Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
February 2021

February’s rainfall was average, falling on only 12 days, while temperatures were about normal as well, no snow being recorded in my garden. The usual spring drought seems to have arrived early, with high pressure and wall-to-wall sunshine prevailing from 25th.

A wet autumn and winter overall, led to one of the highest water-tables measured in the sand-dunes since records began in 1972. I could only estimate the level in the Devil’s Hole because I couldn’t get near my usual measuring point, even in Wellington boots.

As in January, visits to the dunes were restricted by Covid regulations, not helped by my elderly car being off the road for eight days. Nevertheless I did manage to get out for some ‘exercise’. Walking down Range Lane on 1st, I was drawn to luxuriant mosses on the limbs of ancient Black Poplars. On closer inspection, I was amazed to see little piles of Rabbit droppings on branches over 1m from the ground.  Do Rabbits climb trees?  According to the internet, they do!

Two days later I went to Ainsdale Local Nature Reserve to check the flooding in slacks south of the Discovery Centre. As expected, it looked a bit like the Lake District. The main attraction, however, was a pair of Common Scoters on the largest slack. They had been reported a few days earlier by John Dempsey. He suggested that the female was injured but it looked OK to me. Occurring in large numbers offshore, these black sea-ducks rarely venture inland, though they are occasionally ‘wrecked’ in severe gales. From memory, these were the first I have seen in the dunes in over 50 years.

For much of the month, two large machines were removing scrub from Ainsdale LNR slacks near the coast road. This was mostly Sea Buckthorn and birch that has proliferated since the last major scrub clearing operation here in the mid/late 1990s. Winter-grazing by rare-breeds cattle has worked brilliantly on the dry fixed-dunes, opening up areas of coarse vegetation and creating suitable conditions for flowers and insects. However, the cattle prefer not to graze in the wet-slacks, a finding confirmed in a recent study on Sandscale Haws in Cumbria. One of the machines pulled out the bushes by the roots, while the other collected and buried them in a deep hole. This created areas of bare sand that will be valuable habitat. Two of our keenest ‘buckthorn bashers’, Joyce and David Jarvis, who live nearby, joined me. We got the operator to scrape Sea Buckthorn off a west-facing slope; work that would take volunteers hours was accomplished in seconds! I also bumped into 10 hardy Belted Galloway cattle, here for the winter.

Similar work was carried out at Montagu Road Triangle, Freshfield, to get rid of mainly Lodgepole Pine and birch that had invaded the heathland. Ring-counts on some of the larger tree-stumps gave an average of 22 years, the oldest being 30. Several young Oak trees that support interesting mosses and liverworts were retained.

On 21st I visited St Luke’s Church graveyard, recommended by Trevor Davenport for its splendid display of Snowdrops. They were indeed impressive.

Walking down Wicks Path at Formby Point, late in the month, I was serenaded by a Chaffinch going full blast, competing with a Mistle Thrush, Robins and Great Tits, while a Buzzard mewed overhead. A Common Frog croaked briefly in Wicks Lake. Catkins were already on the Alders, while nearby Snowdrops were accompanied by a single Early Crocus. Insects were few and far between but I spotted a Honeybee on Gorse flowers and a Drone Fly Eristalis tenax basking on Honeysuckle leaves. Pete Kinsella reported four species of hoverfly at Alexandra Park, Crosby, together with Green Shieldbugs and a Comma.

The Lancashire & Cheshire Fauna Society published The bees, wasps and ants of Lancashire & North Merseyside during the month. Edited by Ben Hargreaves and Steve White, this superb book describes 132 bee species, 126 wasps and 23 ants, confirming the importance of the Sefton Coast for these iconic insects.  

Everywhere I walked in the dunes there were far more people out and about than is usual in winter, the impact on footpaths being evident. Thus, a previously little-used path at the back of the Hightown reedbed has turned into a 4m-wide morass. On 28th, I counted 14 people on the Altcar beach, a high security zone when the ranges are in use. Other observers confirm this new habit is becoming regular, with inevitable disturbance to internationally important shorebird roosts. Similar problems are beginning to appear in the national literature. For example, a Viewpoint article in Radio Times written by Julia Bradbury describes the littering of parks with discarded face-masks, together with a “dog-poo epidemic”, with bags hanging from tree branches. Her observations were in London but will be familiar to Sefton residents.