Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes March 2020

Common Seal, Alt Estuary (Photo: Dr Phil Smith)

 

The first half of the month continued the trend set earlier in the winter of repeated low-pressure systems driven on a particularly vigorous North Atlantic Jet Stream. Measurable rain fell in Formby on 13 days but the last 12 days of March were completely dry as the strongest high-pressure system ever recorded dominated the Atlantic and the usual spring drought set in. The month was also windy, with particularly fierce blasts on four days. One of these on the 12th coincided with 10.2 m tides, amongst the highest we get, adding to the damage caused to coastal dunes during a similar coincidence of storms and spring tides in February. I managed to get a photographic record of the losses to the dune frontage, this being not quite as bad as the massive storm surges of the 2013/14 winter. The worst damage was at Hightown and also at Formby Point, where spectacular sand cliffs were up to 25 feet high. Yet again, the National Trust was faced with the problem of hundreds of tonnes of rubble washed onto the beach from the foundations of the old carpark created using Harrington Barracks demolition material dumped here in the mid-1960s. Hightown suffered a loss of perhaps 9 m of dune frontage, parts of the northern section being especially badly affected with hardly any dune width remaining. I estimated losses of 5-7 m at Crosby, while there was only slight cliffing at the Green Beach north of Ainsdale. On another accreting shore at Cabin Hill, the embryo dunes had been overwashed but there was minimal loss of sand.

Following the wet winter, there was impressive flooding in slacks throughout the dune system. At my Devil’s Hole measuring point, the water was 14 cm deeper than at any time since I began recording in October 2015. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to a good breeding season for Natterjack Toads when they emerge from hibernation in April.

As ever, March is a time when signs of spring appear, while many of our winter wildlife visitors are still around. Thus, the Pink-footed Goose flock at Crossens reached a staggering 10,000 early in the month. Fellow travellers included the small Todd’s Canada Goose from the High Arctic which has been with the Pinkfeet since last winter. I managed to see it once at long range, together with several Barnacle Geese. However, a Tundra Bean, Whitefronts and a rare Grey-bellied Brent, spotted by others, escaped me, as did an American Green-winged Teal at Crossens later in the month. I had better luck at Hightown on 14th. While recording the erosion damage, I bumped into a tame Common Seal, hauled out on the bank of the Alt. This individual had been reported from time to time since the autumn, an orange tag on its hind flipper showing that it was rescued as an underweight youngster on the west coast of Scotland in August 2018 and released at Clachan, Tarbert the following month. It was also seen on the north Wirral foreshore at Leasowe during the winter. The Common or Harbour Seal is extremely rare on the Sefton Coast, The vertebrates of Lancashire (2017) published by the Lancashire & Cheshire Fauna Society giving only two previous records, in 1998 and 2006.

By mid-month, several tiny dune annuals, such as Sea and Little Mouse-ear, were in flower, while I found the first red catkins on the native Black Poplars at Formby Point on 19th. As usual, salt-resistant Danish Scurvy-grass lined the main road verges, a particularly richly-coloured patch being at Ainsdale Discovery Centre. The colony of Moschatel in a small area of relict woodland at Ashdale Close, Formby was still there, flowering at its only known site in the district. Showy garden-escapes on the dunes included the superb Summer Snowflake, originally found by Patricia Lockwood at Wicks Lake in 2013. This has now made quite a large clump.

Early insects were represented on 11th by the brown over-wintering form of the Green Shieldbug, a Drone-fly and a Ruby Tiger caterpillar at Crosby Coastal Park. Even better, a few days later, I photographed the uncommon Fabricius’ Nomad Bee and an early spring hoverfly, Melangyna lasiophthalma, on Grey Willow catkins at Ainsdale NNR. Several vibrant Peacock butterflies, just out of hibernation, were joined by a pair of amorous Small Tortoishells.

The Corona virus ‘lockdown’ towards the end of March restricted my activities somewhat, though a daily exercise walk provided opportunities for some wildlife observations. On 27th, I set off to trek round the playing fields next to my home but didn’t get far before I spotted a Juniper Shieldbug on a Leyland Cypress hedge. This colourful insect was only the third record for Sefton of a species that used to be confined to native Juniper in southern England but has taken to exotic cypresses and junipers grown in gardens and is extending its range. It is certainly worth looking for while people are spending more time in their gardens. Having recently emerged from hibernation, the shieldbug may be found on the sunny, sheltered side of an appropriate conifer. I would be pleased to know of any sightings.