Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
February 2019

These notes have highlighted many examples of crazy weather over the last decade but February 2019 really took the biscuit. Only eight days had measurable rainfall but all-time record temperatures in the last week were unprecedented. An extraordinary 21oC was recorded in southern England on 26th when the thermometer soared to about 18o here. Such extremes are consistent with recent research into long-term global warming trends.

One result of this winter heat-wave was the appearance of insects usually not seen until late March or April. Natalie Hunt reported Holly Blue and Birch Shieldbug in her Southport garden, while Pete Kinsella saw a dazzling range of species at Blundellsands, Crosby and Hightown, including Brimstone, Small Tortoishell, Red Admiral, Peacock, Hairy Sand Wasp and Gorse and Green Shieldbugs, as well as at least five species of hoverflies. His best find, however, was Hairy-footed Flower Bee at Alexandra Park, Crosby. Being unfamiliar with this solitary bee, I visited the park on 26th. Sure enough two or three of the ginger males were zooming around a large bed of crocuses. When a black female turned up, mating took place, though too brief for me to get decent photos. Also there were a Brimstone, 3 Commas, Tree and Buff-tailed Bumblebees, dung-flies and several kinds of hoverfly. A Chiffchaff calling, though not singing, was perhaps a wintering bird rather than a migrant. Also unseasonal was Common Frog spawn in Rachael Parks’ garden pond on 25th, the earliest she has ever recorded.

The previous day, Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve, produced four Gorse Shieldbugs  sunning themselves. These were the green spring form which I had not seen before. There were also several hoverflies and a solitary bee, which expert Ben Hargreaves thought was probably Gwynne’s Mining Bee Andrena bicolour. Although the heathland ponds were very low, due to the drought, one had 40-50 Common Toads, some already paired up. Recent management by the Wildlife Trust included mowing an area of heathland to reduce Gorse invasion and encourage young Heather, while four attractive Golden Guernsey goats were tackling the coarse grassland and Dwarf Cherry scrub in the “Hay Meadow”.

Often featured in these notes, the superb dunes at Crosby Coastal Park are threatened by scrub invasion. A joint project between Sefton Council and the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, funded by Veolia and supervised by Ben Hargreaves, tackled the large scrub patches of Sea Buckthorn and Japanese Rose in the southern section of the Park. On 5th, I went to see this mechanized work, which will provide more habitat for the endemic Isle of Man Cabbageand many invertebrates. A Skylark was in full song while a Starling on a nearby rooftop was doing a convincing imitation of piping Oystercatchers.

My own “Buckthorn Bashers” met twice during the month, first to burn piles of cut material and then to cut more buckthorn regrowth on dune ridges north of Sands Lake. Andrew Hampson of Gems in the Dunes kindly supervised the “burn”, while Green Sefton transported us up the beach and back for the second event, both being well supported by 11 and 10 volunteers, respectively.

Passing a spectacular display of Snowdrops on Range Lane, I went down to Cabin Hill National Nature Reserve on 13th for my regular “snipe count”. Although, the extent of flooding in the big slack is much less that the winter norm, I recorded 21 Common Snipe and five Jack Snipe, while a Short-eared Owl flapped past. It was also good to bump into Natural England staff and volunteers burning Grey Willow cut from one of the slacks. Nearby, I was delighted to find some beautiful Scarlet Elf Cup fungi in Cabin Hill Wood.

Some big tides early and late in the month justified trips to the Alt Estuary at Hightown where a large wader-roost often gathers on the protected Altcar Rifle Range shore. Counts of 750 Curlew, 1000 Oystercatcher and 250 Redshank were encouraging, while a Sanderling with a wonky leg was foraging along the strandline.

Several visits to Marshside were rewarded by sightings of male and female Hen Harriers, it being unclear whether these were survivors from the carnage on north England and Scottish grouse-moors or migrants from the continent. Wigeon and Teal gave close views from the Coast Road and I spotted an adult Mediterranean Gull from the Hesketh Road viewing platform. Nine Avocets appeared on 22nd, increasing to 11 by 27th. Up to 3000 Pink-footed Geese on Crossens Marsh were accompanied by a rare Todd’s Canada Goose,  which breeds near Hudson Bay and normally winters in the south-east United States. The first Colt’s-foot flower appeared at Crossens on 15th, while masses of Common Whitlow-grass and a specimen of Alexanders were in bloom near the Sandgrounders’ hide.