Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: March

Oak Eggar, New Green Beach (Dr Phil Smith)

 

With high pressure dominant for most of the month, March was excessively dry – measureable rain fell here on only four days. The Met. Office confirmed that we had less than half of our normal rainfall in what is already one of our driest months. It was also the sunniest March since 1929. There were cold snaps with icy winds early and late in the month, with a milder slot in between. Reflecting the dry autumn and winter, the highest water level at the Devil’s Hole slack was 46 cm lower than last year’s record high. One result is that the spawning sites used by Natterjacks at this site may be too shallow this spring, unless we get a lot of rain.

 

Orange Ladybird at Wicks Path (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.

 

Turnstone at Crosby Boating Lake (Phil Smith)

 

It felt like winter on 8th when I went down to Crosby Coastal Park to look for the Greater Snowdrop recorded by botanist Peter Jepson in 2017. I had a rough description of where to look and soon found a fine specimen with 13 flowers, only the second of this distinctively broad-leaved species I have seen on the Sefton Coast. Another target was a Yellow-legged Gull, the Mediterranean version of Herring Gull, reported by Pete Kinsella at Crosby boating lake. There was indeed an impressive gull-roost, including 250 Herring, six Lesser Black-backed, together with over 100 Black-headed Gulls, some of which were already in summer plumage. Despite the cold, I enjoyed searching through the flock but the Yellow-leg had evidently moved on. A few days later, I had the same result, though three tame Turnstones provided some compensation.

 

Gorse Shieldbug at Wicks Path (Phil Smith)

 

Our former Coast Management Officer, John Houston, joined me at Formby Point on 10th to visit two ‘notches’ created in the frontal dunes by Dynamic Dunescapes. The aim is to encourage sand-blow from the beach to cover the former nicotine waste tip and restore dune habitats. Although it’s early days, it does seem to be working. We also saw the aftermath of the autumn and winter storms that dumped tonnes of brick rubble from the old carpark onto the beach. To the east, disused asparagus fields still support large numbers of Rabbits. The resulting short turf had attracted 27 foraging Redwings and four Stock Doves. I was hoping for a Wheatear but the first for the coast wasn’t reported until the 13th.

 

Small Tortoiseshell at Ainsdale NNR (Phil Smith)

 

A week later, I walked from Sands Lake to the Green Beach with Trevor Davenport. The first catkins were showing on Creeping Willow and Trevor spotted three hairy Oak Eggar moth caterpillars tucking into willow buds. I made several visits to Ainsdale NNR where a flowering Prunus and the catkins of a large Grey Willow bush attracted a wide variety of insects, especially early spring hoverflies and butterflies, such as the Small Tortoiseshell. My main target was the spectacular Early Bear Hoverfly which looks just like a small bumblebee. I eventually managed to track one down on the Prunus. Basking on a sunny fence was another bee mimic, the hairy parasitic fly Tachina ursina.

 

Criorhina ranunculi at Ainsdale NNR (Phil Smith)

 

On 24th, I met 20 keen members of the Wildflower Society at Wick’s Path, Formby Point. Just before they arrived, I spotted four Gorse Shieldbugs on a Honeysuckle bush, rather than their usual host plant. Noting two species of Fumitory, we walked down to Wick’s Lake where a large plant of a garden escape Summer Snowflake was in full flower. The Rabbit-grazed dunes to the west of the lake supported lots of tiny dune annuals, including Sea Mouse-ear, Little Mouse-ear, Lesser Chickweed and the exquisite Early Forget-me-not.

Trevor and I found stripped pine cones in Cabin Hill Wood on 29th; the first evidence I have seen of Red Squirrels in this woodland. A male Shoveler on Cabin Hill NNR’s big slack was also my first here. The Sefton Coast is always capable of producing wildlife surprises!