Red Squirrels, Moths and a whole bunch of Trainees

The second week into the Traineeship was a residential week with the Trainees from the other three South West Wildlife Trusts (Dorset, Devon and Wiltshire). Over the year we will have four such weeks, each with a loose theme of training, based in each of the counties hosting trainees.

Our first residential was hosted by Dorset and was on the beautiful Brownsea Island. As well as covering some core training it was a chance for us to get to know the trainees from other counties as we will all be going through similar experiences.

At 9.30 am on the Monday Claire and I embarked on the first task of the week; buying enough fajitas ingredients to feed 20 people! The people in Taunton’s Morrisons must have been slightly baffled as we filled our trolley with peppers, wraps and lettuce all whilst debating if we’d be able to carry it all along with the rest of of gear for the week. With enough budget left to buy pudding we piled the bags into my new car and began the attempt to navigate to Brooklands Farm sans satnav.

How much food?!
How much food?!

Despite one wrong turn we arrived at Brooklands only a few minutes late, and at the same time as Devon. There was time to say a very quick hello to the other trainees whilst we played Tetris with all our luggage on the back of the mini bus and then we were off the catch the ferry from Sandbanks. On the bus there was a chance to talk to the other trainees and I found it really interesting to see who had got the Dorset positions as I’d met them all on the interview day. We were greeted at the ferry by Rachel, who is overseeing all of the traineeships across the four counties. She had organised the week for us and was there to look after us and make sure things went smoothly.

Team Somerset (minus Olivia) ready for the ferry
Team Somerset (minus Olivia) ready for the ferry

Once on the Island we were met by Chris and Andy who work for Dorset Wildlife Trust and were our wonderful hosts for the week. They took our bags in the Landy and then walked us through to the Nature Reserve side of the island, to the Villa where we were staying for the week. With our rooms assigned we dumped bags and all congregated in the kitchen. We did a second round of introductuction, though this time you had to give yourself an animal name and remember all of the names before yours. It was quite a fun way to learn them all and really helped me get to grips with them.

We were then let loose and sent off to explore. We started off as a group with trainees from Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset thought we lost Wiltshire at some point down the line. We  visited the McDonald hide to begin with and watched the Sandwich Terns that nest just in front of it. There were Common Terns around also which really helped me pinpoint the main identifying features on the Sandwich Tern; the spiky/ messy looking feathers on the back of the head and the yellow tip to the bill. The Terns shared their islands with Black-headed Gulls (the only gulls I feel capable of identifying) whilst further out could be seen Cormorants, Shelduck, Little Egrets and Oystercatchers. Our wanderings then took us through the woodland in search of the heath. By the Lily Pond we found loads of exuviae (discarded exoskeletons) of dragon or damsel flies still attached to the reeds. After some careful manoeuvring to avoid wet toes Tom (one of the Dorset trainees) and Chris had both managed to get themselves one. As we walked we saw plenty of different dragonflies and damselflies, made friends with an inquisitive pheasant and tricked some spiders out of their funnel web homes. As we wandered I was scanning the trees desperately for a sight of red fur; since I’d heard we were heading to Brownsea all I’d thought about was seeing red squirrels. We’d met a few of the other trainees who had told us they’d seen them and I was beginning to worry that I would be the one person who would spend an entire week on the island and not see a single one! As we were heading back to the villa I let out a very Dug from Up like cry of ‘Squirrel!’ (watch this if you don’t know what I’m talking about) and we froze as we watched it dash up the side of a tree. I was very surprised with how light the tail was; it looked almost blonde, but we were told that it does change with the season.

The lagoon - plenty of Black Headed gulls
The lagoon (a very rubbish photo!)
SQUIRRELLLLL!! It is there I promuse
SQUIRRELLLLL!! It is there I promise
One of the exuviae - look how cool it's eyes are!
One of the exuviae – look how cool it’s eyes are!

After a lovely dinner of vegetable curry cooked by the Devon trainees we went off to watch some Soprano Pipistrelles emerge from their roost. The roost is a maternity roost, meaning it hold the females and their young. As we’d been told would happen, a few individuals emerged one at a time, with quite a time span between them. As it got later more and more bats emerged, at much closer intervals to each other. I had planned on trying to keep count but I got lost/distracted at about 16. One of the Wiltshire trainees Ross, did manage to keep count and ended with a total count of 230. We’d taken up some bat detectors with us; the expensive ones owned by the staff, and a childs one that had been on offer at Argos, to check it out and see if it was any good. It worked amazingly well for its price, which resulted in us all trying to reserve some for when we got home.

Tuesday was all about Health and Safety Training. The day was held over in the Scout Camp. Though not the most gripping of subjects I’ve never actually done any sort of Health and Safety training so it was interesting to have more of an insight. Some light relief was provided by the Peahen and her chicks who periodically decided to run in and out of the room and under our seats.

These little guys seemed very keen on being up to date on their health and saftey!
These little guys seemed very keen on being up to date on their health and safetey!
Cooking for the 5000
Cooking for the 5000

After dinner (which was the fajitas served by us) we had a session discussing what makes a good mentor and what makes a good trainee, before Chris took us out on a night walk looking for Nightjars and Glow worms. He had seemed slightly doubtful about how successful we would be but within moments of leaving the villa we were listening to the very distinctive churr-ing of the male bird. I’d never seen or heard a nightjar before so was delighted. Chris taught us that cupping your ears helps to magnify the sound; we may have all looked silly but it works amazingly well. Looking up towards where the calls were coming from we caught the sight of the male flying; it’s distinctive silhouette shape against the darkening sky, broken only by the white of its wing bars. Our success continued as we moved onto another area of heath to hear more males churr-ing away. A fluorescent green glow amongst some bracken led us to where a female glow worm rested. Looking at the little insect I was reminded how truly wonderful nature is; the light doesn’t look like it should be natural but we had the evidence before us cradled in the palm of a hand.

Mouse impressions! Or cupping our ears to hear the nightjars better
Mouse impressions! Or cupping our ears to hear the nightjars better
One of the Glow worms
One of the Glow worms – the two segments that glow are pretty obvious here.

Some of us were feeling rather brave at 4am on Wednesday morning and managed to drag ourselves out of bed to see the bats swarming before returning to the roost. We’d been advised by others that it was worth watching as the bats all come together after a nights hunting and use the safety of numbers to hide their vulnerability as they return to the roost. We weren’t greeted with the air alive with bats, but there were enough flying around us to imagine just how spectacular it would be if all of the bats were there.

I will get out of bed at 4am for wildlife - but don't expect me to get dressed for it at that time!
I will get out of bed at 4am for wildlife – but don’t expect me to get dressed for it at that time!

After a return to bed for a couple of hours we were all up and ready to empty the moth traps. Moths are something I’ve really wanted to get into for a while but really need a moth trap for. I’ve never done one so was really excited to see what they had found. Abby and Chris amazed me with how quickly they could ID the various species they pulled out. I quickly realised there was no way I could keep up with them so began jotting down all the species names I heard and taking photos as the moths were passed around with the aim of matching pictures and names up later on (I haven’t done it yet but it will get done!). I think moths are really under appreciated. You have some bold and bright species such as the burnet moths or tiger moths but many others are much more subtly beautiful. I think the problem is people don’t realise just how many moths there are and never take the time to look at them closely. I was utterly captivated and now want my own moth trap more than ever.

Buff Tip
Buff Tip
Elephant Hawkmoth
Elephant Hawkmoth
Spectacle - look at his glasses!!!
Spectacle – look at his glasses!!!
Black Arches
Black Arches
Cream-bordered Green Pea - a notable species for Dorset
Cream-bordered Green Pea – a notable species for Dorset

The rest of the morning was spent processing firewood. Over the course of many years the staff and volunteers on the island have been tackling rhododendron. The cut parts are used as fuel for the fires in the villa. We were moving some of it off a bank so it was more accessible to be used. We had quite a production line on the go passing the wood from the pile down to the dumper truck.

The afternoon was spent in the company of Chris who took us on a guided walk of part of the reserve, sharing more of his knowledge with us. We were in one of the hides just at the right moment to witness a Yellow-legged Gull steal a tern chick and a few Avocet had returned to the lagoon. In the evening we were joined by Derek from Wiltshire Wildlife Trust who talked us through Safeguarding.

On Thursday we were back at the Scout Camp, this time for a Emergency First Aid at Work course. I did an outdoor First Aid Course back in April so this was mostly refreshing knowledge for me. We got to spend a fair bit of the day outside, using the dummies to practice CPR and each other to test our bandaging skills. This time we were joined by the male Peacock who sauntered past a few times

As there was some spare time between finishing the first aid course and dinner a few of us decided to go for a swim; it was a beautiful day and we were by the sea so it just had to be done! The walk along to the beach had beautiful views and the beach itself was stunning. The water was fairly shallow so you could go pretty far out and still touch the floor. It was pretty spectacular to look back at the island and see the sea, beach and then the woods.

So beautiful!
So beautiful!
Who needs to go abroad?
Who needs to go abroad?

Dinner for the evening was a BBQ prepared and cooked by the Dorset trainees. The weather stayed fine and somehow we ended up playing with the moths that were to be released. I made friends with a Poplar Hawkmoth that seemed perfectly content to sit on my finger as I wandered around, took photos and ate chocolate brownies! After all the food was eaten we were kindly invited to attend the quiz at the John Lewis hotel. We split into teams based on our counties, something that could have potentially undone all the team bonding in the week. Luckily there were no fall outs and the Wiltshire team looked very relieved when they found out they weren’t the recipients of the Oar of Shame!

More squirrels!
More squirrels!
Me - and my friend Penny the Poplar Hawkmoth
Me – and my friend Penny the Poplar Hawkmoth
The villa
The villa

Sadly on Friday morning it was time to pack and clean the villa before heading back to the mainland and our own homes. We did manage to spend a little while looking at more moths, and testing what species we’d learnt during the week before it was time to catch the ferry.

All the Trainees - with Rachel and Andy
All the Trainees – with Rachel and Andy
Bye bye Brownsea
Bye bye Brownsea

It was a fantastic week, with so much amazing wildlife. It was also great to meet the other trainees. We all got on so well and it was really enjoyable to spend time with people with similar interests; when I stopped to gawk at something I wasn’t just patiently tolerated, they’d gawk right along side me. Our next residential week will be in Devon and I’m already looking forward to seeing everyone again and hearing what they’ve been up to in their different counties.

Beth 🙂

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