Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
March 2019

The exceptional warmth of February soon gave way to typical March weather – windy with occasional rain, the latter falling on 13 out of the first 18 days of the month. Inevitably, the Atlantic then ran out of energy, with high pressure and the usual spring drought taking over. Much-needed rain led to the dune water-table rising by 13 cm by mid-month but this was still 27 cm below the same period last year and insufficient to flood the Natterjack Toad breeding areas at the Devil’s Hole. Elsewhere on the coast, however, water-levels rose, Natterjacks emerging much earlier than usual on 15th, followed by spawning at Ainsdale and Hightown. My first monitoring visit to the southern Green Beach at Ainsdale on 19th found no Natterjacks but a few Common Toads were breeding and Common Frogs had produced over 100 spawn masses. My second survey on 25th found 15 Natterjack   spawn strings, these being only a few days old. All were laid in shallow water which may not be viable if the drought continues. Our research shows there are now about 70% fewer Natterjack Toads on the Sefton Coast than there were 30 years ago, the reasons being a combination of vegetation overgrowth, competition from Common Toad and Common Frog tadpoles and spring droughts.

A busy month included lots of meetings, starting with the AGM of the Lancashire & Cheshire Fauna Society on 1st. As usual, this was well attended, enabling me to catch up with naturalists from other parts of the region, including Maurice Jones who I have known for 50 years. The main news was the imminent release of the Society’s latest publication on the Butterflies and Day-flying Moths of Lancashire.  This beautifully illustrated and informative 140-page book arrived in the post a few days later. It is free to members and can be ordered through the Society’s website. A few days later, I joined other “stakeholders” for a walk across the National Trust estate near Victoria Road. An unusual sight these days was 55 Rabbits feeding in broad daylight on a former asparagus field. Due to disease, many dune areas are now almost devoid of Rabbitswhich used to keep coarse grasses and scrub under control, thus allowing many of our choicest wildflowers to thrive. These include the “dune annuals”, the earliest being the tiny white flowers of Common Whitlow-grass, Hairy Bitter-cress, Sea Mouse-ear and Little Mouse-ear. Much rarer is the Early Sand-grass,  one of its few British localities being the dunes to the west of Southport Marine Lake where it was discovered in 1996. I go every year in late March with Patricia Lockwood to renew acquaintance with “the smallest grass in the world”. As usual it didn’t disappoint, though we noticed that large patches of Sea Buckthorn and Japanese Rose are invading its habitat. Bonuses included the first flowers of Early Forget-me-not, a particular favourite, and two Vernal Mining Bees, which I hadn’t seen here before. Red-data listed, this is only one of many species of solitary bee for which the Sefton dunes are nationally important and which can be seen nectaring on willow catkins in spring, often accompanied by hoverflies. There is no shortage of willows for them to try out, with over 30 different kinds recorded here. One of rarest and latest to flower is Don’s Willow; ithas particularly attractive catkins which I photographed at Hightown dunes on the last day of the month.

Colourful shieldbugs emerged from hibernation during March, the green spring colour-form of the Gorse Shieldbug being particularly numerous. Patricia brought me a superb Hawthorn Shieldbug which turned up in her kitchen and I found a Green Shieldbug  in my garden that was intermediate in colour between the brown overwintering form and the green summer variety.

Bird migration was in full swing, northwards movements bringing nine Siskins and two Redpolls to Patricia’s garden feeders, though they didn’t stay long. I also found two singing Siskins on 21st at Ainsdale’s Falklands Way, where I was delighted to see how much Sea Buckthorn has been removed by Green Sefton during the winter. Chiffchaffs were widespread by mid-month, while my first two Northern Wheatears were at Marshside on 23rd. I nearly missed two Swallows pointed out by John Dempsey at Sands Lake on 28th, as we returned from a “Buckthorn Burn”, this being the last of 17 volunteer scrub-clearing events held since October.

Plenty of wintering birds were hanging on as usual. I counted 40 Snipe and one Jack Snipe at Cabin Hill National Nature Reserve, where a dog killed a Herdwick Sheep on 17th. Crossens and Marshside saltmarshes provided food for thousands of Pink-footed Geese as they prepared to fly back to Iceland and Greenland. Hangers-on included at least four Barnacle Geese and the small Todd’s Canada Goose. A mile or two up the estuary at Banks, over 100 Whooper Swans were joined by two Greenland Whitefronted Geese. The farmer kindly allowed access up a private track to see them and was keen to chat, especially when I mentioned that I had served on the Southport Sanctuary Committee many years ago. He had been a wildfowler in his younger days.