Sefton Coast

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.  

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.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes January 2020

Hairy Sand Wasp (Podalonia hirsuta) Dr Phil Smith

January was remarkably mild with early-morning frost on only three days. It rained on 14 days but most of it was light and patchy, being concentrated in the first half of the month. Accordingly, the water-table rose by 6.5 cm in the first two weeks but fell by 1 cm in the next fortnight. The unseasonal conditions resulted in some remarkable insect sightings. Pete Kinsella emailed on 15th to say that he had found a Green Shieldbug sunning itself on Ivy at Crosby and then as many as six on the 19th. These were the brown hibernation form but should not have been out and about in January. Even more surprising, I was struggling up the steep sandy slope to the Devil’s Hole on 29th when I spotted a familiar shape on the sand. It was a large sand-wasp. Expecting it to be dead, I picked it up only to discover it was still alive, despite having lost its black-and-red abdomen. I took it home and identified it as a Hairy Sand Wasp Podalonia hirsuta, a familiar summer duneland species. Online research confirmed that mated females often over-winter. Perhaps this one ventured out in the mild weather and was attacked by a bird. I hesitate to make false accusations, but there was a perky male Stonechat flying from bush to bush in the Devil’s Hole.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes December 2019

Glittering Wood-moss Hylocomium splendens, Freshfield Dune Heath (Phil Smith)

Could I find any insects, other than Winter-gnats, in December? A visit to the Holden Road, Crosby Ivy patches on 1st provided the answer. Sure enough, I spotted two each of the two common Drone-flies and a Green Shieldbug of the brown pre-hibernation colour-form. This bonanza couldn’t last; the following day I had to break ice 1 cm thick at the Devil’s Hole to measure the water-table. A trek down to the shore to look for long-gone Snow Buntings was poorly rewarded by a male Stonechat, three Pied Wagtails and a Turnstone flipping over seaweed on the tideline looking for Sand-hoppers.

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.

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