Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes July 2021

Birch Sawfly Cimbex femoratus pair Freshfield Dune Heath 13 7 21

 

We largely missed the torrential downpours that affected southern areas and the uplands, the result being another dry month here, with measurable rain on only seven days. A mid-month heatwave peaked at 28oC on 23rd, uncomfortable for folks of my vintage. Just across the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland broke their all time temperature record with 31.3o on 21st, though this produced little comment in the media. Extreme heatwaves and prolonged spring and summer droughts are a predicted consequence of climate change. Fortunately, most of our sand-dune specialist flora and fauna seem able to cope at present, being adapted to life in harsh conditions. There are exceptions, such as the Natterjack Toad, which is in trouble with a 70% decline in the last 30 years.

Many insects like it hot, as reflected in a big hatch of butterflies, following a disappointing June. By mid-month, tremendous numbers of Gatekeepers were everywhere, joining already numerous Meadow Browns in the dune grasslands, with smaller numbers of Common Blues, Small Heaths and Small Coppers. It was also good to see the first Graylings appearing in the outer dunes by 16th, while day-flying Six-spot Burnet moths became increasingly abundant as the month progressed. I counted 18 nectaring on one Ragwort plant at Hightown dunes. Also on Ragwort, were the striking black-and-orange banded caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth, though not in numbers sufficient to strip the leaves and flowers. As a result, the surviving caterpillars seemed fatter than usual. Enormous numbers of Common Darters were a consequence of high water-levels for two successive years.

I had lots of wildlife highlights during the month. Following reports of Ringlet at Haskayne Cutting Nature Reserve, I made the short trip inland on 2nd. Sure enough, two non-stop males confirmed the presence of this butterfly which is rapidly expanding its range in the region. A few days later, Hightown dunes produced a Welsh Chafer on Wild Parsnip. This small brown beetle has a ‘local, sporadic distribution’ in England and Wales. The nearby scrapes had six species of dragonflies, including female Emperors egg-laying. On the way home, I called in at Alt Bridge, being surprised to find a ‘colony’ of six Red-legged Shieldbugs on Wych Elm.

On 9th, I bumped into an old friend, Peter Gateley, who was ‘guiding’ two well-known naturalists from Hampshire, Paul Sterry and Andrew Cleave. We headed for the Birkdale frontal dunes, where Flat-sedge, Baltic Rush and Sharp Club-rush put on a tremendous show. They also wanted to see another Sefton Coast speciality the Dune Helleborine. By great good fortune we walked into an impressive stand of about 20 plants in full flower. Passing a singing Cetti’s Warbler, we went over to the Green Beach, where another target was the northerly distributed Saltmarsh Flat-sedge. I was especially pleased to re-find a thriving colony, using GPS data from a 2012 survey.  The next day, I showed them the Devil’s Hole at Ravenmeols. As well as the landscape, they were greatly impressed by Red-list ‘Endangered’ Intermediate Centaury, an English endemic, together with the ‘nationally scarce’ Round-leaved Wintergreen, both in full flower. A stand of Blunt-flowered Rush also attracted attention, though this is much commoner in the south and south-east than here.

 

Intermediate Centaury (Centaurium intermedium), Hightown dunes

 

During ongoing surveys of young Green Beach features at Ainsdale, I was delighted to find flowers on the Four-leaved Pink-sorrel for the first time. A spectacular green-and-black Three-lined Soldier-fly was new to me; in the books it is described as ‘widespread but local.’ Hightown dunes produced 45 flowers of the gorgeous Sea Bindweed, the best display for many years, while there was an equally majestic flowering of the pink coastal form of Hedge Bindweed. My fortnightly visit to the Devil’s Hole on 15th was enlivened by a Dune Robberfly that posed for photographs and by distant views of a Red-veined Darter which was too wary to get a decent shot. After the heatwave, a search of Ragwort plants at Ainsdale NNR produced two Bee-grabbers, the rare Dark-cheeked, and the supposedly more common Waisted Bee-grabber, though I have only seen one before. Trevor Davenport joined me on 27th for a walk around Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve. Apart from the expected Field and Mottled Grasshoppers in good numbers, we found an immature Bronze Shieldbug, two Migrant Hawkers and a huge Poplar Hawkmoth. Lots of large brown male Oak Eggar moths dashed past at high speed looking for females in the Heather.

Four-leaved Pink-sorrel Oxalis tetraphylla Even Newer Green Beach
Four-leaved Pink-sorrel (Oxalis tetraphylla)
Three-lined Soldier Oxycera trlineata Newest Green Beach 11 7 21
Three-lined Soldier (Oxycera trlineata
Poplar Hawkmoth Laothoe populi
Poplar Hawkmoth (Laothoe populi)

 

However, it was a visit to the dune heath on 13th that provided the main highlight of the month. A loud hum preceded the arrival of two enormous, tropical-looking insects that crashed into the grass a few yards away; each was over an inch long and their identity had me foxed until my photographs confirmed a mating pair of the Birch Sawfly. I've never seen one before and I was able to trace only a single previous Sefton record of a really impressive creature.

 

Dr Phil Smith