Spring has certainly sprung, with weeks of sunny, often warm and dry weather – too dry for some of our wildlife, especially the Natterjack Toad which likes it damp and needs water for breeding. Many of the dune-slacks are already drying up but my first monitoring visit to Birkdale Green Beach on 14th April was rewarded with a good count of 64 spawn strings. Most will soon be lost to the drought but that is not unusual. The Natterjack chooses such shallow water in which to spawn that it only breeds really successfully about one year in four or five. Its tadpoles need high water temperatures to develop, hence the need for shallow water which warms up quickly in the sun.
Lots of insects have come out earlier than usual, including two of our nationally rare species, the Vernal Bee and the Northern Dune Tiger Beetle. A bit like a small Honey Bee, the Vernal Bee is active from late March to early May, the female collecting pollen from Creeping Willow catkins and storing it in tunnels dug into south-facing dune slopes. As is the case in most bees, this species is “solitary” in contrast to the Bumble Bees and Honey Bees which are truly social insects. In practice, Vernal Bees lives in loose colonies, sometimes numbering into the hundreds and are widespread on the Sefton Coast from Crosby Coastal Park to Queen’s Jubilee Nature Trail.
We have nearly the entire British population of the Northern Dune Tiger Beetle, its only other locality being at Drigg in Cumbria. Ferocious predators, the purplish-brown adults start emerging in April and need very high temperatures for their active life-style. You can find them running about and flying short distances on patches of bare sand in the dunes near the sea – but only on sunny days. I counted as many as nine together in one blow-out at Ainsdale Local Nature Reserve on 19th April.
Another interesting sighting the following day at Birkdale Green Beach was of two male Ruby Tiger moths fluttering around a female, half hidden in the grass. Like many moths, the female emits a chemical scent or pheromone which attracts males over considerable distances. But, although this is a fairly common dune species, I have never seen this behaviour before in Ruby Tiger.