Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
September 2015

Although measurable rain fell on ten days during the month, quantities were very small and temperatures above average. September therefore ended up as another desperately dry month, the duneland ground water-table being the lowest recorded since the drought of the mid -1990s.

However, the often sunny weather brought out lots of late-summer insects, including one of my favourite groups, the Shieldbugs. Sometimes called “stinkbugs” because of their smelly defensive secretions, these often brightly coloured and distinctively shaped true-bugs are mostly seen in the autumn. Without trying too hard, I managed to find eight of the ten species I have so far recorded on the Sefton Coast. Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve proved a particularly good hunting ground with six different species, Birch, Bronze, Gorse, Hairy, Parent and Spiked,  the first being perhaps the most attractive. I was particularly pleased to find two specimens of the Spiked Shieldbug, an active predatory bug that feeds on caterpillars. I had only seen this once before over thirty years ago. The heath also produced 11 kinds of butterfly, including a fresh Painted Lady, and three dragonflies, one being a stunning Southern Hawker. Another perched for photos at Birkdale on 28th, a relatively late date for this dragonfly. Northern Dune Tiger Beetles were also prevalent in suitably open sandy habitat for most of the month, with record numbers of 55 at Devil’s Hole, Ravenmeols, on 5th and 30 at the Newest Green Beach, Ainsdale, on 16th.

Although many dune wildflowers are past their best in September, there were still plenty to see. Patricia Lockwood joined me on 21st for a visit to Crosby Marine Park, where Isle of Man Cabbage was still flowering and the very rare  Dune Wormwood, first discovered here in 2004, was looking in great shape. The original plant is now 5m in diameter and has three offspring nearby. The park always produces garden escapes and we recorded a great number, including several new to the Inventory of Vascular Plants for the Sefton Coast. On the way back, Patricia spotted a spectacular 2m-high Mullein in a field near Hightown. Its identity puzzled us and also two keen botanist friends from Bradford who came over a few days later. They were also intrigued by the Crosby exotics and showed me the rare Taschereau’s Orache on the strand-line at Marshside, there being only one previous South Lancashire record.

Most of our summer surveys were winding down but Patricia and I continued to monitor the wonderful flora of the Devil’s Hole. We have identified 147 flowering plants here since detailed recording began in 2004. Of particular interest to me is the abundance of willows colonising the slacks in the floor of the blow-out. So far, no less than ten different ones have been recognised, including the nationally rare hybrid Salix × friesiana. We labelled 116 young bushes so that we can follow their progress and growth rate. A guided Ravenmeols Trails walk on 13th organised by Formby Civic Society and Sefton Coast & Countryside enabled us to show about 30 local people this spectacular blow-out, perhaps the largest of its kind in Britain. It originated in the early 1940s, possibly from a wartime bomb explosion and has grown to cover over 3.5ha. We were also able to demonstrate how the duneland in this area has been modified by other human activities, especially sand-extraction, asparagus growing and conifer planting. The attempt to develop “Formby-on-Sea” in the late 19th century, followed by golf course proposals in the 1970s might have resulted in a very different landscape but, fortuitously, both schemes failed and the Ravenmeols duneland was designated a Local Nature Reserve in 1985, further land being added in 1994.

There wasn’t much time for bird-watching during the month but I was entertained by a flock of 22 House Sparrows  in my garden. Autumn passage was reflected in 250 Sandwich Terns on Ainsdale Beach on 5th, soon to leave for Africa, while the familiar calls of Pink-footed Geese heralded their arrival, as usual, from Iceland and Greenland. About 100 roosted on the sea off the Alt Estuary on 19th, while at least 1000 were feeding on the saltmarsh at Marshside on 27th.