Updated: Oct 1, 2021
My name is Catherine, and I work as an ecologist based in Bristol. Like everyone this year, I’ve been affected by the lockdown in my work and home life. Unlike everyone else, UK wildlife still spent the spring and summer waking up from hibernation, building nests, and carrying on with their usual day to day routines.
What does an ecologist actually do?
As an ecologist, I work for a large engineering company providing ecological surveys and advice for large scale developments such as new roads, railways, and housing projects. An ecologist's job is to look at the potential impact of a new development or changes to an existing area on the surrounding environment and the plants and animals that live there.
We do this by carrying out habitat surveys to first identify which habitats are present in the area, such as woodlands and grasslands, and which animals might live there based on the habitats. Then we do specific surveys for protected animal species.
In the UK, we have several animals that are protected by law, where it is illegal to disturb or destroy their resting places and habitats. These include the otter, water vole, great crested newt, white-clawed crayfish, hazel dormouse, and badger. As well as reptiles, wild birds, plants and all 18 species of UK bats. Once we have identified if a habitat may be suitable for any of these, we do specific surveys to see if the protected animal is present in the development site, and if so, how they might be affected by the construction work.
Then we provide advice to the developers on how they can reduce the impacts and make sure that the project doesn’t break any environmental laws and can protect and sometimes improve habitats for wildlife.
Spring and summer are the busiest times of the year for ecologists as this is when most animals are at their most active. So although the office is closed and I have been doing a lot of work from home, I’ve still been getting out to do surveys.
Earlier in the year between March and May, great crested newt surveys were keeping us busy, assessing ponds for their suitability, and looking for displaying males in the ponds using their black crests to impress the females. We can also take water samples to test for DNA of great crested newts to see if they have been using the ponds.
The next batch of surveys to start were bat surveys from April and these will continue until October when bats start to hibernate. Bats are nocturnal, so surveys for them involve going out at night with bat detectors to listen to their ultrasonic calls. Each species of bat has a slightly different pattern of call and sound frequency, so we can tell which bat is being recorded based on their call, similar to birds having different sounding songs.
More recently, I have been doing otter and water vole surveys, walking along river banks looking for signs of the animals such as footprints and spraint (droppings). We also set up trail cameras to record footage of otters using waterways that may be disturbed by developments.
Later in the year, we’ll be doing reptile surveys where we place square mats in suitable habitats for reptiles to hide underneath and check them early every morning. We check for dormouse hibernation nests the size of tennis balls in the autumn, usually found at the base of trees. We do these checks to protect the nests from any projects that require trees and vegetation to be cleared or trimmed.
Exploring nature outside of work!
When I’m not out surveying and working from home, I’ve still made sure nature is part of my day. Throughout lockdown I’ve been living in a small flat on the fourth floor near the city centre of Bristol. Despite my urban location, there is still plenty of wildlife to be seen!
I have a bird feeder stuck to the window by my work desk that gets visited every day by a variety of birds including a huge wood pigeon, a greedy jay, opportunistic blue tits, and a very noisy magpie. As well as birds, I have a great view of grey squirrels at tree level as they leap from branch to branch.
It’s really important to get outside every day both for exercise and mental wellbeing, even the shortest stroll can make you feel more connected to nature. I always try to walk through some green space when I can, no matter how small.
In Bristol, there are lots of little slices of green to break up the city where you can see a surprising amount of wildlife. Trees that line the streets are alive with nesting birds in the Spring collecting twigs and other materials to build their nests. Gulls are also common in the city, and often get a bad name due to their chip stealing habits, but if you look closely they are beautiful birds with lots of character.
Another city dweller with an unfair reputation is the brown rat, I often see these at the edges of the parks around dusk in the early evening scuttling through the undergrowth and along the pavements. Rats are very adaptable creatures and will usually live alongside humans without causing any issues. Taking time to look closer at the plants and their leaves also reveals caterpillars and other invertebrates that are fascinating to watch.
While lockdown has been strange and sometimes difficult for us all, wildlife carries on inspiring every day!
Thanks for reading!