Wildlife Notes

Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: April

Heath Dog-violet, Viola canina at Ainsdale LNR (Dr Phil Smith)

Following on from an exceptionally dry March, the spring drought continued with only five days of measureable rainfall in April and none after 12th. By the end of the month even the TV weather presenters were acknowledging that “gardeners would appreciate some rain.”  You might well ask why farmers, growers, the water supply industry and the natural environment did not merit similar concerns! The Met. Office acknowledged “a run of dry Aprils in recent years.” In fact, this weather pattern extends back to 2000, as I have repeatedly pointed out in these notes.  Cold dry nights meant awful breeding conditions for Natterjack Toads. I heard one call briefly at Hightown on 27th and that was it. At least, some sun-loving insects benefited. I was keen to catch up again with the almost mythical Early Bear Hoverfly that I saw in March. On 8th I was crossing Falkland’s Way dunes on my way to Ainsdale NNR when I spotted a familiar shape on a sunny Sycamore trunk. It was an Early Bear Hoverfly, doing its bumblebee impression. It even tolerated a close approach for photos. Many more spring-flying hoverflies appeared during the month, especially on south-facing woodland edges where they love to bask on young Sycamore leaves. At Ravenmeols, I recorded 14 species, including one that was new to me - the Triangle-spotted Syrph, a tiny black hoverfly with triangular yellow markings. Overall, however, numbers of hoverflies were much reduced by the dry conditions.

Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: March

Oak Eggar, New Green Beach (Dr 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.

Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: February

Marram circles at Devil's hole

On 1st of the month, my spirits were lifted by the first Snowdrops in flower on Range Lane, while Jays called from the woods. Seedlings were already germinating on an area of bare sand created where a large Sea Buckthorn clump had been taken out by the National Trust. I was intrigued by circular marks on damp sand in the Devil’s Hole caused by the lashing of Marram leaves in the stormy winds. The following day, I went to see the new scrapes in Ravenmeols Local Nature Reserve excavated in areas also cleared of Sea Buckthorn by the National Trust. Two of them are shallow and gently shelving – ideal for Natterjack Toads. Two others are deeper and less suitable for Natterjacks but should attract other wildlife, including dragonflies. A real highlight was a bush of the nationally rare Don’s Willow which I had previously missed, probably because it had been partially concealed by Sea Buckthorn. Its flame-red stems were unmissable and I was able to confirm its identity by the arrangement of buds and the shape of dead leaves underneath the bush.

Dr Phil Smith Wildlife Notes: January

Stonechat at Ainsdale LNR (Dr Phil Smith)

Another month of record breaking weather started with the warmest New Year’s Day ever. It was also the sunniest January recorded for England, though we experienced many days of continuous cloud cover. Finally, in contrast to December, it was particularly dry, rainfall in England being less than 40% of average. Here, only eight days had measureable rainfall and the sand-dune water-table showed no change during the month.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes November 2021

Portuguese man o war Ainsdale by John Dempsey

November is generally a quiet time for wildlife. However, Ian Wolfenden reported a huge movement of winter thrushes at Hightown on 4th. He estimated an extraordinary number of 5000 Fieldfares and 2000 Redwings flying north. Strong winds from the southwest on 6-7th brought in an unusual bounty from the tropics, John Dempsey finding a colourful Portuguese-Man-of-War and several By-the-wind-sailors on Ainsdale beach.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes October 2021

 Furry Dronefly, Eristalis intricaria, Crosby, Dr Phil Smith

October had a total of 16 rain-days, being wet and windy early and late in the month, with a dry 10-day period in the middle. Gales in early October blew in masses of sand, deeply burying the rich strandline vegetation at Ainsdale that I highlighted in the September notes. The associated 10m high-tides washed up drifts of seaweed, presumably from North Wales, which will provide the nutrients for next summer’s strandline plants.

As in October last year, the relatively warm weather kept insects going longer than usual.

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.

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