Phil Smith

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes August 2021

Broad-leaved Helleborine Epipactis helleborine Ainsdale NNR 1 08 21.jpg

My month with nature started well when Joyce and David Jarvis showed me two flowering Broad-leaved Helleborines at Ainsdale National Nature Reserve. I hadn’t seen this orchid on the Sefton Coast since 2008.  Other notable plants during the month included a small colony of Whorl-grass that I found on a freshwater seepage zone on Hightown beach. It turned out to be the rare variety uniflora, largely confined to Western Scotland with only two known localities in England. While listing the associated species, I came across a plant that I couldn’t name but which seems to be Touch-me-not Balsam (Impatiens noli-tangere), not previously recorded for the Sefton Coast.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes July 2021

Birch Sawfly Cimbex femoratus pair Freshfield Dune Heath 13 7 21

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.

 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: Wildlife notes June 2021

Wasp Beetle Clytus arietis

Following one of the wettest Mays on record, June turned out to be one of the driest, with sparse rainfall on only four days. Fortunately, the damp weather in May and a legacy of the wet winter meant that the impact of the drought on duneland plants was less than it might have been. Nevertheless, the vegetation of road verges and other dry habitats was soon burnt to a crisp.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes April 2021

Wheatear Ainsdale LNR

According to the Met. Office, April was: “An incredibly notable month in terms of statistics.” It provided the lowest average minimum mean temperatures for the country since 1922 and was one of the sunniest and driest Aprils on record. Here, not a drop of rain fell for 30 days between 28th March and 27th April. As reported last year, these spring droughts are known to be linked to climate change but the general public is not being told this.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes March 2021

​  Large Bear-hoverfly (Criorhina ranunculi) Ainsdale NNR  ​

March was a relatively dry, settled month with measurable rain on only 10 days. However, wetter conditions from 9th to 16th raised the water-table at the Devil’s Hole to the highest level since I started measuring it in October 2015. The usual spring high pressure became established towards the end of the month, the warmest ever March temperature of 24.5 degrees being recorded in London on 30th. In Formby, it peaked at more reasonable 20 degrees. These spring heat-waves are becoming more frequent, as a predicted consequence of climate change.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes August 2020

Goat Moth (Dr Phil Smith)

On average, August is the wettest summer month, so it wasn’t surprising that we had rain on 14 days. Most of it was light but the second week was warm and humid, culminating in a thunderstorm on the 10th. The spring drought seemed a distant memory as late summer flowers like Grass-of-Parnassus proliferated in the damp conditions. Many of our dune-slacks didn’t dry up at all, my measuring point in the Devil’s Hole at Ravenmeols registering shallow water throughout.

Our concerns about the absence of Six-spot Burnet moths in July proved unduly pessimistic, their numbers rapidly increasing in early August, joining the second generation of Northern Dune Tiger Beetles. The latter seems to have done particularly well this year, Gems in the Dunes staff reporting hundreds in their usual bare sand habitat, mostly on the frontal dunes. A large area of flowering Apple Mint (the “mint patch”) at Ravenmeols attracted a wide range of insects, though the number of butterflies was down on last year. Even so, the glamorous Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell, accompanied more mundane Gatekeepers. I was especially pleased to find two Small Heaths, a butterfly that is declining nationally but is still plentiful on the Sefton Coast. Amongst a wealth of bees and flies on the mint, the impressive Tachina fera attracted attention. This is a large bristly fly that parasitises various moth caterpillars. The female lays its eggs on leaves. When the eggs hatch, the young larva enters the body of a caterpillar and eats it from the inside.  This fly is widespread and common throughout much of the country, having a successful life-style shared by a great number of flies and wasps. These include a group of flies known as “beegrabbers” from their habit of jumping on bees and laying an egg on them. The larva develops inside the bee and eventually kills it. I found the widely distributed Four-banded Beegrabber on several occasions but the much rarer Dark-cheeked Beegrabber was a particular highlight, two being photographed on Ragwort at Ravenmeols on 18th. Two Common Lizards basking on a nearby log pile was a distraction from the insects.

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