Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes December 2020

Snow Bunting Ainsdale Beach, Pete Kinsella

 

It was a wet one; measurable rain fell in Formby on 20 days during December. The 13th, 19th and 26th were especially damp, the latter coinciding with named storm ‘Bella’. It was also relatively mild, with frost largely restricted to a few mornings late in the month. There was no snow; indeed, it is now ten years since the last major snowfall here in December 2010. Unsurprisingly, the sand-dune water-table at my measuring point in the Devil’s Hole blowout rose by about 9cm (3.5 inches), in marked contrast to the previous month, when there was no change in the level.

It is worth looking back at the national weather picture for 2020. It was the third or fourth warmest year on record, one of the top ten wettest and top ten sunniest. The Met Office recorded the wettest February since records began, the sunniest spring and the wettest single day ever (in October). All this is consistent with climate change due to global warming, an issue that has been familiar to naturalists for 40 years or more. As highlighted in my Wildlife Notes, we have seen major northward shifts in the distributions of many breeding birds and also fast-moving invertebrates, such as dragonflies, solitary bees and hoverflies.

With mild conditions persisting early in the month, I was hoping to find my first December hoverfly; and did so at Wick’s Path on 5th. Predictably, it was just the very common Drone Fly Eristalis pertinax. It was accompanied on the fence by an assortment of other flies, including several Bluebottles, ten of which were sunning themselves on dead wood at Ravenmeols on 7th. However, that was about it for the month’s insects, while summer blooms could still be found quite easily. White Dead-nettle, Herb-Robert, Smooth Hawk’s-beard, Prickly Sowthistle and the ubiquitous Gorse were all flowering along Wick’s Path for most of December. I also photographed a magnificent Hogweed at Haskayne Cutting Nature Reserve on 20th while Canadian Fleabane was in full flower just up the road from my home. Everywhere I went, the damp conditions meant a luxuriant carpet of mosses and liverworts, the most noticeable in the dunes being the abundant Sandhill Screw-moss in vivid yellowish green patches. On the fixed-dunes near Wicks lake, the mosses were accompanied by many of the supposedly uncommon Winter Stalkball fungi, resembling tiny puffballs on stalks.

As insects and higher plants became harder to find my attention turned to birds but I wasn’t tempted by a rare Dusky Warbler from Siberia. Found by Andrew Spottiswood, it spent most of the month skulking in scrub patches on Ainsdale National Nature Reserve. A little more accessible was a Grey Phalarope which had been at Marshside for a couple of weeks before I got round to seeing it on 2nd. It was constantly spinning round on a pool to stir up invertebrates from the mud, typical behaviour for this small wader which breeds in the high Arctic, passing through Britain in small numbers on its way to tropical winter quarters. Disturbed by a passing raptor, an impressive flock of 300 Golden Plover and 1000 Lapwing took to the air over the waterlogged marshland. By 24th, this was deeply flooded, supporting 45 Pintail and almost 300 Tufted Ducks at the Hesketh Road end.

A search for a Snow Bunting on Ainsdale beach on 11th was unsuccessful but at least Pete Kinsella sent me fine photograph of the bird. A week later, the Hightown shore was completely quiet, apart from the distant roar of the surf and the trilling of Redshanks dispersing from their high-tide roost, which still held about 300 black-and-white Oystercatchers. Another calm afternoon saw me using my car as a portable hide on the mosses to watch Pink-footed Geese. I was lucky enough to find a spectacular feeding flock of about 6000 geese on Plex Moss, forming a grey blanket on an emerald grass field. It was so quiet that I could hear the creaking of flight feathers above the clamour of their calls. Before long the whole flock was flushed, apparently by the sound of a distant shooting party. Pinkfeet are hunted throughout their range; nevertheless their numbers have increased dramatically in the last 50 years, about half a million now wintering in Britain, representing the whole of the Iceland and Greenland breeding population.

The ponds on Freshfield Dune Heath Nature reserve were brim full and the paths wet and muddy when I visited on 28th. However, it was good to see that a large area has recently been cleared by volunteers of invasive Gorse and Silver Birch. This revealed what must have been an old bunker from the previous Freshfield Golf Course that was requisitioned to construct Woodvale Airfield in 1941. Relicts of military occupation were two concrete blocks on the heath. These have been colonised by round cushions of mosses, including the rather attractive Thickpoint Grimmia, a species not recorded for the Sefton Coast until it was found by Joshua Styles on similar habitat in 2017. Due to Covid restrictions, the ‘Buckthorn Bashers’ were unable to continue their scrub-clearance operations at Ainsdale but I joined two members of National Trust staff at the Devil’s Hole to remove eight young birch trees before they started seeding everywhere.

Here’s hoping the New Year will bring better fortunes for everyone.