Sefton Coast

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 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 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.  

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.

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