ecological consulting as a career path). The taught elements of these programs are packed tightly across the autumn and spring terms, seemingly over before they’ve really begun. So it is that we’re already at the time of year when our brave students head out into the ‘real world’!

The Wildlife Managers will be conducting an independent research project, often in conjunction with an external organisation such as the RSPB, GWCT or Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, or as a contribution to existing research within the school. In effect the project represents the culmination of what students work towards during the taught course; combining practical survey skills, research and information gathering, and statistical analysis, presentation and interpretation.

Bluebell woods visited during my MSc research project, summer of 2011.

Bluebell woods visited during my MSc research project, summer of 2011.

The S.I.S.S students will (mostly*) be diving right into the deep end of ecological consultancy on a five month work placement. This is not work experience but real work, and for the duration of the summer they’ll be treated like – and worked as hard as – any other employee of the consultant they’re placed with.

As a graduate of the Wildlife Management MSc I can certainly say that the spring and summer I did my project were very memorable indeed. It was an immensely rewarding experience, and a large contributing factor to my subsequent decision to continue a career in research with a PhD.

Conducting ecological research can be a great excuse to spend lots of time outside in beautiful countryside!

Conducting ecological research can be a great excuse to spend lots of time outside in beautiful countryside!

We’re encouraging this year’s cohort of students to keep us updated, and hope to be able to share some of their adventures on this blog over the course of the spring and summer: watch this space!

*S.I.S.S students also have the option of doing a research project instead of a work placement.

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Anthrenus angustefasciatus: A species new to Britain!

ORIGINALLY POSTED JUNE 5TH 2014

I’m in the second year of fieldwork for a PhD project looking at novel sampling methods for landscape ecology. One of the methods we’re assessing involves hand searching for beetles and bugs on flowering umbellifers such as cow parsley and hogweed. The idea is that linear patches of flowers alongside publicly accessible roads, tracks and rights of way will act as ready-made sampling platforms – natural insect ‘traps’, if you like – that can replace expensive equipment like malaise traps and sample from vegetation in a less intrusive way than, for example, a heavy sweep net, which would destroy the flowers. But most importantly of all, it’s given me a fantastic excuse to spend the spring and summer months out and about looking for insects.

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Oxeye daisies near Wokingham, Berkshire.

On the 19th of May I was out in one of this year’s study tetrads, near Wokingham in east Berkshire. It was a fairly bright, warm day, with plenty of insects active, including a notable emergence of the varied carpet beetle Anthrenus verbasci, one of the most common beetles on my umbellifer surveys. This species usually breeds in buildings – the larvae subsist on bits of dried skin and hair in collected household dust and fluff – and then adult beetles emerge in the spring to seek out pollen sources such as umbellifers and other spring flowers before returning to the great indoors to lay eggs. As it happens, CWAC director Dr Graham Holloway runs the national recording scheme for the family Dermestidae, to which Anthrenus belongs, so I usually keep an especially close eye out for them on his behalf.

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PhD Research Abroad: Birds in Rice Fields of the Philippines

ORIGINALLY POSTED JUNE 9TH 2014

PhD student Richard Smedley shares some thoughts on studying overseas and his work with rice farmers in the Philippines.

“If you are from England, and they don’t grow rice, why bother?”

I have to admit, it was a good question, though not one I was expecting. After every presentation I make, I expect a number of questions that are always asked, but this one took me completely by surprise. It’s November 2013 and I have just given a brief overview of my research to an international group of participants of an Ecological Pest Management course at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Because one of my supervisors is running the course, I had been asked to present my work on birds in rice fields, it was the first time birds had been included in the course, but I was also taking part in the course, student and teacher. But how do I answer the question? Why, indeed, had I bothered? I think to answer that, I have to go back a few more years…

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