Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
April 2020

Since they began in 2007, these notes have repeatedly described spring droughts but this year’s was a real humdinger! For 40 days, from 18th March to 27th April inclusive, no measureable rain fell in Formby. It was also the sunniest and fifth warmest April on record. Climatologists have shown that these droughts are associated with a warming trend in the Arctic that leads to persistent high-pressure systems over Greenland. These disrupt the North Atlantic Jet Stream, which brings most of our rain. Apart from having serious implications for agriculture and water-supply, largely ignored by politicians and the media, these changes in our climate are having major impacts on wildlife.  

With Corona Virus lockdown in full swing during the month, my observations were somewhat curtailed, though the Chief Constable’s guidelines permitted a “short drive” for necessary exercise. On this basis, I was able to get out to some dune areas close to home in Formby and Ainsdale.

Thanks to the wet winter and despite the drought, the sand-dune water-table held up pretty well, with extensive flooding in slacks along the coast. However, cold dry nights meant there were few reports of Natterjack Toad activity. Yellowing grasslands and wilting spring flowers characterised the drier dune habitats. However, protected by its shady habitat, the Wood Anemone, found last year at Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve, increased to eight patches supporting 86 flowers. Eight horses were grazing the heath; but will they keep the invading Gorse and Birch at bay?

I confirmed the identity of two re-stemmed willow bushes pinpointed during the winter at Ainsdale Sandhills Local Nature Reserve. I thought they were the extremely rare Don’s Willow and so it proved, the catkins showing that one was male and the other female. This brought the total number of bushes of this hybrid on the Sefton dunes to 38; only about four or five others are known in the rest of Britain. Nearby was an attractive flowering bush of Juneberry Amelanchier lamarckii. Although common in gardens, this plant rarely becomes established in the wild. During the month, I visited several of our Don’s Willows to check their condition, many being decades old and beginning to show their age. A big one near Lifeboat Road had more dead branches than live ones but still produced its glorious red-tinted male catkins. I didn’t have as far to go for another of our iconic flowers, counting eight clumps of the Red-listed Heath Dog-violet on the small lawn outside my lounge window. I was also able to watch a succession of garden birds coming to bathe and drink at a water-bowl that I kept topped up during the drought. Starlings, House Sparrows, Robins, Dunnocks, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and a pair of Wood Pigeons were the main beneficiaries.

From early in the month, the songs of resident birds in the dunes were augmented by spring migrants, including Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and, a little later, Whitethroats. At Range Lane, Formby, I listened to the glorious sound of a Blackcap and a Mistle Thrush singing against each other in more-or-less the same key.  Pete Kinsella emailed to say that he recorded his earliest ever Whitethroat and Grasshopper Warblers at Hightown, presumably a consequence of the persistent south-easterly winds. The scarcer migrants largely eluded me but I did spot a Whinchat perched on a Gorse bush at Freshfield Dune Heath. Mallards on the re-flooded Wicks Lake at Formby Point produced two broods of 9 or 10 ducklings each. A few pairs of feral Greylag and Canada Geese took up residence on some of the deeper slacks, including the big one at Cabin Hill where I even heard the distinctive call of a Little Grebe.

Insects certainly benefited from the summery conditions. Peacocks, Speckled Woods and Orange Tip butterflies were everywhere, though, as usual, the latter hardly ever stopped flying to allow a photograph. Solitary bees were busy pollinating a wide range of flowers; they included the distinctive Ashy Mining Bee which I found nectaring on Creeping Willow. Hyperactive Red Mason Bees were also numerous. Trevor Davenport sent me superb photos of them nesting in old rawl-plug holes in his garden. He also photographed a tiny beetle next to a nest-hole. It was a Six-spotted Spider Beetle, a mainly southern species that is moving north. Known to feed on detritus in bee nests, it has even been listed as a possible natural enemy of the Red Mason Bee. Amongst my insect highlights was a spectacular Red-headed Cardinal Beetle next to the path round Wicks Lake. Near St. Luke’s Church, I spotted a small black insect on a fence. A quick check through binoculars revealed a Spring Heath Robberfly, a nationally scarce species I had seen only once before. A few days later, I found four more, including a mating pair, on the fence around Wicks Lake and then one or possibly two at Ravenmeols Woods. These sites also produced a profusion of hoverflies. Perhaps the most spectacular was the Buff-tailed Bear Hoverfly a large species that mimics the Common Carder Bee, one of our most familiar bumblebees. This hoverfly is a widespread but localised species of old woodland, where the larvae develop on decaying wood in holes of mature broad-leaved trees. Other interesting finds included the Coastal Silver-stiletto; found mainly in coastal and-dunes, this fly has a striking silvery appearance.

Late in the month, my attention was drawn to an interesting piece of habitat on the outskirts of Formby that I hadn’t visited before. It is a long thin area of open woodland, dominated by Alder, with a ground flora characterised by lots of garden-escapes but also a remarkable abundance of Ramsons, a plant that is otherwise rare in the district. The uncommon Ramsons Hoverfly is associated with this plant, so one of my objectives in May will be to search for it.