Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
February 2016

February continued the trend of recent months with significant rainfall on 14 days and generally mild temperatures until the drier and colder final week. Indeed, nationally, winter 2015/16 was reckoned to be the warmest on record since at least 1910 and also one of the wettest. My regular monitoring of the water-table at the Devil’s Hole revealed a peak water depth of 60cm in the deepest part of the slack on 22nd, representing an extraordinary rise of 108cm since October.

Localised urban flooding at Birkdale meant drains through the dunes had to be dug out, so I went to check the work at Tagg’s Island in the frontal dunes on 4th. From the excavated debris, I rescued a Common Toad and, much more surprisingly, a 9-inch long Eel, the first I have seen in the dunes for many years. Once abundant, the European Eel is now officially classed as “critically endangered”, having suffered a 90-98% decline in numbers since the 1970s for reasons that are still unclear. 

Although most people think of February as the depth of winter, signs of approaching spring are everywhere. The first Daffodils were showing at Range Lane, Formby in the first week, while Snowdrops were widespread, being especially prolific at Cabin Hill Wood. Although once considered native, the common Snowdrop species,  Galanthus nivalis, is now regarded as an introduction. Having been cultivated in Britain since 1597, it was not recorded in the wild until 1778. The plant has evidently greatly increased in modern times, being described as “rare” in the 1963 Travis’s Flora of South Lancashire. Another garden escape, the colourful Early Crocus attracted my attention in the relict duneland at Kenilworth Road, Ainsdale, where the Garden Grape-hyacinth was also in full flower by 27th.  Expected native plants blooming during the month included the tiny annual Common Whitlowgrass and the bright-yellow Lesser Celandine, while I spotted the starry white blooms of Blackthorn in a couple of places. Colt’s-foot at Birkdale Green Beach on 24th was a more usual date. Also typical were the decorative catkins of Siberian Violet-willow at Ravenmeols. One of 32 different willows on the Sefton Coast, this is invariably the first to flower. The mild weather encouraged a luxuriant growth of two kinds of lichens on Hawthorn and Sycamore at Ravenmeols Woods.

Birdlife also reflects the forthcoming spring, with many garden and woodland birds coming into song during the month. Where I live, the wheezy refrain of the Greenfinch and the much more appealing Song Thrush were indicative of the changing season. I have been entertained throughout the winter by a small flock of House Sparrows coming to food a couple of metres from my lounge window. They were often accompanied by Robins, Blackbirds, Dunnocks, Starlings, Wood Pigeons and even a Song Thrush but a Wren was a new garden tick. Less welcome, at least to my small birds, was a female Sparrowhawk which glared at me before disappearing as quickly as it arrived. The advancing season was also reflected in immaculate summer-plumaged Herring and Lesser Black-backed gulls on Sands Lake on 27th, though the rest of the fare was pretty thin, with the usual Mallards, 10 Tufted Ducks and two Cormorants. A week earlier, I had heard a Water Rail squealing from the reeds here, while the ducks included six Shovelers and four Pochards. Avocets were already back at Martin Mere by 12th.

I visited Hope School Ainsdale playing fields on 5th with the Sefton Local Plan Inspector, Brenda Porter of the Ainsdale Community Wildlife Trust (ACWT) and representatives of Sefton Planning and Merseyside Environmental Advisory Service to discuss a proposal in the plan to build houses here. This Green Belt site has an incredibly rich flora with over 150 higher plants recorded and lies right next to an internationally protected Sand Lizard colony on the adjacent Birkdale Sandhills. Of course, there wasn’t much to see, apart from dozens of Bee Orchid leaf rosettes scattered in the grass. I explained the botanical interest of the field and raised concerns about the impact of increased disturbance and domestic cats on the Sand Lizards. ACWT have put forward plans to create a community nature reserve on the site. The Inspector’s preliminary report suggests that the Local Plan could be altered to include a nature reserve alongside the housing allocation, the size of this to be determined from further survey work. It remains to be seen how this will work out.

More winter management work along the coast included Sea Buckthorn cutting by volunteers in the Birkdale frontals, in Ainsdale Sandhills and at Queen’s Jubilee Nature Trail. The Wildlife Trust also organised the removal of over a hectare of dense Gorse at the Freshfield Dune Heath reserve. It is hoped the cleared area will eventually develop open heathland, including Heather.