Wildlife Notes

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes November 2019

Devil’s Matchstick Cladonia floerkeana, Freshfield Dune Heath (Dr Phil Smith)

My month began with a trip to Marshside where there was also plenty of surface water. Distant grey masses proved to be Black-tailed Godwits in flocks totalling 2700. This sounds a lot but wasn’t unusual for this reserve. These Iceland-breeding waders travel remarkable distances across Western Europe, as shown by repeated sightings of colour-ringed individuals. More surprising were 13 Cattle Egrets under the feet of cows on the reclaimed marshland. I had never seen so many of these small, yellow-billed egrets, whose status has changed dramatically since the first Lancashire record as recently as 1999. Crossens saltmarsh produced 32 Whooper Swans and a remarkably large flock of 225 feral Canada Geese. Finally, I called in at the Hesketh Road viewing platform where the Cetti’s Warbler I heard in October was still singing loudly from a nearby reed-bed. It was reminiscent of Mallorca but a bit colder.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes November 2019

Devil’s Matchstick Cladonia floerkeana, Freshfield Dune Heath (Dr Phil Smith)

My month began with a trip to Marshside where there was also plenty of surface water. Distant grey masses proved to be Black-tailed Godwits in flocks totalling 2700. This sounds a lot but wasn’t unusual for this reserve. These Iceland-breeding waders travel remarkable distances across Western Europe, as shown by repeated sightings of colour-ringed individuals. More surprising were 13 Cattle Egrets under the feet of cows on the reclaimed marshland. I had never seen so many of these small, yellow-billed egrets, whose status has changed dramatically since the first Lancashire record as recently as 1999. Crossens saltmarsh produced 32 Whooper Swans and a remarkably large flock of 225 feral Canada Geese. Finally, I called in at the Hesketh Road viewing platform where the Cetti’s Warbler I heard in October was still singing loudly from a nearby reed-bed. It was reminiscent of Mallorca but a bit colder.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes October 2019

Common Seal, Alt Estuary (Dr Phil Smith)

It’s supposed to rain in October and this year it did, 18 days having measurable rainfall, though in no great quantity. Nevertheless, it raised the dune water-table by about 15 cm (6 inches), with plenty of surface water at last in the Devil’s Hole. These damp conditions proved ideal for fungi, a highlight being the discovery by Trevor Davenport of the extremely rare Stereopsis reidii on the edge of a woodland path at Ainsdale National Nature Reserve. This caused a lot of excitement amongst mycologists, as there are few locations for the fungus in Europe and this was only the second British record, the previous also being at Ainsdale NNR.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes September 2019

Three Ivy-bee at Crosby (Dr Phil Smith)

Rather like the previous month, September provided a “normal” mix of dry, sometimes warm, weather and wetter periods, about 14 days having measurable rainfall. As usual, we missed the torrential downpours late in the month that caused flooding elsewhere. North-westerly winds in the first few days produced Leach’s Petrels and other seabirds offshore, while the wind direction was also favourable for Pink-footed Geese migrating south from Iceland. The first reports on 5th were earlier than usual, record numbers being present from mid-month.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes August 2019

Small Red-eyed Damselfly (Dr Phil Smith)

Although, it felt quite autumnal by the end of the month, August on the Sefton Coast was brilliant for wildlife. The first day found me on Ainsdale Sandhills Local Nature Reserve, where butterflies abounded. Lots of Painted Ladies reflected the earlier invasion, while Graylings jostled for the best position on Sea Holly flowers, showing off their rarely seen upperwings. As expected, the big Natterjack scrape had several dragonflies, including a single Red-veined Darter left over from the July influx. A huge male Emperor caught a Grayling in mid-air, eating most of the body before dropping the head and wings.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes July 2019

Painted Lady (Dr Phil Smith)

Since these notes began over 12 years ago, extreme weather and its effects on wildlife has been a constant refrain Now the Met. Office tells us that we had the warmest July since 1884, the UK’s record highest temperature being broken on 25th, while subsequent heavy rain led to flash flooding in the Pennines. Here, July began with drought conditions, virtually no rain falling until 19th. Thereafter, it rained on eight days, though we missed the torrential downpours elsewhere. A pulse of warm air from the continent produced a short-lived heatwave late in the month.

The warmth helped many duneland insects. The Ringlet colony at Ravenmeols spread to the nearby Range Lane pasture, while the Hightown scrapes still had up to four Red-veined Darters on 3rd and 7th, presumably survivors from the June influx. They were accompanied by the usual Black-tailed Skimmers, Broad-bodied Chasers, Emperors and Common Darters. A totally unexpected find nearby was a patch of spectacular white Madonna Lilies in full flower. There was no sign of them being planted, though that origin seems likely. A visit to Ainsdale National Nature Reserve with Trevor Davenport was rewarded with good views of a Purple Hairstreak (found by others). Trevor also spotted a rare Forester moth on Ragwort.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes June 2019

Bee Orchid (Dr Phil Smith)

After one of the driest winters and springs in living memory, twelve days with measurable rain in June were riches indeed. While some parts of the country were flooded, we had just enough to reverse earlier drought conditions. There was even some late spawning by Natterjack Toads, though the tadpoles are unlikely to complete their development. The extent to which our wildlife is impacted by weather condition was graphically illustrated. Rainfall in the first half of the month had a spectacular effect on the sand-dune flora with orchids appearing in fantastic abundance. Pyramidal and Bee Orchids were everywhere. Joshua Styles reported driving past Bee Orchids on a Southport roundabout, so Trevor Davenport and I braved the traffic to count a remarkable 210 flower-spikes. Green Sefton’s John Dempsey arranged for mowing to be delayed so they could set seed. Ironically, however, a letter to the local newspaper complained about grass being uncut on a roundabout – you can’t please everyone!    

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes May 2019

Iron Cross - Oxalis tetraphylla (Dr Phil Smith)

It’s becoming repetitive, but May 2019 was yet another dry month in Sefton. Only eight days had measurable rainfall, none of it heavy or persistent. Like last year, duneland vegetation was looking parched by mid-month, attempts to find our rare clovers on road verges at Ainsdale and Hightown being thwarted as the plants were dried up.

However, drought conditions could not prevent May on the Sefton Coast producing a wealth of wildlife as usual. Altcar Training Camp proved a case in point. This large (620 acre) estate is normally off-limits for security reasons but, each spring and summer, a series of popular guided walks and research visits is arranged by kind permission of the Commandant, Col. Gordon Black. Altcar’s amazing Green-winged Orchids have featured annually in these notes. This time, Steve Cross counted about 24,500; fewer than recently but still one of the largest populations in the country. As well as rare colour-forms of salmon-pink and white, I found a few orchids with strange variegated flowers. Although about 430 higher plants have been listed for the estate, we still found several new species, including the uncommon Knotted Clover, Spring Vetch and Rat’s-tail Fescue. Specialists from Liverpool Museum’s Tanyptera Project recorded a new parasitic wasp for Britain, the Bordered Shieldbug which was new to South Lancashire and Merseyside and no fewer than 111 beetles!

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes April 2019

Sand Lizards (Dr Phil Smith)

A frequent refrain in these notes since 2000 has been spring droughts. April lived up to its reputation, only nine days having measurable rainfall. Strong drying winds from 5th to 16th didn’t help, these being followed by a heat-wave with temperatures up to 25oC and the inevitable moorland fires. Whatever happened to April showers? As usual, a named storm on 27th produced hardly any rain here. What little we did get stimulated a few Natterjack Toads to spawn. I counted 14 strings on the southern Green Beach, adding to 15 in March. However, a total of 29 spawn strings hardly compares with 274 at the same site in 2008. Even more concerning is that I didn’t see a single adult Natterjack during March and April.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes March 2019

Don's Willow (Dr Phil Smith)

The exceptional warmth of February soon gave way to typical March weather – windy with occasional rain, the latter falling on 13 out of the first 18 days of the month. Inevitably, the Atlantic then ran out of energy, with high pressure and the usual spring drought taking over. Much-needed rain led to the dune water-table rising by 13 cm by mid-month but this was still 27 cm below the same period last year and insufficient to flood the Natterjack Toad breeding areas at the Devil’s Hole. Elsewhere on the coast, however, water-levels rose, Natterjacks emerging much earlier than usual on 15th, followed by spawning at Ainsdale and Hightown. My first monitoring visit to the southern Green Beach at Ainsdale on 19th found no Natterjacks but a few Common Toads were breeding and Common Frogs had produced over 100 spawn masses. My second survey on 25th found 15 Natterjack spawn strings, these being only a few days old. All were laid in shallow water which may not be viable if the drought continues. Our research shows there are now about 70% fewer Natterjack Toads on the Sefton Coast than there were 30 years ago, the reasons being a combination of vegetation overgrowth, competition from Common Toad and Common Frog tadpoles and spring droughts.

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