Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
March 2012

I ended my February notes with “Now all we need is some rain.” Far from obliging, Mother Nature conspired against us once again with March being dominated by high pressure. England and Wales had the sunniest March since 1929 and, with significant rainfall on three days, our region received only 37% of average precipitation while temperatures were 2 – 3C above normal. As a result, by the end of the month, the dunes were tinder-dry with little or no water in the slacks.

These unseasonal conditions contributed to an unprecedented series of “earliest ever” wildlife records. For example on the first day of the month, Patricia Lockwood and I were astonished to find Smooth Hawk’s-beard (Crepis capillaris) in full flower at Marshside, together with the more usual Colt’s-foot and Blackthorn. The Hawk’s-beard is usually first seen in late May or June. Similarly, Common Fumitory at Sands Lake, Ainsdale, on 12th typically flowers in June. Dave Hardaker tells me he saw his first Sand Lizard at Hightown also on the 12th, by far his earliest ever. Even more extraordinary was his sighting of a Northern Dune Tiger Beetle at Ainsdale on 18th. The earliest previously recorded was about three weeks later on 7th April 1974. Finally, Colin Adams found the cast skin or exuvia of a damselfly (probably a recently hatched Blue-tailed Damselfly) at Mere Sands Wood Nature Reserve on 24th March. The earliest of this species recorded last year by British Dragonfly Society members was 16th April.

Less unexpected was the mass spawning of Common Toad on 5th in the large scrape at Cabin Hill National Nature Reserve, where I also estimated about 130 fresh spawn batches of Common Frog. The presence of three Grey Herons here was puzzling as there are no fish and Common Toads  are usually considered to be well protected from birds by their poisonous skin secretions. Perhaps they were hunting for the more palatable Common Frogs, though I didn’t see any that day. Also interesting was an exceptionally large flock of about 700 Jackdaws in the grazing area; they may have been feeding on invertebrates in the Shetland cow-pats.

March sees the return of several summer visitors, the Northern Wheatear being one of the earliest. I saw my first two at Cabin Hill on 18th, though others were reported three days earlier at Birkdale. John Dempsey spotted his first Swallow dashing over Sands Lake, Ainsdale, on 20th while an Osprey  soared northwards over Southport on 28th. Ring Ouzels graced a Banks garden on 25th and Marshside Nature Reserve on 28th. A first-year Glaucous Gull at Marshside on 3rd was a wintering bird soon to migrate back to breeding areas in the Arctic.

As part of Sefton’s Landscape Partnership Scheme, further work was done early in the month to restore dune wetlands. I spent a rewarding day supervising the expert digger-driver, Martin Emery, at our best dragonfly site in the Birkdale frontal dunes. Here, scrapes originally dug in the mid-1980s had become choked with dense vegetation, making them less and less suitable for these insects. Martin scraped out the Bulrush that had completely swamped one large scrape, carefully extracted Grey Club-rush from the centre of another and freed a third from smothering Grey Willow. A visit a few days later founds lots of Common Toads in the scrapes, clearly unaffected by the disturbance. I am looking forward to monitoring the effects on dragonflies and other wildlife later in the season.

Another visit to Birkdale Sandhills Local Nature Reserve enabled me to see progress during the winter in removing invasive Sea Buckthorn which has spread enormously over the past 30-40 years. I was pleased to rediscover a large patch of the regionally-rare Blunt-flowered Rush that I first recorded during a 1978 survey. Then it was situated in an open damp-slack within a largely scrub-free landscape. Now it struggles to survive in a glade in dense woodland dominated by young birch, while a few fragments of true sand-dune vegetation survive on track-sides. This emphasises the extent of recent change on the reserve and the huge amount of work needed to get it back into “favourable condition”.