Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
October 2020

October is normally the second wettest month of the year but this one was exceptional. Due to a persistently energetic North Atlantic Jet-stream, it rained in Formby on 22 days, some of that contribution being from two named storms. The 3rd was the wettest day recorded in England since records began in 1891, though we didn’t have a particularly large amount of rain here. The result was that the water-table at the Devil’s Hole blowout came up 28cm (nearly a foot) during the month, flooding the slack.

It might seem that conditions would be poor for finding and photographing wildlife but I did rather well during the month, getting out and about between the storms, especially during short sunny spells. I concentrated mainly on two south-facing sites at Ravenmeols and Wick’s Path, Formby Point, where flowering Ivy and shelter from the prevailing wind created ideal conditions for the last of the autumn’s insects. Most times I found something interesting. For example, on 23rd, I recorded 13 species of hoverfly at Ravenmeols; none was rare but that would have been a good total at the height of summer. With them were 12 Red Admirals a female Ivy Bee, busily collecting pollen and nectar and three Common Darters. As usual, the most numerous hoverflies were the two Drone Flies Eristalis tenax and E. pertinax, both fairly convincing mimics of the honeybee. Indeed, when an item on bees appears on TV, the insect shown is often a Drone Fly. Both these flies have an aquatic larval stage known as a “Rat-tailed Maggot”, so called because of the long breathing siphon that extends to the water surface. The best hoverfly I had at Ravenmeols was Scaeva selentica, a lovely thing with creamy-yellow hooked bars. New to me, it was identified from photos sent to Pete Kinsella. It is widely scattered in Britain but scarce, usually associated with conifers and more often seen in the south of England.

If anything, Wick’s Path was even better. Each visit I was rewarded with sightings of the Twin-spot Centurion, an attractive soldier fly I first saw in September. Up to five females were flying low around a pile of rotting pine needles. I watched as they borrowed into the pile, presumably to lay eggs. There are supposed to do this in cow dung, though larvae have also been recorded in compost heaps. Fortunately, they also landed briefly on adjacent vegetation, so that I could get photos. Other highlights included a superb Yellow-girdled Dasysyrphus (Dasysyrphus tricinctus) sunning itself on the fence, together with a magnificent Northern Wasp Hoverfly (Chrysotoxum arcuatum). Also my first, the latter is a northern and western species mostly found in conifer woods. Luckily, both insects stayed long enough for me to get close-up photos. Other flies included the spectacular jet-black and orange Moon Fly (Mesembrina meridiana), which I saw at Ravenmeols too. This common species breeds in cow-dung. A small bristly fly turned out to be Pales pavida, Britain’s commonest tachinid, according to Chris Raper who kindly identified it for me. Also at Wick’s Path were large pale-brown Dock Bugs, which I saw for the first time in July. I noticed three together on one occasion and several singles. The Dock Bug has only just arrived with us, having spread north in recent years. Strangely, I couldn’t see any dock plants along the path; the bugs were mostly basking on Honeysuckle. I was also pleased to spot the brown pre-hibernation form of the Green Shieldbug. The nearby Wick’s Lake has a wooden fence around it, which insects use to warm up in the sun. An unexpected find there was a Large Willow Aphid which, at first, I didn’t recognise as an aphid – it was huge!

It wasn’t all insects at Wicks Path. Calling Goldcrests and a Chiffchaff were usually in the trees and a couple of Grey Wagtails flew over. On 14th a flock of about 50 Fieldfares headed north, part of an enormous influx of winter thrushes from northern Europe recorded on the east coast. Nearby, I found a young specimen of evergreen Holm Oak, a tree that is native in countries of the eastern Mediterranean. This was interesting because it is only supposed to self-seed in the south and midlands. In Sefton, I have only seen mature trees that were obviously planted. Holm Oak does not figure at all in the comprehensive Travis’s Flora of South Lancashire (1963).

On 17th and 18th I visited Hightown for the 10m tides. Checking the brick-rubble “shingle” beach I could find only two seedlings of Yellow Horned-poppy but its population, the only one in South Lancashire, may yet recover from seed lodged in the shingle. In contrast, there were many plants of Rock Samphire, a rocky shore and shingle specialist. As the tide dropped, about 200 Shelduck were an impressive sight out on Formby Bank. The following day, the wader roost off Altcar Rifle Range had about 800 Oystercatchers and 200 Redshank but, as I watched in horror, a jogger ran straight through the roost, flushing all the birds. This beach is out-of-bounds when the range is in use; therefore large numbers of shorebirds take advantage of the only disturbance-free zone on the Sefton Coast to rest at high-tide. That day their sleep was sadly interrupted. Soon afterwards, I bumped into an old friend, Ian Wolfenden, who told me that about 20,000 Pink-footed Geese had roosted on Formby Bank the previous night, probably a record for the Alt Estuary. Some good news on a day of mixed fortunes!