Natural History

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 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.

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.

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