A conversation with Amanda Barber: Nature, Wildlife Recording & the City Nature Challenge

Kingfisher Sankey Valley Canal Amanda Barber

 

Last month the results of this year's City Nature Challenge were released. Our very own local naturalist and keen wildlife photographer, Amanda Barber, came 1st in the UK and 4th in the WORLD (out of a staggering 52,000 people) for the number of wildlife observations made over the 4 days. Amanda is still fairly new to biological recording and a self-confessed 'generalist'. We thought it would be a good idea to catch-up with Amanda after the event to share her story!

In this open and honest interview, Amanda shares with us how she got involved in wildlife recording and what nature means to her! We thank Amanda for taking the time to speak to us and we hope you are as inspired by her heart-felt and descriptive stories as we are!

 

Q) Why did you get involved in the City Nature Challenge this year?

I found that in my first year, taking it on gave me a sense of excitement as it was competitive, and I was out in nature where I'm happiest, finding species both familiar and new to me. By the end of both the observation and submission stages of the challenge, my knowledge of species was at least 3 times better than before. I knew getting involved again this year would bring the same things and also involve my love of photography and that I'd feel a sense of pride in myself being part of a worldwide community, contributing to our understanding of nature and helping conservation efforts. I felt I was making a positive difference and contribution to nature, and to the wellbeing of people. I have a sense of pride in being part of the Merseyside team of very knowledgeable naturalists through to novice recorders, and wanted our region to be a big contributor, doing well in the tables, especially as this could be my last year for a while for our area.

 

Garlic Mustard Alliaria petiolata
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Photographed by Amanda Barber during City Nature Challenge 2021

 

Q) Being outside and connecting with nature can have so many benefits for both our physical and mental wellbeing.  In your experience, what have you found to be the main benefit of recording wildlife?

Without a doubt it is my happy place!

Having suffered with mental health issues through a big part of my life with anxiety, I've felt being outdoors, having my senses filled with the sights, sounds, smells and feel of nature distracts me away from any negative thoughts or feelings. I think of it like this ...I feel we've all been lost in some thought that isn't healthy for us, something is happening in your life that leaves you feeling bad, down, worried, anxious, empty or unsure, then suddenly something jolts you out of that train of thought, and if only for a split second, you are not in that unsettling place! Nature has that effect on me, it both settles and excites me in a good way!

I have sometimes left my home to surround myself with nature when feeling bad, because I know it won't be long before it will provide me with something to ease me or rapidly pull me up from any low...

“It might be a shiny and colourful beetle appearing from the darkness into light; the call of a bird attracting a mate or the flashes of colour as they hunt for insects on the wing; noisy geese passing through on their migration; the trickling and babbling sound of a stream to a roaring waterfall raining down onto rocks; the sight of a sea that is flat calm and sparkling or making racing white horses that powerfully crash against the cliffs; wind howling or gently rustling through leaves mimicking the sound of the ocean; dappled light dancing; the smell of a woodland after rainfall; the quick glimpse of a stoat or rabbit; the butterfly or bee that just won't let me get a photo of it fluttering or buzzing around - too quick and too unpredictable of flight pattern to capture on camera, both frustrating and beautiful at the same time!...”

Bloody-nosed Beetle Timarcha tenebricosa
Bloody-nosed Beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa)
Photograph by Amanda Barber

 

This reminds me that even though life is unpredictable and ever changing, and you can feel you're losing direction, there is always beauty if you look at it with positive eyes and mind!

 

Q) Have you always been into nature and wildlife recording?

I have always had a love of nature from being tiny, I remember a very hot summer in 1976, being fascinated and amazed by the enormous amount of ladybirds on the church wall on my way home from infants school and taking a margarine tub to collect them in the next day to inspect them when I got home, unfortunately for them and my Mum, I decided to inspect them in my bedroom and basically released a cloud of red and black into the air, of which it took a couple of days to allow them all to escape out of an ever open window! Again another bedroom incident of collecting a Bulrush head on a walk at my local canal, wondering what this lovely brown velvet thing was and zipping it up in a makeup bag, only to find sometime later that it had gone to seed when I remembered about it and opened it... and again... a cloud... only this time creamy white!  

 

Bloody-nosed Beetle Timarcha tenebricosa
Seven-spotted Ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata)
Photograph by Amanda Barber

 

I remember digging holes in the back garden and filling them with water and picking leaves and making stews! I loved my Puffin Annual and really wanted to see a real Puffin but only in recent years actually seeing one! At now nearly 50 years old I can say it was definitely worth the wait! 

 

Puffin Fratercula arctica
Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
Photograph by Amanda Barber

 

In Junior School we had our own "Topic" books, in which we were allowed to pick our own theme to fill it with, for me it was always ‘Nature and Science’, there was many a dried leaf or Sycamore seed taped in my books. I found a dried Pipe Fish once on a family holiday on a rugged coast in Wales that fascinated me... then reluctantly donated it to my High School for other pupils to see after taking it in when asked… I didn't really want to part with it! 

We had many pets and rescued countless mammals, birds and insects as a family over the years. From Sparky the Sparrow, to the rescue of a house spider the size of a 50p my friend came running around to get me for, so I could get it out of her house, as both her and her mum where hysterical! The poor spider looked more scared than they were!

There's the drowning Shield Bug I ‘daringly’ scooped out of a water filled planter to ‘save’! Unfortunately, the Shield Bug flew straight into a spider’s web and was promptly wrapped ready for dinner at some later point!  

There's been the shrew that my neighbour’s cat had brought in which I rescued and kept over-night to make sure it was OK then released.

 

"In the last week I found a Herring Gull with a broken wing on a beach which I could not just leave... so I set about coming up with a cunning plan to be able to catch it to find the help it needed!  Luckily it didn't take long to come up with one, as one thing I had learned from observing gulls over the years is they are unable to resist food!... and I just happened to have a caramel wafer bar in my pocket I'd stashed with my brew that I'd taken down with me! As you might guess it didn't take long before I had the gull in my arms and not only having just eaten my tasty treat... it was now trying to eat my face and wrist as I climbed slowly up the track with him, with an occasional pause as he looked me in the eyes, not knowing I was helping he was outwitted... just about! He was taken straight to an animal rescue as soon as I gave him some fresh water-soaked bread and a quality piece of ham, where he proceeded to immediately also down a full pack of dog food and is now recovering with other Gulls!"

 

Herring Gull
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)
Photograph by Amanda Barber

 

So yes!... I guess nature has always been a huge part of my life! But recording it intentionally is a fairly new thing for me! I've been recording it for years unwittingly in the form of family snap shots or wildlife and landscape photography!

Now that I have more free time on my hands I decided to pursue and look at getting involved with the things that I really enjoyed in life and naturally it brought me to all things ‘Nature’ and the ‘Universe’ and eventually recording which I am so happy to have found!

 

Q) Biological recording can sometimes be viewed as nerdy, and often people feel like they aren’t experienced enough to record plants and animals they see – what would you say to these people?

 

I would say "Do what brings you the most happiness always! … so long as it is not hurting anyone or anything intentionally".

The truth is I always admired the brainiest kids in school, the kids who dared to be different! They are the people who went on to do well in life and make a difference in a positive way to all of us! There is something really cool in that! It means if you are one of those geeks or nerds... you're bolder and braver and not intimidated as easily by peer pressure which represses people and holds you back from your full potential! The fantastic thing is, it's now COOL, APPRECIATED and RESPECTED to be involved with and concerned with our environment and the health and state of the Planet! 

I feel really proud to be called a GEEK or a NERD and sometimes a HIPPIE!... which believe it or not at the age of 50 I still get called!... and by people who love me in my own family and friends! It makes me feel I am being true to myself and reminds me that I am doing something very special with my life that benefits every living thing!... and the truth is the people who say it to me actually say it with love and appreciation and affection and are actually proud of what I do! I've found the knock on affect I've had is making them more mindful and engaged with nature and that feels amazing to inspire others! There are many celebrities such as Hayden Panattiere who has actively protested about the killing of dolphins, and unknown people who have become famous who are activists for nature such as Greta Thunberg, who although young, is really being listened too! 

 

Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus
Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)
Photographed by Amanda Barber during City Nature Challenge 2021

 

If there's a budding naturalist out there whether you want to be a Marine Biologist, a Paleontologist, a Botanist, Geologist, an Animal Rescuer, Nature Journalist or whatever, just go for it! Where would be without the stunning visual things we see and hear when watching David Attenborough Programmes! Just think if he had never pursued his passions along with many others and had not been recording nature! Remind yourself of how many people from all walks of life, who don't really show any engagement with nature otherwise, greatly admire him and love to hear what he has to say and love what he has to show us! 

My reality is I love Nature! I always have!... but I am not a specialist in any particular area or species in nature. Mostly because I love it all and can't ever decide between species!

At first, I thought this was a weakness, some experts might still see this as the case, but I'm not out to impress them! I'm doing this for myself and nature! I feel everything I record is important - that's because it is! I have now met and talked with many experts who say to me when I bring up what I thought was my flaw... that this is the best way to be! 

The fact is my passion for everything means I record anything and everything, and this gives a far broader picture of what is out there... and no expert knows everything! There is always something to learn and that's what drives a lot of people!  

I quite often don't know what I am looking at and recording and I never know what I will find, and I find that probably the most exciting part! It's like having many adventures and I feel like a treasure hunter! The earth provides us with so much natural treasure... it's wonders never cease to amaze me! Just when I think I'm probably getting close to having seen and recorded everything that a particular area as to offer, I am greeted with something new and wonderful! 

 

Gadwall Mareca strepera
Gadwall (Mareca strepera)
Photographed by Amanda Barber during City Nature Challenge 2021

 

I love the unknown... but I also love to learn! I've found that getting involved with various groups and organisations and using iNaturalist as a visual means of communicating and sharing what I've seen, is the best tool I've ever come across to learn from!

The people around the world that are also part of iNaturalist are really helpful. They help you ID flora and fauna, and often share why they know it is this particular species or will answer your questions! There is no need at all for embarrassment, be proud of what you are doing for wildlife and the planet, at the same time you are being educated you are also educating! By sharing what you've found so that it is realised that species even exists in that place at that time! 

 

I have recently found a first record for a species of Spider in my own bathroom that has never been recorded in Merseyside!

It was a very quick and rushed observation that I made as I was leaving my house and didn't realize whatsoever that it would be so significant of a find! If I had decided not to make that observation because of my very little knowledge of Spiders we would still be unaware of its existence in the region! I didn't need to know what it was - I just added it as a record for a Spider. But experts helped me come to understand what the species was and that it was an important find! I know they are pleased that I was BRAVE enough to risk looking like a fool in entering a record that I could not Identify what I had actually seen to even genus or species level!  The truth is it's not BRAVE, it is quite normal for people not to know the full identity of what they are recording, sometimes they have no idea at all! There are a lot of people out there who will know... but there are far more that don't! Some of that is because like me, people are happy to be more general naturalist, or just like nature enough to engage from time to time, some of it is because they were never confident enough to pursue careers within nature and the studies of it, maybe because of bullying... and sometimes, also like me... I didn't have the right support in things like education and careers guidance to help me find the right direction, and to take the right path to engage more fully in a career in nature earlier in life!

 

Toothed Weaver Spider
Toothed Weaver Spider (Textrix denticulata)
First record in North Merseyside.

Photograph by Amanda Barber

 

But times have definitely changed for the better with concerns for our planet and it's life, and some schools seem to be getting better at involving nature in their curriculum and emphasis so embrace the fact! The playground at the Junior School my sons and I attended, has turned from ‘Cement City’ to a lovely green area, which will encourage nature and make a more vibrant, beautiful and safer place for the children now attending to relax and play in and to appreciate and embrace nature at an earlier point in life!

Use the resources that you can, actively seek the right tools to use, introduce yourself to like-minded people and people already working in the fields that you are interested in!... REMEMBER it's NEVER EVER too late to enjoy nature and share what you've found!... whether it's brief encounters or makes up the biggest part of your life!

 

 

Thanks once again to Amanda for taking the time to speak to us!

If you have been inspired to start recording wildlife or want to get involved with our BioBank community as a volunteer please do get in touch by emailing Merseyside BioBank for more information:

 info@merseysidebiobank.org.uk