Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
August 2017

The unsettled weather of July continued into the first half of August with measurable rainfall on 11 days up to 18th but then hardly any for the rest of the month. This meant that the dune flora recovered somewhat from the severe early summer drought, this being reflected in a fantastic display of Grass-of-Parnassus, especially on the New Green Beach north of Ainsdale-on-Sea. Even I baulked at trying to count them but there were certainly tens of thousands in what is probably the largest British population of this nationally declining plant. Thousands more were at the Devil’s Hole, though this colony was down on the numbers present a few years ago.

This month was better for insects than last August; just as well because a team from BBC One Show came up from Bristol on 9th to film our charismatic Northern Dune Tiger Beetle at Ainsdale. It was perfect weather – sunny and relatively calm but not too hot. There were lots of beetles and they posed well for the cameras. I recorded an interview with the presenter George McGavin but, at the time of writing, have not heard if or when it will be broadcast. Many insects are moving north in response to climate change. One such is the attractive Lesser Hornet Hoverfly (Volucella inanis), a photo of which was taken at Ainsdale National Nature Reserve by Pete Kinsella on 3rd, seemingly the first for the Sefton Coast of this southern species. Coincidentally, a few days later I spotted one in Trevor Davenport’s Freshfield garden. Its big brother, the Hornet Hoverfly (V. zonaria) turned up at Hightown and Birkdale a few days later, also photographed by Pete. Remarkably, this Hornet mimic and our largest hoverfly,landed on my bag at Ainsdale NNR on 15th but zoomed off before I could photograph it. I was luckier with a Red-legged Shieldbug that dropped onto my hand with a loud buzz. I managed to get pictures of what was only the third individual of this supposedly common species that I have seen.

Dragonflies also did reasonably well, though I thought we would struggle to see any on 12th when I led a walk with 20 participants to look for these insects at Ainsdale. It was cloudy and cool early on but brightened up sufficiently for us to catch up with seven species, including our largest the Emperor, a male and female performing well at the slack 47 pools. Nearby, the Green Beach Alders provided shelter for a splendid male Ruddy Darter which allowed close views. Later in the month, a visit to a friend’s enormous garden pond at Hillside was rewarded with five dragonflies, including another Ruddy Darter and also three Migrant Hawkers, which we hadn’t recorded there before. This brings the number of species for this pond since 2014 to a pretty impressive total of 13.

On 19th, I joined the Liverpool Botanical Society for a trip round Crosby Coastal Park. The special plants here include four individuals of Dune Wormwood which had just been missed by a recent grass fire, emphasising the vulnerability of this tiny population at its sole British locality. It has become extinct at its other site in South Wales, though material has been cultivated and it is hoped to reintroduce it to the wild. A sharp-eyed member of the group spotted a Bay (Laurus nobilis) tree in a row of shrubs, which was a new plant for the Sefton Coast.

Venturing a little further afield, I was tempted to join a guided walk round Scutcher’s Acres Nature Reserve, near Burscough, where John Watt led us to many of his 107 different trees. Lots of dragonflies and butterflies were also on show and I took the opportunity to visit the only colony of Common Wintergreen in South Lancashire away from the Sefton Coast.

Attending a meeting at the National Trust offices at Formby Point, I spotted the distinctive Small Nightshade in the gravel carpark. A native of Western North America, this extreme British rarity, with only seven post-2000 records, was first found here in 2009. Returning the following day with Patricia Lockwood and Joshua Styles, we counted 62 Small Nightshade plants, many with well-developed fruits,on the edges of sandy tracks and an asparagus field, showing that it has become well-established here. Several other notable plants were also seen, including sizeable populations of the Red-listed Smooth Cat’s-ear and Common Cudweed.

Birds took a back seat for most of the month but I was delighted to see a Spotted Flycatcher  at Range Lane, Formby. This once common species is heading for extinction as a breeding bird in our region. As usual, internationally important flocks of Sandwich Terns roosted on the shore between Ainsdale and Birkdale. I saw up to 1200. A volunteer group organised by John Dempsey monitored their numbers and also reported numerous incidents of deliberate disturbance. One observer described two horses repeatedly being ridden into the roost, while another saw a day-tripper encouraging two children to run into the flock while he took photographs. Unfortunately, these were not isolated events but almost daily occurrences and a sad reflection of the attitude of some people to our natural heritage.