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Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes May 2019

Iron Cross - Oxalis tetraphylla (Dr Phil Smith)

It’s becoming repetitive, but May 2019 was yet another dry month in Sefton. Only eight days had measurable rainfall, none of it heavy or persistent. Like last year, duneland vegetation was looking parched by mid-month, attempts to find our rare clovers on road verges at Ainsdale and Hightown being thwarted as the plants were dried up.

However, drought conditions could not prevent May on the Sefton Coast producing a wealth of wildlife as usual. Altcar Training Camp proved a case in point. This large (620 acre) estate is normally off-limits for security reasons but, each spring and summer, a series of popular guided walks and research visits is arranged by kind permission of the Commandant, Col. Gordon Black. Altcar’s amazing Green-winged Orchids have featured annually in these notes. This time, Steve Cross counted about 24,500; fewer than recently but still one of the largest populations in the country. As well as rare colour-forms of salmon-pink and white, I found a few orchids with strange variegated flowers. Although about 430 higher plants have been listed for the estate, we still found several new species, including the uncommon Knotted Clover, Spring Vetch and Rat’s-tail Fescue. Specialists from Liverpool Museum’s Tanyptera Project recorded a new parasitic wasp for Britain, the Bordered Shieldbug which was new to South Lancashire and Merseyside and no fewer than 111 beetles!

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes April 2019

Sand Lizards (Dr Phil Smith)

A frequent refrain in these notes since 2000 has been spring droughts. April lived up to its reputation, only nine days having measurable rainfall. Strong drying winds from 5th to 16th didn’t help, these being followed by a heat-wave with temperatures up to 25oC and the inevitable moorland fires. Whatever happened to April showers? As usual, a named storm on 27th produced hardly any rain here. What little we did get stimulated a few Natterjack Toads to spawn. I counted 14 strings on the southern Green Beach, adding to 15 in March. However, a total of 29 spawn strings hardly compares with 274 at the same site in 2008. Even more concerning is that I didn’t see a single adult Natterjack during March and April.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes March 2019

Don's Willow (Dr Phil Smith)

The exceptional warmth of February soon gave way to typical March weather – windy with occasional rain, the latter falling on 13 out of the first 18 days of the month. Inevitably, the Atlantic then ran out of energy, with high pressure and the usual spring drought taking over. Much-needed rain led to the dune water-table rising by 13 cm by mid-month but this was still 27 cm below the same period last year and insufficient to flood the Natterjack Toad breeding areas at the Devil’s Hole. Elsewhere on the coast, however, water-levels rose, Natterjacks emerging much earlier than usual on 15th, followed by spawning at Ainsdale and Hightown. My first monitoring visit to the southern Green Beach at Ainsdale on 19th found no Natterjacks but a few Common Toads were breeding and Common Frogs had produced over 100 spawn masses. My second survey on 25th found 15 Natterjack spawn strings, these being only a few days old. All were laid in shallow water which may not be viable if the drought continues. Our research shows there are now about 70% fewer Natterjack Toads on the Sefton Coast than there were 30 years ago, the reasons being a combination of vegetation overgrowth, competition from Common Toad and Common Frog tadpoles and spring droughts.

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