Friday, 30 August 2013


I was struck the other day by how interesting it is how, as individuals, we humans all rely and use our senses in different ways. Sight is probably, for those of us that have the power of it, the least variable as it is our foremost sense, but hearing, smell, taste and touch are all of hugely diffreent for each of us.

It's foremost because we see in technicolour. And oh, what technicolour it is! This time of year is definitely a best time to have full colour sight as the magnificence of autumn starts to shine through. We're very lucky to have sight, and to be able to use it so well. I wear glasses at the computer, and my long range vision is certainly not the best, but I was reading recently Isolation Shepherd by Iain Thomson (highly recommended) and was interested to note that his eyesight dramatically improved when he was out in the hills every day, trying to spot far off sheep. Shows that some senses can be enhanced with proper use, and I have no doubt that this computer work is what hurts my eyes - bring on the hills!

Hearing I personally struggle a bit with, although hearing aids make life 1000x better. Even with them in though, I still miss a lot. Recently I was walking with someone who's hearing is very important - an ornithologist. And we were walking in an area that I thought I was very familiar with, when he stopped, lifted a finger as though that would help him to concentrate and says "ah, a pair of crossbills just flew over. Heading, perhaps, for those trees over there". I didn't even know what there were crossbills in the area, and even though I strained to hear I couldn't hear even a cheep.

This means that for me other senses are more important than hearing. I would say my second most important sense is smell.
There's something so wonderful about taking a good long sniff at everything. When was the last time you smelt that book, or that tree, or (haha) that poo? Do it- for it is only when we know the scent that we can know the object. Sometimes, when teaching folks about how to identify otter spraints they pull some mighty funny faces when you tell them to sniff it. My sister was possibly the most memorable (what a wonderfully expressive face she has!), but once she'd sniffed and recognised the smell as "not too bad" every time we came across another spraint she would sniff it "just to make sure"! Sometimes I can smell a spraint before I see it, and that's a wonderful smell. That's what life must be like for an otter - travelling upstream their nostrils are filled with that heady, rich, sweet scent of another otter, and with that also comes the thousands of signals which are too subtle for our noses and our brains. We're nothing but bystanders, and wonderfully honoured ones at that.

At this time of year walking through the flowering heather on the hills my nostrils are filled with the heavenly scent of real heather blossom. And that smell, corresponds exactly to the memory of the most fantastic honey I have ever tasted in my life. Which leads me on rather nicely to:

Real heather honey. I must have tasted it before in my life, but oh man, that stuff that's on offer to try at The Royal Highland Show was the most pure, wonderful honey I have ever, ever tasted in my life. And that possibly that makes it the purest, most wonderful thing I have ever tasted, for what is purer than honey?
So taste and smell are inextricably linked, and although I do not recommend this to anyone I do taste a lot of the plants I survey in the field. But only if they smell pleasant. For how, again , do we learn if we do not know something inside out?
And what pleasure there is in walking and to be nibbling as you go. A blaeberry here, a ripe rosehip there, sorrel (we called the common sorrel sourocks when we were wee, and ooo, I still love the taste!), and wood sorrel too. Although, be warned. I was sure that you could eat colt's foot leaves, but I have eaten many many many and I don't believe they were made to be eaten. There! Lesson learnt. (Please also note that this is actually a very stupid thing to do and please don't follow suit...).

The last sense is touch. To be touched. There are two aspects here - touching something, and touching humans. First things first. When surveying I do touch everything, within reason though; wet poo, no thank you, dry stuff, yes of course!, but I think this is essential. Identify through touch, touching a trunk of a tree when in leaf will help you identify the leafless tree in winter. The smoothness of the beech, the light roughness of the oak and the grooves of the ash. And I love identifying the rushes, smooth rush is smooth with a slightly spreading flower, compact rush is ridged with a very compact flower, and hard rush is ridged with a very spreading flower. I would speak more about jointed, sharp-flowered et al. but I've just discovered (thanks to Ben Averis's magnificent book) that I've not actually been getting these right. Whoops, back to the drawing board!
And then there's human touch. It's interesting how we all, as individuals have different boundaries. My social education teacher used to call that the personal smartie tube. We all have a smartie tube around us, which signifies the comfortable boundary we feel among other people. Some people have large ones and hate to be touched, whereas others have teeny tiny ones, and love to be in close physical contact with everyone, whether they're best buddies or not. Where do I come? Somewhere in between the two extremes, though probably with a small than larger smartie tube!

After this I think I shall make even more of a concentrated effort to undertake surveys with all of my five senses. And possibly my sixth sense too - that prickling on the back of your neck that tells you something amazing is here - though my boss would probably appreciate it if I kept those extra-sensory experiences out of my official reports! But, I shall look, listen, taste (within reason) and touch to my hearts content. I shall use these senses, although nothing to other animals' they're the best I have, and maybe, with use, they'll develop into super senses.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

As the air turns to autumn... my thoughts turn back to the trees. And as an extension of Trees for Life. Man, how much do I love this charity? Any way, they has a competition - Identify the eyes and you win a book! And so I think every single person that looks at this blogule should enter, and if you win but you dinnae want the book then just send it to me, aye-aye, aye?

But, seriously, Trees for Life and trees for life. They're entering their autumn season at the end of this month and I can't go, so instead I am completing my application to become a focaliser. But I think you should go! The details of the weeks are here: Tree Weeks and I can honestly say that the two I have been on were utterly, utterly wonderful. I returned from them completely restored and so if there is any strain or stress in your life right now, why not think about giving a week of tree planting a go? Let's be honest now...can you think of anything better than that? I tell you, there's nothing like it. Man, I wish I was going. Here's a photo or two from my weeks:

 That last one is of me (right) and a girl that was also on the week, and we did get on great and keep in touch. That's another thing about the weeks  - they put you in touch of so many interesting people that are bonkers for trees just like you (hopefully) and me!

The application is written, and I'll be sending it on Saturday. And then keep your fingers crossed for me, because I would love, love, LOVE to become more involved with the charity. I just think they're the bees knees, etc etc!

I think that concludes my post. Except to say.

E.E.Cummings and his wherelings whenlings ( and oo, how about little you-i?? (
Aren't they just perfect?! Why does anyone let go? Hmm....but let us promise. You and me: we never shall. Forever holding that dream tight. Ah, let us raise a glass now! To dreams and being true to them :)

Monday, 19 August 2013

That drying rain

At points last week the rain poured and I (we) got absolutely soaked to the skin. But you know, sometimes that is okay. It's not so okay when you have to keep going on and on in soaking wet clothes and you start to get chilled inside, but sometimes the wildness of the weather is what reminds us that we're alive. The office becomes a distant memory and suddenly all you know is the wild world you're out in, and the wild animals that you're striving to protect. You can be soaked and still feel delight, for it's (a supernatural delight) just wonderful to be carrying out work that you love, in beautiful places and to be allowed to experience things like rain and the cold.

And it's times like those that make me realise how blooming lucky I am to be doing this work, and so I shall be making the most of it while it lasts. End of November, people, end of November. It's lovely to have work and for it to take me to such amazing places, and so, yes, I do like the rain - bring it on, says I. I love the rain, the clouds, the wind (wheee, the wind!), and sunshine. The drying wind; that beautiful brisk breeze that you often get after a downpour that dries your layers and although it's not warm it enables you to warm yourself up as you move briskly with it, or into it. These times we embrace, the weather and I, and oo, what an embrace!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Animal Happenings

What's your most favourite animal happening? I have several (many?), but there have been a couple recently which have been just astonishing.

One sunshiny day...
I was walking with a friend through a wee woodland up north and we (being who we are) were interested in the birds there. She's very very good with birds and every sign associated with them and she was listening to all the calls and was telling  me all about what was in the wood. It was great, though there wasn't a terrible amount of things, just the usual tits and chaffinches, when suddenly this huge bird flies past us. She doesn't see it properly, and I don't think she fully believes me when I say "that was an owl.." but then, there it is again, flying back this way. We're completely WOW and start trying to identify it, it's brown, seems large (though compared to the chaffinches, wouldn't everything?) but it doesn't seem to be tawnyish. We walk back through the woodland and see it again, and then suddenly there's another, and another. But the third one was different and I never saw it properly until it wheeled round and turned back and all of a sudden we were looking into the face of the most incredible bird I have ever seen in my life. Pale, large, with a lovely wide wingspan and man, he looked mean. It was when he sat down on a branch that we could fully see him. And he had ears! He was a long-eared owl, and wow, was he beautiful. Utterly stunning. If you look him up, just know that he is actually 100x more beautiful than a picture could ever demonstrate. He sat there for a few minutes and his eyes, beautiful, golden orange eyes, a lovely round face and he looked mean - just utterly wild and free and really really unhappy about our intrusion. It was his family that we'd disturbed and after they flew off again we left them be, but that will definitely be remembered as a most incredible birdy experience. Beautiful.

Another day, not so long ago...
I found the most magnificent water vole colony I have ever seen! It was on a proper upland site, with tiny little peaty burns and there was no interesting features whatsoever. Until, suddenly, the rush bitten off at a 45 degree angle caught my eye. And everyone was right - the colour, the bright white of the soft rush pith, stands out so much that it would probably be hard to miss. That seen I knelt down to discover feeding stations and then latrines! Lots of latrines, and several looked very fresh - had I disturbed a feeding individual? After that I searched for a burrow and found the tunnel first and then the burrow. It was all absolutely lovely - a little upland water vole colony that left me with a lovely feeling. You know the one? Where you just think "this animal was here - I don't need to see it, and I don't want to cause any more disturbance, but it was here and that is just perfect".

Both these experiences just keep me alive. What is life without wildness and nature. Apart from requiring our cooperation in maintaining these habitats these animals do not need us at all for their continued existence. They are untamed and pure and proper. And that is what I love about the highlands and other parts of Scotland - we still have such wild places that these animals can exist in without any trouble being caused to them by us. Hopefully we'll be able to keep it that way.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Ecologists Life

Well! I don't even know how long I've been working for, but you can see from the lack of posts just how full on my work has been! Barely a spare moment, and now I am often away during the week, which means that weekends become precious moments, to be spent as far away from a computer screen as possible!

Well... What does life involve for an ecologist? For me: a constant learning experience, though that's not specifically something only experienced by an ecologist. That's more likely first job syndrome. But still, sometimes I feel like I'm getting there, and at other times I don't.

Learning experiences and lessons learnt:

  • Dawn and dusk surveys are definitely harder that you imagine they'll be - be prepared.
  • Don't forget/lose/misplace or break equipment (not sure whether I've done this or not...but I definitely don't want to!)
  • Ask ask ask. Often I've not had work to do - asking my superiors is the only way to get that.
  • And definitely, definitely, do not miss your flight off a small Scottish island (again).
But overall, although I'm kinda knackered, it's brilliant. I'm working, I have real, proper, serious work to do that I care about, and the people are fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. They've all been so helpful and patient with me, and that's made the whole process 100x easier. And apart from that - I just really like them as people. They are all about the animals, and every ecologist that I've worked with I have also had just a brilliant time with - that's good going, surely?!

Ecology is a good business; I'm learning. There's the preparation for the survey which includes several aspects:
  1. Writing of the risk assessment. You then have to print it off, sign it (and get the relevant colleagues to sign it too) and then scan it back in to save in the project folder. You keep the signed copy with you at all times on the survey.
  2. Collection of all equipment including:
    • Maps
    • GPS (with relevant maps loaded on)
    • Camera with GPS capability
    • Weatherwriter with maps inside
    • Suitable clothing for yourself whatever the weather
    • Safety equipment
  3. Preparation to ensure that you know exactly what you're doing, when, and with whom.
Then it's the actual survey which is always good, no matter how bad it may be! Pouring with rain, difficult terrain...being in the field is always a pleasure. I've travelled quite a bit as well, I thought last year was super for seeing Scotland (and it was, don't get me wrong) but I've seen loads more already with this work! It's all good, and because there are offices down south as well I might get to see a bit more of Scotland before this is all over as well!

After the survey it's the write-up of results. All GPS references must be sent through to GIS as well as uploaded onto the database. Maps must be checked as they're written and then accepted if correct. And the report must be written, which I actually really enjoy as well. It always follows an established format and it's very professional and clean looking. I really enjoy following a project through to that final stage.

Overall it's blooming (hah!) fantastic. It's two months I have been with this company now and I have already learnt a lot. And I'm still learning. I have little doubt that I would like to keep going, and keep learning, but we'll have to see what happens when the contract comes to an end (end of November...seems a long way off at the moment...). Whatever happens it has been one of the most intense and crazy learning experiences of my life. Which has got to be a good thing, right?!