Phil Smith

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes July 2018

Coastal fire damage (Dr Phil Smith)

With the countryside in flames, farmers losing millions and the water-supply industry in turmoil, the TV weather presenters finally acknowledged the longest summer drought since 1976 and started to talk about the “chance” of showers, rather than the “risk”! We actually had six days with measurable rain during July but only on 29th was there enough to make a difference to the parched landscape. A spate of fires along the coast seemed inevitable. The biggest at Hightown dunes, Altcar Training Camp and Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve each destroyed several hectares, while several smaller blazes were also reported. Further afield, about a third of Lytham St. Anne’s Local Nature Reserve went up in flames. These fires can kill small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates but most plants usually recover quite quickly. Thus, after three weeks, the Hightown fire site was already showing regrowth of vegetation.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes June 2018

Maiden Pink (Dr Phil Smith)

Reports of Red-eyed Damselflies at new localities in Merseyside led Trevor Davenport and me to visit the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Aintree where this distinctive species can be found perching on Fringed Water-lily leaves. We logged about 25 Red-eyes, including several pairs, as well as four other species of dragonfly in this exceptional month for these ancient insects.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes May 2018

Large Red Damselflies (Dr Phil Smith)

The Met. Office reckoned it was the warmest and sunniest May on record; it was also dry with measurable rainfall on only eight days. Forecasts of torrential thunder-storms came day after day during the last week but all we got were a couple of brief showers on 30th and 31st. The duneland water-table therefore fell rapidly, the Newest Green Beach at Ainsdale with 1000+ small Natterjack tadpoles on 2nd having completely dried up by 13th. Fortunately, tadpoles at several other sites, including the Devil’s Hole, survived until at least the end of the month.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes April 2018

Natterjack Toad (Dr Phil Smith)

April 2018 really broke the mould. Since the millennium, we have got used to prolonged droughts, with April showers a distant memory. This month, measurable rain fell on 12 days and, although it was mainly colder than average, there was a heatwave from 18th to 21st with the highest April temperatures (in London) since 1949. Remarkably, the dune water-table actually rose by 4.5cm during the month. The result was the best Natterjack Toad activity for several years. For the first time, these rare amphibians spawned in the youngest section of the Green Beach at Ainsdale. Although usually nocturnal, some amorous male Natterjacks started calling during the afternoon of 9th and I found three pairs as well as ten Smooth Newts, while Skylarks were singing their hearts out overhead and 18 migratory White Wagtails foraged on the shore.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes March 2018

Juniper Shieldbug (Joyce Jarvis)

With a few snow flurries at times, and a “mini-beast from the east” on 17th, March was certainly colder than average, while measurable rain on 17 days kept the water-table topped up. The Devil’s Hole at Ravenmeols was impressively flooded, though well below levels seen in 2008, 2013 and 2016. Despite the low temperatures, a few Common Frogs and Common Toads were out and about from about 10th but peak activity was much later. On 21st, I counted 70 batches of frog spawn and the first spawning of Common Toads at Birkdale Green Beach. Earlier, Cabin Hill produced a few Common Toads but no Common Frogs or spawn were seen, probably because the water was too deep to explore effectively. Two pairs of Lapwings were displaying over the fields behind the reserve, their characteristic “pee-wit” call bringing back memories of my childhood when these now uncommon breeders were ubiquitous

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes February 2018

Metzgeria fruticulosa (Dr Phil Smith)

There was measurable rain on 10 days in the first three weeks of the month – about average – after which the “Beast from the East” set in, with exceptionally cold dry easterly winds from Siberia. This unusual weather pattern was due to warm air and high pressure over Canada and Greenland, leading to a blockage of the North Atlantic Jet-stream which should bring us rain-bearing fronts in February. Researchers have linked this to a warming trend in the Arctic, itself a consequence of rapid climate change.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes January 2018

Pink-foot Goose (Dr Phil Smith)

With 18 rain-days and the two named storms Eleanor and Georgina, January was wetter than average. This meant a welcome recovery in the dune water-table which returned to “normal” winter levels. I measured a rise of about 17cm at the Devil’s Hole blowout during the month, resulting in extensive flooding of the lower sections. This is good news for the Natterjack Toad which might have somewhere to breed in the spring.

Big tides and high winds early in the month created a storm surge which, although not as strong as those in the 2013/14 winter, produced some erosion at Formby Point and Hightown. I estimated a 5m loss of dunes at Hightown, impacting important populations of Isle of Man Cabbage and the rare Triple-hybrid Evening Primrose. In contrast, there were minimal effects at the Ainsdale end of Birkdale Green Beach, where the much wider shore absorbs the energy of the waves.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes December 2017

Amoecius brevis (Dr Phil Smith)

An unremarkable month for weather, December 2017 started and ended relatively mild with a cold snap in the middle. Many parts of the country had considerable snow-fall but, as usual, barely a flake was seen here. However, it was a little wetter than average with measureable rain on 20 days, though many of those had little more than a period of drizzle. Happily, the sand-dune water-table continued to rise, Devil’s Hole showing an increase of 15cm (6 inches) during the month, with surface water appearing at last in the deepest sections.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes November 2017

White-tipped Bristle-moss (Dr Phil Smith)

The average November rainfall for Formby is 89mm or 3.5 inches. We just about got that, with 16 rain-days, including a few short downpours between 20th and 23rd. This produced flooding in North Lancashire but I reckon we had about a tenth of their deluge. Some of the deeper dune-slacks began to show surface water but I measured a water-table rise of just 8cm at the Devil’s Hole which remained largely dry. I was amused by a letter to the local paper which blamed the Council for Wicks Lake at Formby Point drying up. This was actually due to low rainfall over many months, for which our Council is hardly culpable.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes October 2017

Buckthorn Bashers (Dr Phil Smith)

October is supposed to be our wettest month but, with measurable precipitation on only nine days, this time it did not live up to its reputation. Confounding the forecasters, one of two named storms produced no rain at all! The trend for mild autumns continued, with several warm spells and no frost at all. Regularly monitoring of the dune water-table showed that it started to rise, as would be expected, surface-water appearing in the deepest slacks but not in the Devil’s Hole, which remained stubbornly dry.

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