After a mild, sunny February, spring went back into hibernation as March was dominated by cold and often wet and windy weather. Persistent northerly winds did have an upside, however, when on 29th March an immature Sea Eagle was claimed over Seaforth, presumably one of the Scottish birds, while on the last day of the month an equally exciting adult Ross’s Gull was found at Marton Mere, Blackpool. This almost mythical pink gull breeds in eastern Siberia and rarely ventures south of the pack-ice!
The more usual migrants were late arriving, with Wheatears and Chiffchaffs largely absent until the last week. A Willow Warbler appeared at Marshside on 26th and the first Swallows were at Martin Mere and Marshside on 29th. Avocets built up steadily during the month, peaking at 38 at Martin Mere on 30th and 56 at Marshside on 23rd. These are impressive numbers for this elegant wader which was a rare bird in Lancashire before 2001. Other highlights at Marshside included 37 Ruff on 10th, two or three Little Stints around the 27th and a high count of 35 Gadwall on the same date, while up to 2000 Golden Plovers, gradually assuming their black-and-gold summer plumage were present almost throughout, as was an American Green-winged Teal. Mere Sands Wood was again visited by a Night Heron which gave good views to its many admirers. There is some debate about its origin, which may not be southern Europe as there is a colony of free-flying birds at Edinburgh Zoo.
Winter birds are often still around in March and, following a tip-off from Tony Duckels, I went to see a flock of Siskins on Long Lane, Formby on 15th. There were 25 of these dapper little yellow-and-green finches, the males singing away like mad.
The varied plumages of gulls provide an identification challenge to the keen bird-watcher and, following a big gale, I visited Ainsdale and Birkdale beach on 13th to search though flocks totalling about 14,000. There were seven species present, most being Herring Gulls but also good numbers (3000+) of Common Gulls. I managed to find three Mediterranean and two Yellow-legged Gulls, which was good reward for the effort involved.
Apart from garden escapes like Daffodils and other colourful spring bulbs, the duneland plantlife is a bit limited in March. An exception, however, is the nationally rare Early Sand-grass (Mibora minima), which has its only native English locality by Southport Marine Lake. Said to be the smallest grass in the world, its diminutive size and early flowering season may be why it wasn’t found here until 1996. I have visited it nearly every year since and it is doing well.
Much easier to spot at this time of year is Danish Scurvy-grass (Cochlearia danica) which forms drifts of tiny, pale-lilac flowers alongside main roads, such as the Formby Bypass. At one time this plant was only found along the coast but, like several other maritime species, it has spread inland along the verges of roads treated with de-icing salt. This restricts the growth of most plants, allowing those adapted to saline conditions to thrive, their seeds being dispersed by the draught created by passing traffic.