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Whatever happened to traditional April showers?  Just like the previous year, April 2010 was characterised by long dry periods with cold nights, adding up to another disappointing breeding season for our Natterjack Toads.  A brief respite from the drought around 9th April stimulated some breeding activity and I counted 111 spawn strings on the southern section of Birkdale Green Beach the following day.  This was lucky, as I had arranged a training event for our Natterjack monitoring volunteers on 11th.  There was a good turn-out and we were able to compare fresh Natterjack spawn with older Common Toad and recently hatched Frog spawn, as well as finding adults of both the Natterjack and Common Toad.  Adding to the enjoyment were a Jack Snipe and Northern Dune Tiger Beetles.  The latter species is doing really well on the Green Beach dunes, this being reflected later in a count of 94 beetles over a distance of about 400m; not bad for one of our rarest insects.

Vernal Mining Bee

Also enjoying the prolonged April sunshine was another sand-dune speciality, the Vernal Mining Bee.  Hightown dunes have recently come under the control of Sefton Council which proposes to designate a Local Nature Reserve here.  Therefore, I thought I would count Hightown’s bees, so that their locations can be taken into account when planning the reserve’s management.  In three visits I managed to record the coordinates of 72 “colonies”, containing about 3750 nesting burrows of this nationally rare solitary bee.  During one of my searches, a commotion over the nearby Alt Estuary drew my attention to the spectacular sight of an Osprey being mobbed by a flock of Oystercatchers.  It hovered over the water a few times, as though looking for a fish, before heading northwards. In fact, there were lots of local sightings of Ospreys during the month, Seaforth Nature Reserve alone reporting four or five, a consequence of the rapidly increasing Scottish breeding population.

Much rarer birds seen during April included a White Stork over Marshside on 24th, a Common Crane at Hundred End on the Ribble Estuary on 20th-21st and two Bearded Tits at Seaforth on 15-16th, a first record for the reserve.  More usual migrants, included lots of White Wagtails, the continental version of our Pied Wagtail, and the occasional Yellow Wagtail.  I made a special trip to Curlew Lane, near Martin Mere, on 19th to see some Yellow Wagtails that had been found on a ploughed field a few days earlier.  There were four males in their dazzling summer plumage, a rare sight nowadays.  In former times, this was a common bird in Lancashire and North Merseyside; now there are probably less than 50 pairs in the two counties.  Another rapidly declining species is the Cuckoo; I didn’t see a single one last year.  However, a chance visit to Seaforth on 18th was rewarded with an excellent view of a Cuckoo, particularly unusual here, and the first Swift of the year.

Taking Black Poplar Cuttings

Our Formby Civic Society “Black Poplar walk” on 25th enabled participants to see some of the 650 Black Poplar trees recorded at Formby Point and to discuss their former uses to create shelter for agriculture and the growing of pines. Cuttings were taken to try and propagate a new generation.  During the walk, I was pleased to find two interesting non-native plants on the dunes at the end of Albert Road.  These are Garden Peony (Paeonia officinalis) and Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias) known from only one and two other Sefton Coast localities respectively.  Another botanical excursion took me to Larkhill Heath where I spotted a completely new plant for the coast, a beautiful flowering shrub, Japanese Crab (Malus floribunda), also a garden escape but none the less attractive for that.

Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes - Apr 2010