Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
January 2013

A New Year but the same old weather with eleven rainy days and a prolonged cold snap giving about 7cm (3 inches) of snow in Formby on 18th.  Despite the chill, Patricia Lockwood found Ivy-leaved Toadflax in full flower on a Southport wall in mid-month, while Rachael Parks told me of Fieldfares and a Redwing in her Formby garden attracted to windfall apples. One of the advantages of feeding garden birds is that unexpected creatures may turn up. Thus, the normally nocturnal Wood Mouse was a delightful visitor to grain just outside my lounge window.

Water levels in the sand-dunes continued to rise during the month, data from Formby Golf Course tube-wells indicating an all-time record, just exceeding their previous highest level in spring 2000. Not only did the dune slacks resemble boating lakes but surface water was also to be found in usually dry hollows. Continued flooding problems on the coast road at Birkdale saw me out one day with Sefton Council’s John Gramauskas, trying to locate the mouth of a drain pipe under deep water and a thick layer of ice. I knew roughly where it was and, sure enough, we located it by probing with a surveying pole. Later, the engineers lowered the water level by pumping so they could clear the pipe. Nearby, a Stonechat flitted from bush to bush and the bright red stems of the rare hybrid willow Salix× doniana were a welcome beacon in the frozen landscape.

A surprising visitor to Marshside on 1st was a Spoonbill feeding actively in a channel, rather than the stationary white blob one usually associates with sightings of this bird. Around 4000 Black-tailed Godwits widely spread across the flooded marshes were more typical. Two days later, the Alt Estuary at Hightown provided a range of waterfowl on a flooding tide, including 140 Shelduck, 260 Mallard, 400 Curlew and 26 Turnstone, the latter busily feeding close-in along the water’s edge.

A trip round the local mosslands on 10th produced a Brambling with a mixed flock of about 200 Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Linnets and Reed Buntings on Plex Moss. Also close to the road were 15 Stock Doves and the same number of Red-legged Partridges, while Altcar Withins was graced by a Barn Owl which flew right past my car.

Later, I visited Hightown dunes with Sand Lizard expert Dave Hardaker to identify clumps of Sea Buckthorn for removal by Sefton’s Coast & Countryside Service. This was needed to restore two formerly botanically-rich dune slacks and an area of fixed-dune close to the small and vulnerable Sand Lizard colony that Dave discovered in 2009. I knew that these patches of dense scrub were not there about 20 years ago but it was good to have confirmation, annual ring counts of a sample of cut stumps ranging from 10 to 20 with an average of 15 years. The bushes were about 4m (13 feet) tall with stems up to 15cm (6 inches) across, emphasising how rapidly this invasive spiny shrub can grow in favourable conditions. Nearby, Dave showed me eight rosettes of Isle of Man Cabbage, a new colony of this important plant that must have arisen from seed brought in from Crosby during the 2011 coast defence works. 

Continuing the historical theme from last month, Dr Reg Yorke of Formby Civic Society drew my attention to 1915 plans for a light railway from Hightown to Woodvale, looping around Formby Point. The line, proposed by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company and supported by Formby Urban District Council, would have had stations at Albert/Alexandra Road and Victoria Road, together with several bridges and level-crossings.  Furthermore, the Company was to “promote the development of the land through which the light railway will run ….”  Had the line been built, it would have fallen into the sea long ago, as did the conifer plantations shown seaward of the railway on the plans. However, the open dunes of Formby Point might well have been lost to housing. By great good fortune, this was one of several speculative developments during this period that failed.