Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
May 2019

It’s becoming repetitive, but May 2019 was yet another dry month in Sefton. Only eight days had measurable rainfall, none of it heavy or persistent. Like last year, duneland vegetation was looking parched by mid-month, attempts to find our rare clovers on road verges at Ainsdale and Hightown being thwarted as the plants were dried up.

However, drought conditions could not prevent May on the Sefton Coast producing a wealth of wildlife as usual. Altcar Training Camp proved a case in point. This large (620 acre) estate is normally off-limits for security reasons but, each spring and summer, a series of popular guided walks and research visits is arranged by kind permission of the Commandant, Col. Gordon Black. Altcar’s amazing Green-winged Orchids  have featured annually in these notes. This time, Steve Cross counted about 24,500; fewer than recently but still one of the largest populations in the country. As well as rare colour-forms of salmon-pink and white, I found a few orchids with strange variegated flowers. Although about 430 higher plants have been listed for the estate, we still found several new species, including the uncommon Knotted Clover, Spring Vetch and Rat’s-tail Fescue. Specialists from Liverpool Museum’s Tanyptera Project recorded a new parasitic wasp for Britain, the Bordered Shieldbug which was new to South Lancashire and Merseyside and no fewer than 111 beetles!

Another highlight was a visit by the renowned author and insect photographer, Paul Brock, who is based in the New Forest, Hampshire. I have three of his books. He contacted me to ask where he might find Northern Dune Tiger Beetle, the only British tiger beetle he hadn’t seen. I recommended the Devil’s Hole and Birkdale Green Beach. Trevor Davenport and I met him at Ainsdale, where we soon saw plenty of tiger beetles on the Green Beach. Within minutes of our arrival, Trevor also found another of Paul’s targets, the spectacular caterpillar of the Dark Tussock moth. Paul also pointed out several insects I hadn’t seen before, including the Spring Heath Robberfly. This dune and heathland specialist is small and easily overlooked.

As usual, Patricia Lockwood joined me in our regular plant surveys. While recording on what we call the “Even Newer Green Beach” at Ainsdale, Pat spotted a new plant for the coast, the exotic, Iron Cross (Oxalis tetraphylla), named from its distinctive markings. Pat also refound the beautiful Drooping Star-of-Bethlehem, in the Larkhill woods at Formby. One impressive specimen had as many as six flower-spikes. A Cuckoo  called briefly from a nearby tree, a reminder of how scarce this once common bird has become locally, with a 65% national decline since the 1980s. One possible reason is the demise of the hairy caterpillars on which it feeds.

I went to see an even rarer bird on 18th, Lancashire’s second ever North American Stilt Sandpiper, which graced The Wildlife Trust’s Lunt Meadows Nature Reserve for several days. Looking rather like a slimmer version of a Curlew Sandpiper, this elegant wader had made friends with a much larger Black-tailed Godwit. Unsurprisingly, large numbers of “twitchers” came from far and wide to see it, the Trust collecting useful contributions towards the management of this outstanding reserve. An impressive variety of other wetland birds present included a male Garganey, several Avocets and displaying Little Ringed Plovers.

Late in the month I visited Downholland Book at Alt Bridge on the outskirts of Formby to renew acquaintance with the superb Banded Demoiselle. A variety of other insects included the Downlooker Snipe Fly, so called because it often rests in a head-down position. Most exciting, however, was my first Large Red Damselfly at this locality. This distinctive species has always been rare near the coast in our region, probably because its young stages prefer acidic water.

Marsh-orchids at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Haskayne Cutting Nature Reserve have been counted every year since 2012. On 30th, Patricia Lockwood and I travelled a few miles inland to count 4400 Southern and Northern Marsh-orchids. This was a gratifying increase on 3300 the previous year.  Identifying these orchids is not straightforward, as many seem to have intermediate characters and may be hybrids. Their abundance is due to annual mowing of their damp grassland habitat, preventing taller vegetation from out-competing the orchids. Nearby, we were delighted to find enormous patches of colourful Common Ramping and Purple Ramping-fumitory on a field boundary. 

The month ended with a walk round the Altcar estate with members of the Altcar Conservation Advisory Group to watch big machines digging out invasive Japanese Rose bushes in a major control programme. Over the next few years, it is hoped to extend this across the rest of the dune system.  Conservation in action!