Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
May 2010

No significant rainfall between 2nd April and 28th May meant the Sefton Coast experienced the longest spring drought in living memory, with considerable effects on gardens, the countryside and wildlife.  Last year was bad enough for Natterjack Toads but it looks as though there will be a complete breeding failure in 2010, with every dune-slack bone dry by the third week of May.  Other creatures benefited, however, with sun-loving Northern Dune Tiger Beetles appearing in unprecedented numbers.  By the end of the month, I had recorded 190 individuals of this nationally rare species during my walks in the dunes.  Some butterflies also did well with a big hatch of Common Blues and more Walls and Small Heaths than I have seen for some years. 

Cold nights slowed the appearance of dragonflies; however, a warm spell between 21st and 24th, followed by much-needed rain on 29th, led to a big emergence of Broad-bodied Chasers.  On 30th, 18 of these beautiful insects were sheltering from a cool breeze in the lee of Alder bushes on Birkdale Green Beach. A few years ago, such a sighting would have been unheard of but this is one of several dragonflies that have invaded our region from the south in recent times.

Female Broad-bodied Chaser.

May is usually an excellent month for wild flowers. The drought had an impact but, fortunately, our duneland flora is resilient.  Thus, the well-attended annual guided walk to Altcar Rifle Range on 14th to see the Green-winged Orchids was rewarded with a record number of about 22,400 of these nationally “Near Threatened” plants.  The meadow grasses had hardly grown at all so the orchids, although much shorter than normal, stood proudly above the sward, showing off their spectacular colour-forms, from white to deepest-purple.  Several other interesting flowers included the best ever show of Cowslips on the ranges and we also spotted a Short-eared Owl.

Green-winged Orchid

Early in the month, I came across two large colonies of one of our less common plants, the Slender Spike-rush (Eleocharis uniglumis)at Crosby Marine Park, a new locality for it.  I therefore decided to look for this species elsewhere on the coast and, by the end of May, had found and documented 21 patches of it, many of them on Birkdale Green Beach. Because of its similarity to the Common Spike-rush (E. palustris), this plant has been much overlooked in the past, these new records representing a considerable increase in the known distribution of a “Species of Conservation Importance in North West England.”.

May 2010 will also live long in the memory of local bird-watchers. It started well, when my visit to Marshside on 1st was rewarded with great views of a Long-billed Dowitcher, an American wader which had been around on the Ribble for a while but which had just moulted into its glorious russet breeding plumage. However, even better was to follow on 23rd, when Seaforth Nature Reserve hosted a colourful Wilson’s Phalarope, also from North America.  Finally, on 27th, a White-tailed Plover appeared at Seaforth, only the sixth British record of this almost mythical bird which breeds in Central Asia.  I hardly ever take bird photographs but this was so close to the hide that even my rather limited equipment was adequate to the task.