Wildlife Notes

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes May 2021

Narcissus Bulbfly Merodon equestris pair Hawksworth Drive

May 2021 was one of the wettest on record. Some parts of the country had more than twice their normal rainfall. Most insects like it warm, so May’s cool conditions should have meant fewer of them. This was not at all the case. Spring species are well-adapted to the cold and if it’s cool they spend more time basking in the sun to warm up, making them easier to find.

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 December 2020

Snow Bunting Ainsdale Beach, Pete Kinsella

It was a wet one; measurable rain fell in Formby on 20 days during December. The 13th, 19th and 26th were especially damp, the latter coinciding with named storm ‘Bella’. It was also relatively mild, with frost largely restricted to a few mornings late in the month. There was no snow; indeed, it is now ten years since the last major snowfall here in December 2010. Unsurprisingly, the sand-dune water-table at my measuring point in the Devil’s Hole blowout rose by about 9cm (3.5 inches), in marked contrast to the previous month, when there was no change in the level.

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.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes May 2020

Common Blue pair at Ravenmeols (Dr Phil Smith)

The spring drought continued and intensified during May, which was the sunniest and driest in England since records began in 1929.  By the end of the month, water companies were requesting cutbacks in the rate of water use, while some TV weather presenters were reluctantly admitting that “We might need some rain.” Meanwhile, vegetation on the dunes and road verges dried to a crisp, fires inevitably breaking out along the coast and on moorland. Fortunately, many of our dune wetlands, recharged by a wet winter, still had surface water, though the water-table at my Devil’s Hole measuring point fell 21 cm during May. This meant a rescue operation was needed to move large numbers of Natterjack tadpoles into deeper water. Mike Brown of North Merseyside Amphibian & Reptile Group kindly helped with this licensed work at short notice. One of the problems at the Devil’s Hole and elsewhere is owners allowing their dogs to play in the slacks and scrapes. This can strand Natterjack tadpoles which cluster in the warmest water at the edge. When asked politely, most dog-walkers comply but this is not always the case, as on 28th, when a prolonged stream of foul language and aggressive insults followed a similar request.   

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife notes April 2020

Red-headed Cardinal, Wicks Lake (Dr Phil Smith)

Since they began in 2007, these notes have repeatedly described spring droughts but this year’s was a real humdinger! For 40 days, from 18th March to 27th April inclusive, no measureable rain fell in Formby. It was also the sunniest and fifth warmest April on record. Climatologists have shown that these droughts are associated with a warming trend in the Arctic that leads to persistent high-pressure systems over Greenland. These disrupt the North Atlantic Jet Stream, which brings most of our rain. Apart from having serious implications for agriculture and water-supply, largely ignored by politicians and the media, these changes in our climate are having major impacts on wildlife.  

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