Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: April

Ornate-tailed Digger Wasp (Cerceris rybyensis) Dr Phil Smith

According to the Met. Office, June continued the run of warm dry months this year, rain in the northwest being only 50-75% of average. In Formby, measureable rain in small quantity fell on only nine days, mainly near the beginning and end of the month. This was reflected in a rapid fall in the dune water-table, the level in the Devil’s Hole, Ravenmeols, dropping by 15cm, leaving the slacks almost entirely dry. This time last year there was extensive surface water. I saw no evidence of Natterjack Toad breeding in the Devil’s Hole and it looks as though it was another poor year coastwide.

BTO: UK’s mud-loving birds sinking fast

Lapwing (Copyright: Edmund Fellows)

The latest BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) report provides a stark warning for our breeding waders. The UK holds internationally important numbers of breeding waders and it is worrying to report their continued decline – Redshank is down by 49%, Curlew and Lapwing by 48%, Common Sandpiper by 28% and Oystercatcher by 22% over the last 25 years.

For many of these wader species, land management measures such as sensitive woodland and forestry planning, water level control, the creation or restoration of wet areas and implementing beneficial grazing practices and delaying grassland mowing regimes can help boost breeding productivity locally.

Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: April

Heath Dog-violet, Viola canina at Ainsdale LNR (Dr Phil Smith)

Following on from an exceptionally dry March, the spring drought continued with only five days of measureable rainfall in April and none after 12th. By the end of the month even the TV weather presenters were acknowledging that “gardeners would appreciate some rain.”  You might well ask why farmers, growers, the water supply industry and the natural environment did not merit similar concerns! The Met. Office acknowledged “a run of dry Aprils in recent years.” In fact, this weather pattern extends back to 2000, as I have repeatedly pointed out in these notes.  Cold dry nights meant awful breeding conditions for Natterjack Toads. I heard one call briefly at Hightown on 27th and that was it. At least, some sun-loving insects benefited. I was keen to catch up again with the almost mythical Early Bear Hoverfly that I saw in March. On 8th I was crossing Falkland’s Way dunes on my way to Ainsdale NNR when I spotted a familiar shape on a sunny Sycamore trunk. It was an Early Bear Hoverfly, doing its bumblebee impression. It even tolerated a close approach for photos. Many more spring-flying hoverflies appeared during the month, especially on south-facing woodland edges where they love to bask on young Sycamore leaves. At Ravenmeols, I recorded 14 species, including one that was new to me - the Triangle-spotted Syrph, a tiny black hoverfly with triangular yellow markings. Overall, however, numbers of hoverflies were much reduced by the dry conditions.

Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: March

Oak Eggar, New Green Beach (Dr Phil Smith)

March is the month for signs of spring. I saw my first Colt’s-foot at Sands Lake, Ainsdale, on 4th, while Lesser Celandine was in flower the following day at Formby Point. Insects were still thin on the ground early in the month but I spotted a spring colour-form of the Gorse Shieldbug sunning itself at Formby Point on 5th. The same day an Orange Ladybird was on a warm fence-post on Wick’s Path. Although a common species nationally, I hadn’t photographed one before. A few Common Toads were assembling to ponds on Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve on 6th. Common Frog seems to have spawned late; I found a large mass of frog-spawn at the heath on 17th and a few batches at Ainsdale National Nature Reserve on 19th. Walking down the bridle-path to the Freshfield reserve, I noticed that the large poplar uprooted in storm Arwen has been pulled back into a more-or-less upright position. A Chiffchaff was singing on the reserve, while an enormous amount of invasive Gorse has recently been removed mechanically. This looks intrusive at present but experience from similar work in 2009 shows that plantlife will soon recover, providing a boost to open heathland habitat favoured by specialised plants and animals.

Overwintering Swallows

Swallow by Amy Lewis

Swallows have started spending the winter in Britain instead of migrating 6,000 miles to South Africa, according to the British Trust for Ornithology.

The change in behaviour is one of the most remarkable signs yet of the warming world being caused by climate change, according to the BTO’s chief executive, Juliet Vickery.

Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: February

Marram circles at Devil's hole

On 1st of the month, my spirits were lifted by the first Snowdrops in flower on Range Lane, while Jays called from the woods. Seedlings were already germinating on an area of bare sand created where a large Sea Buckthorn clump had been taken out by the National Trust. I was intrigued by circular marks on damp sand in the Devil’s Hole caused by the lashing of Marram leaves in the stormy winds. The following day, I went to see the new scrapes in Ravenmeols Local Nature Reserve excavated in areas also cleared of Sea Buckthorn by the National Trust. Two of them are shallow and gently shelving – ideal for Natterjack Toads. Two others are deeper and less suitable for Natterjacks but should attract other wildlife, including dragonflies. A real highlight was a bush of the nationally rare Don’s Willow which I had previously missed, probably because it had been partially concealed by Sea Buckthorn. Its flame-red stems were unmissable and I was able to confirm its identity by the arrangement of buds and the shape of dead leaves underneath the bush.


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