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Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes - September 2013

With measureable rainfall on about twelve days, mainly in the first half of the month, September lacked the extremes of weather so often experienced during the year. If not quite an “Indian Summer”, it culminated in several pleasantly warm, dry days. However, autumn seems to have come early this year, with leaf-fall by the end of the month being more reminiscent of late October.

Much of my time was spent on the coastwide Grass-of-Parnassus survey, which began in August. Apart from counting plants in several dune-slacks, Patricia Lockwood helped me to record lots of quadrats to describe the preferred habitat of the plant. Results from many other volunteers came in during the month and it looks like we have a grand total of around 50,000 plants, despite it being a relatively poor year for this species.

While surveying Grass-of-Parnassus, other interesting plants were often encountered. Thus, a wet-slack in Ainsdale Sandhills produced a new population of the nationally declining Lesser Water-plantain, a welcome addition to the thirteen colonies found during a coastwide survey in 2011. Late summer is also a good time to look for our two sand-dune gentians. As usual, the big slack south of Ainsdale Discovery Centre produced some superb Field Gentians, though there were only about 250 where over 1000 had been counted a few years ago.

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Similarly, numbers of Autumn Gentian in selected Birkdale frontal dune slacks had fallen from 685 spikes counted in 2010 to only 147 now, though some of the plants were impressively large and healthy-looking. These reductions are probably due to the decline in Rabbits since a big myxomatosis outbreak in 2009. The gentians rely on short, open vegetation for germination and survival of seedlings. They don’t cope well with the taller swards that grow in the absence of grazing.

Another smaller colony of Autumn Gentians at Birkdale was just missed by a large off-road vehicle which had been driven through the dunes and the adjacent Green Beach, causing large ruts in places and smashing a Velvet Trail board-walk. Sefton Council’s Coast & Countryside staff tell me they are trying to trace the culprit.

A visit to Hightown in mid-month was rewarded by spectacular numbers of the rare hybrid centaury, Centaurium × intermedium. Known only from Lancashire, Merseyside, Anglesey and Merioneth, this cross between Common and Seaside Centauries often flowers later than its parents, making it easier to spot at this time of year. Flocks of Pink-footed Geese were constantly flying over to roost on the sea offshore, totalling an impressive 2500. The Alt sand-banks held high-tide gatherings of about 300 Curlew and 140 Shelduck, while five Black-tailed Godwits flew northwards, perhaps on route to their more usual haunts at Marshside.

However, my bird highlight of the month was an immature Lapland Bunting at the southern end of Birkdale Green Beach on 14th. Attracted by its distinctive call, I was able to get close enough to see its characteristic stripy plumage and even take a confirmatory photograph. Lapland Buntings are scarce visitors to our coasts from Scandinavia, usually seen later in the autumn or winter.

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Given suitably sunny weather, dragonflies can often be found to at least the end of September. My regular visits to slack no. 47 in the Birkdale frontals produced up to 10 Migrant Hawkers, a typical autumnal species. Less usual, however, was a male Black Darter on 28th, a dragonfly usually associated with peatlands but which disperses widely in some years. This was the first I had seen on the coast since 2008. Nearby, the New Green Beach had lots of bright-green Short-winged Coneheads, a southern bush-cricket that arrived here in 2002 and has now spread all the way up the coast to Cumbria.

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My month ended with a visit to Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve, where track-sides were brightened by hundreds of Scarlet Pimpernels. Nearby were a few plants of Smooth Cat’s-ear, a rare speciality of the older dunes, while damper spots held the strange-looking Marsh Cudweed. Two jewel-like Small Coppers were welcome companions on my return walk.

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