Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
November 2019

November was colder than usual with measurable rainfall on 14 days. This lifted the sand-dune water-table by a welcome 12 cm (5 inches). At this rate, we might get up to the level last seen in the 2015/16 winter when the dunes looked a bit like the Lake District.

My month began with a trip to Marshside where there was also plenty of surface water. Distant grey masses proved to be Black-tailed Godwits in flocks totalling 2700. This sounds a lot but wasn’t unusual for this reserve. These Iceland-breeding waders travel remarkable distances across Western Europe, as shown by repeated sightings of colour-ringed individuals. More surprising were 13 Cattle Egrets under the feet of cows on the reclaimed marshland. I had never seen so many of these small, yellow-billed egrets, whose status has changed dramatically since the first Lancashire record as recently as 1999. Crossens saltmarsh produced 32 Whooper Swans and a remarkably large flock of 225 feral Canada Geese. Finally, I called in at the Hesketh Road viewing platform where the Cetti’s Warbler I heard in October was still singing loudly from a nearby reed-bed. It was reminiscent of Mallorca but a bit colder.

A later visit to Marshside for a “raptor watch” was rewarded with distant views of Hen and Marsh Harrier and Peregrine, while Merlin and Sparrowhawk were much closer.

Despite the cool conditions, some insects were still active during the month. I visited the Ravenmeols Ivy patches several times, finding four superb Red Admirals on 3rd and a singleton five days later – the latest I can remember. The occasional Common Wasp and a Tree Bumblebee added to the mix. Hoverflies were also gaining sustenance from the few remaining Ivy flowers, at least 20 Drone Flies being present as late as the 18th.  It was a calm, sunny day, after early frost. I stood for a while listening to the high-pitched hum of hovering Drone Flies, followed by a deeper buzz as they zoomed off. In the nearby trees, a Wood Pigeon was “singing”, while the chipping alarm call of a Great Spotted Woodpecker signalled a fly-past by a large female Sparrowhawk. A familiar “cronk, cronk” drew attention to a Raven heading south. In recent years, these largest members of the crow family have become a regular sight along the Sefton Coast and elsewhere in the region.

The damp weather was ideal for finding fungi so Trevor Davenport and I had a walk round Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve on 6th. We spotted two strange club-shaped fruiting bodies identified later as Pipe Club and Moor Club. These are supposed to be fairly common fungi but were new to us and to the reserve list. Also noted was the orange-peel-like Yellow Brain Fungus or Witches’ Butter on Gorse and a greyish lichen with bright-red tips to its branches. The latter, which is widespread and common, has various English names, including the rather appropriate Devil’s Matchstick, Bengal Match Lichen and Gritty British Soldiers. Another fungus that was commoner than usual, dozens of the mostly coastal Winter Stalkball studded the Ainsdale dunes, where the “Buckthorn Bashers” continued their scrub control work during the month.

Also benefiting from the rain, mosses and liverworts brightened up the fixed-dunes and the horizontal branches of Black Poplars and willows. Particularly prominent on the dunes were emerald-green patches of Sandhill Screw-moss, by far the commonest moss in this habitat. Much rarer here is Little Shaggy-moss which I was pleased to find in some abundance in two places on Freshfield Dune Heath.

Skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying over my home morning and evening suggested they were feeding a short distance inland on Downholland Moss. On 20th I had a look and found an impressive flock of about 3500 geese fairly close the road. A careful telescope search from the car revealed only a biscuit-coloured leucistic Pinkfoot as an “odd man out” but leg colour was difficult to make out in the long grass. Then a few geese flew in to join the main flock and, to my amazement, I picked out bright-orange feet as one dropped in. Checking on the deck showed it was a Tundra Bean Goose from Siberia, an uncommon but regular find in our winter goose flocks.

The last day of the month saw me at Hightown for the high-tide, though it was already falling as I arrived and only 500 Oystercatchers were roosting on Altcar beach, accompanied by a Little Egret. Being a Friday, there was no firing on the ranges and I was surprised to see a couple with three dogs walking along the shore from the Formby direction. Needless to say, they flushed what remained of the roost. This is our only stretch of beach to which access is normally restricted. Therefore it is usually undisturbed and an important sanctuary for roosting shorebirds, the numbers of which on the Sefton Coast are internationally important.