Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
November 2009

Everyone tells me we have had a really wet November – not so; the deluges that flooded Cumbria only about 50 miles away completely missed us.  Something to do with the rain shadow of the Welsh mountains, I guess.  In fact, the water-table in the sand-dunes is as low as I can ever remember at this time of year.  On 26th, there was no surface water in the slacks at Cabin Hill and only 5 Snipe where last year at this time I had 63.  Some of the scrapes contain shallow water and I was pleased to see two Water Rails there on 8th, only the second time I have spotted this elusive bird at Cabin Hill in nearly 40 years.  A Chiffchaff was calling from nearby willow bushes.  This summer warbler normally migrates south to Africa in autumn but wintering in the Formby area has become regular in recent years, with as many as 40 being reported in 2001.

Cabin Hill Wetland

A low dune water-table is bad news for our Natterjack Toads as they will not breed successfully if the slacks are too shallow next spring.  A meeting of our Natterjack Monitoring Group on 11th received detailed annual reports for 2007 and 2008, funded by the National Trust and Natural England.  These show that 2007 was a good year for Natterjack breeding but 2008 was poor, largely due to a spring drought which caused many slacks to dry up prematurely.  To maintain the continuous record now stretching back to the mid-1980s, it is hoped to find the cost of a 2009 report.  Much of the monitoring work is done by volunteers and more are needed if this important work is to continue.  In 2010, we are due to measure samples of adults to check the age-structure of the population.  As they age, the toads get bigger, so a high proportion of larger individuals would mean too few younger animals are being added to the population, perhaps due to poor breeding success.  As Natterjacks are legally protected, a license is required to handle them.

Dried Natterjack Spawn Strings

The mild November weather encouraged me to get out to Formby Point and complete the survey of Black Poplars which has been ongoing for over a year. The grand total is now about 620 trees!   I found quite a lot of previously overlooked specimens, for example in the area north of Lifeboat Road where sand was extracted commercially many years ago.  I wanted to find out when these trees were planted, so I went to Merseyside BioBank to look at the 1945 aerial photographs.  These can be viewed through a stereoscope to give a 3D image.  Sure enough, the poplars were visible as tiny bushes in the floor of the sand-quarry.  We know that very little sand-working took place during World War II, so the trees were probably planted in the late 1930s, making them now about 70 years old.  Using other sources, including early Ordnance Survey maps, there is evidence that some of the heavily weathered poplars at Formby Point are veterans of more than 120 years.

Driving back from Ormskirk on 6th, I had the thrill of seeing a Red Kite fly over my car at Hillhouse near Great Altcar.  This is still a rare bird in our area, despite the many successful introductions in other parts of the country.  Other good birds during the month were a flock of 45 Twite on the shore at Weld Road, Birkdale which I saw on 9th and a Shorelark which graced Southport beach for about a week.  I finally caught up with it on 15th when assembled watchers on the seawall were enjoying good views until a jogger inadvertently flushed the bird.