Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
September 2007

The “mists and mellow fruitfulness” of autumn are invariably heralded by the evocative calls of Pink-footed Geese which start arriving from Iceland and Greenland in September.  This year they came early and in record numbers, no doubt encouraged by northerly winds.  Derek Forshaw, who organises the goose counts in the Northwest, reported a single flock of 18,000 birds on Scarisbrick Moss on 18th and reckoned there were at least 20,000 in the area.  Many could be seen feeding at the RSBP Marshside reserve, joining a much more exotic visitor – a Great White Egret from southern Europe.

The other bird of the month was arguably the Common Buzzard.  Not long ago, we hardly saw any but in recent years it has begun to breed here with spectacular success.  Thus, Derek Forshaw saw 10 soaring together over Downholland on 22nd, while Derek Williams counted an astonishing 23 Buzzards on a tour of the mosslands.

There are still plenty of wildflowers to be seen on the sand-dunes in September.  A visit to Crosby dunes with members of the Liverpool Botany Group was rewarded with the discovery of four young specimens of Dune Wormwood (Artemisia campestris ssp. maritima), close to the original plant that was found in 2004.  It’s only other known British locality is a small dune area in South Wales.

Another nationally rare Sefton Coast speciality is the beautiful Grey Hair-grass (Corynephorus canescens) which is mainly found in East Anglia.  It was first recorded at Formby in 1919 but in recent years has been largely confined to Southport & Ainsdale Golf Course.  Here, it lives in the “roughs” on some of our oldest and most acidic duneland.  As it hadn’t been surveyed for ten years, I was keen to see how it was doing and the Club kindly granted permission.  Happily, my survey shows that, under the care of Course Manager Mr Mike Mercer, the grass is increasing.  Recent warm summers may have helped, as its seed production and germination are known to be badly affected by low temperatures.

Grey Hair-Grass

In my August notes, I mentioned the study of another rare plant of acid soils, the Smooth Cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris glabra).  This has undergone an extraordinary population explosion this year, again possibly for climatic reasons.  One of the best areas for it proved to be the Dune Restoration Area on Ainsdale National Nature Reserve where I recorded nine colonies.  Also here are many wonderful slacks, cleared of scrub and pine trees in 1992, which now support thousands of Field Gentians (Gentianella campestris).  Rapidly declining in Britain, this most attractive flower has its English headquarters in Cumbria, but even here it is in trouble, so the Sefton Coast population is now one of the most important in the country.

Last month I said the Dragonfly Atlas Survey had been a wash-out.  September wasn’t much better, but a visit with Reg Yorke to Formby Hall Golf Course on 11th did produce a decent total of 18 Migrant Hawkers (Aeshna mixta). Another highlight on the edge of a pond was a spectacular golden flower I didn’t recognise but which turned out to be a form of Nodding Bur-marigold (Bidens cernua var.  radiata).  Apparently, this variety is only found in the Northwest of England and was last recorded in the Formby area in 1928!

Migrant Hawker Male