Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes

June 2016

Although June was wetter than normal in most parts of the country, this was not the case here. The first rain did not fall until 10th and we missed most of the thundery downpours that caused flooding further south and east. Nevertheless, a few heavy showers and more unsettled conditions later in the month maintained enough surface-water in sand-dune wetlands for our Natterjack Toads to breed successfully in several places. I found the first toadlets at the “New Green Beach” on 7th, about a week earlier than usual, while more were at the Devil’s Hole Ravenmeols on13th, justifying our earlier rescue operation. Sefton Coast & Countryside Service kindly erected two noticeboards at the latter site to inform visitors of the presence of Natterjacks, this slack having been heavily disturbed by children and dogs.

June invariably provides a phenomenal richness of duneland flora and fauna and, as usual, the stars of the show were the orchids. Regular readers will know of my obsession for counting everything. Thus, a small area of the New Green Beach held an extraordinary 2186 Early Marsh-orchids and 797 Southern Marsh-orchids where hardly any were seen last year. These colourful Marsh-orchids are notorious for exploding in numbers and declining equally rapidly for no apparent reason. Similarly impressive was a population of 280 Northern Marsh-orchids and 150 Early Marsh-orchids around two small ponds off Range Lane, Formby. A short distance inland, my now annual count at the Wildlife Trust’s Haskayne Cutting reserve produced a combined total of 1571 Northerns and Southerns (they are hard to separate here), representing a big increase on last year. Annual late summer mowing is great for orchid numbers here. This form of traditional management is also practised by Natural England at their 8ha Old Hollow meadow on the Ribble Estuary National Nature Reserve. A guided walk for RSPB volunteers on 17th produced an estimate of 5-10,000 marsh-orchids, again mostly Southerns and Northerns, together with several hybrids. Most orchid hybrids are tricky to identify, even by experts, an exception being that involving Southern Marsh-orchid and Common Spotted (Dactylorhiza × grandis), which is easy to determine from its spotted leaves and intermediate flowers. This distinctive and beautiful plant also turned up on a Landscape Partnership guided walk at Ainsdale Sandhills Local Nature Reserve. About 30 participants enjoyed an enormous variety of wildflowers, including Bee and Pyramidal Orchids and the first of the Marsh Helleborines.

Dragonflies also responded to the warm spell early in the month, with Broad-bodied Chasers, as always, one of the first species to emerge. They like to colonise newly-formed ponds; so it was not surprising to see them at several Natterjack Toad scrapes. At least six were at the two new Hightown scrapes on 8th, accompanied by another pioneer dragonfly, the Black-tailed Skimmer, a mating pair of which posed on the bare sand. Meanwhile, an enormous male Emperor dragonfly was trying to keep one of the ponds to itself by periodically battling in spectacular fashion with the chasers and skimmers. Later, I had four Emperors at the same pool, including three egg-laying females. Four-spotted Chasers were surprisingly thin on the ground but late in the month the first Common Darters started to emerge, while David Tyler sent me a photograph of a particularly early Ruddy Darter at Birkdale on 24th.

However, the real highlight of the month was the first appearance in Sefton of the Red-eyed Damselfly. For many years, the only north Merseyside colony of this distinctive damselfly and the northernmost in western Britain was at Eccleston, St. Helens. Then, on 3rd and 4th June, Keith Fairclough found good numbers on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Aintree. I managed to fit in a visit between showers on 15th and soon tracked down a mating pair and a single male perched on Fringed Water-lily leaves in the approved manner. Range expansion westwards and northwards of this south-eastern species has been relatively slow, so it remains to be seen how far it will get along the canal or whether it will colonise other wetlands with water-lilies.

Butterflies also featured during the month, a visit to the Wildlife & Wetlands Trust Martin Mere on 3rd producing four  Brimstones, the original “butter-coloured fly” and five Walls, the latter severely declining inland, though still regular along the coast. Several Painted Ladies early in the month suggested a major influx but, regrettably, this didn’t happen. My first Dark Green Fritillaries of the year were at Ainsdale LNR on 21st. The last day of the month also produced this spectacular butterfly near Pinfold Meadow, Ainsdale, where all three of our duneland grasshoppers – the Field, Common Green and Mottled – were easily found. Nearby, a perched female Southern Hawker, one of our largest dragonflies, was a suitable climax to a wonderful month.