Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
May 2014

A “normal” weather pattern prevailed during May, which was a little warmer and wetter than average in our region. The continuing mild theme meant that the local flora and fauna were much more advanced than in recent years. Having seen no dragonflies at all in May last year, I found my first Four-spotted Chaser on Birkdale Green Beach as early as 6th, soon to be followed by Blue-tailed and Azure Damselflies. Similarly, the stunningly beautiful Banded Demoiselles were already numerous on Downholland Brook by 23rd, about a week earlier than usual.

This month was also exceptional for the Northern Dune Tiger Beetle , arguably our most charismatic insect. On suitably sunny days, I ventured out to record the numbers and locations of these fierce little predators, concentrating on areas visited less often. This included searches of the Ravenmeols and Formby Point frontal dunes as far north as Victoria Road on the National Trust estate. Beetle numbers were low on the heavily disturbed dunes between Victoria Road and the nicotine waste tip and around Lifeboat Road but increased away from these recreational hot-spots. This fits in with literature findings that larvae buried in the sand are adversely affected by human trampling. As usual, Devil’s Hole was one of the best haunts, 34 tiger beetles being counted here.

An insect featured regularly in these notes is the White Satin moth. Trevor Davenport and I visited Ainsdale Sandhills, south of the Discovery Centre twice during the month and were amazed by the abundance of its strikingly colourful caterpillars and their defoliation of Creeping and Grey Willow in the slacks. We concluded that many must have starved, yet there were still thousands of mature caterpillars and pupae, soon to hatch into white adults. This is one of the great wildlife spectacles of the Sefton Coast – not to be missed.

Another May highlight was the display of Green-winged Orchids on Altcar Rifle Range. With permission of the range authorities, guided walks enabled dozens of local people to enjoy these beauties, numbering well over 20,000 – by far the largest population in the north of England. Amazingly, I found one spike of this orchid near Range Lane, Formby; the first seen on the dunes away from Altcar.

I reckon to see something new almost every time I go out, one such trip providing brief views of a mating pair of Sand Lizards north of Ainsdale-on Sea. Also unexpected were House Sparrows collecting Winter Moth caterpillars for their young from Sea Buckthorn nearthe Ainsdale Discovery Centre. Rare plants are always a bonus and I was delighted to find a population of Smooth Cat’s-ear next to the woodland path on Ainsdale NNR. Another good find was a large population of Tall Ramping-fumitory, lining a hedgerow at Hightown. This included variety hibernica, which is endemic to western Britain and Ireland. One of my favourite plants, the Red Data Book-listed Hound’s-tongue, with its wine-red flowers, was particularly abundant in the dunes this month.

Detailed botanical surveys with Patricia Lockwood included an attempt to estimate the size of the Shepherd’s-cress  population found last year along the eastern edge of Woodvale aerodrome. We counted over 2500 plants of this rare, nationally declining species, which is flourishing in a narrow herbicide-treated strip between the two security fences. Being a short-lived annual, it dies down before the grassland is sprayed, its seeds evidently being unaffected. Nearby, a hawthorn hedge supported a large clump of the Nationally Scarce Purple Ramping-fumitory, one of our most attractive wild flowers.

Continuing our studies of roadside verges, Patricia and I identified 82 plants on Westminster Drive at Ainsdale. This has a fine selection of tiny dune annuals, including the nationally rare Smooth Rupture-wort and masses of the uncommon Knotted Clover.

Soon, one of my favourite months was over yet again; so much to see on our wonderful Sefton Coast but never enough time!