Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
June 2024

The Met Office reports that June was dry, cool and sunny. Persistent northerly winds meant temperatures averaged about 2oC below normal, while UK rainfall was 29% lower than usual. This fits quite well with Rachael Park’s rainfall measurements. She had 39mm of rain on 12 days in her Formby garden, about 40% below average.

Thankfully, there was no spring or early summer drought this year, meaning the sand-dunes were a riot of colourful wildflowers; a joy to behold on my many rambles.

The water-table at the Devil’s Hole fell by 17 cm during June, though the slacks remained flooded. The extra moisture meant a record number of 83 Bee Orchids there, including several massive specimens up to 40 cm tall with 12 flowers. Similarly, huge magenta spikes of Southern Marsh-orchids were scattered around the fringes of the Devil’s Hole, soon to be followed by brick-red Early Marsh-orchids and hundreds of Pyramidal Orchids. It was the same on the southern sections of Birkdale Green Beach – more orchids than I ever remember. By 18th, the first Marsh Helleborines and Grass-of-Parnassus were flowering on the Green Beach.

Last month, I reported finding the rare Smooth Cat’s-ear in the carpark where I live. I bumped into two more colonies on the dunes – maybe it’s a good year for this plant? Unfortunately, the carpark site was mowed, a fate that also befell the amazingly rich verges at Thornbeck Avenue, Hightown and Kenilworth Road, Ainsdale. They will recover of course but less frequent mowing would be preferable. At Hightown, the first purple spikes of Viper’s Bugloss were showing on 8th, together with Bloody Crane’s-bill and the prickly but attractive Burnet Rose. The Twayblade orchids I found earlier were already starting to go over, to be replaced by numerous Pyramidal Orchids. Less welcome, was a new stand of Wood Small-reed, a tall native grass that can become invasive in the dunes.

Robert Freeth joined me on 11th at Crosby Coastal Park, a wonderful place for wildflowers as a large area of grassland is not mowed until the autumn. We particularly wanted to see the rare variety of Common Broomrape that parasitises Sea Holly. Known only from a handful of UK sites, it is extraordinarily abundant on Crosby’s frontal dune ridge. Even better, we spotted a yellow form that was new to us. Correspondence with two national experts on broomrapes revealed they hadn’t recorded it either and would include it in a forthcoming book. They named it Orobanche minor var. pseudoamethystea form lutea; quite a mouthful! A few days later, Steve Cross counted 3156 broomrape spikes, including two of the yellow form. While at Crosby, we called in on the Dune Wormwood that occurs in only two places in Britain. Happily, it was doing well. We missed the large marsh-orchid colony, so I went back to Crosby a week later, counting an impressive number of 1386 Southern Marsh-orchids and one Common Spotted-orchid near the boating lake. Another good find was two white Pyramidal Orchids, var. albiflora, on Hightown dunes. The books say this is a rare form.

On 21st, four friends and I began a coastwide survey of one of our notable plants – Sea Bindweed. It was last studied in 2010, when six colonies were measured. Two more have been added since then. I also re-visited our only site for Dyer’s Greenweed near the coast road at Birkdale. The main patch was in full flower, its area being 12% larger than in 2018. However, the second, smaller, colony seems to have gone, a victim of vegetation overgrowth.

While national recorders were reporting catastrophically low numbers of insects, the Sefton Coast seems to have been less badly affected. Some species were slow to appear, while others did well. Thus, I saw many more Ferruginous Bee-grabbers and Black Snipeflies than usual, while lots of Common Green Colonel soldierflies were on Hogweed flowers. Dock Bugs were everywhere, as were metallic-green Swollen-thighed Beetles, both having reached us from the south quite recently. Also numerous was the Bumblebee Plumehorn, a large hoverfly that mimics bumblebees. Males hold territories, flying from low perches, while females lay eggs in bumblebee nests where their larvae live as scavengers.

During a visit to Marshside to survey one of the Sea Bindweed patches, I strayed onto the saltmarsh to admire the abundant Sea Lavender. Numerous tiny soldierflies were visiting the flowers. These turned out to be the Barred Snout, new to me but a nationally widespread saltmarsh specialist. Other insect highlights in June included two Ornate-tailed Digger Wasps and a spectacular black-and-white ichneumon wasp at Wicks Path, Formby Point, a Brown Heath Robberfly at Larkhill, Formby and a Little Meadowfly at Ravenmeols. The latter is an uncommon hoverfly with a mainly northern and western distribution.

So ended another exciting month with the amazing wildlife of the Sefton Coast.