Wildlife Notes

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.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes February 2019

Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Phil Smith)

These notes have highlighted many examples of crazy weather over the last decade but February 2019 really took the biscuit. Only eight days had measurable rainfall but all-time record temperatures in the last week were unprecedented. An extraordinary 21oC was recorded in southern England on 26th when the thermometer soared to about 18o here. Such extremes are consistent with recent research into long-term global warming trends.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes January 2019

Little Egret (Phil Smith)

A gloomy month, January was dominated by thick cloud and poor visibility. Persistent high pressure meant hardly any rain in the first couple of weeks, continuing last year’s dry theme. Overall, measurable rain fell on 11 days, though only 29th produced a reasonable soaking. The water-table rose by 12cm at my monitoring point at the Devil’s Hole, but the dune-slacks here remained dry, the water level being 30cm (a foot) lower than at the same time last year. Although there was a cold snap latterly, the early part of January was relatively mild, the first Snowdrops appearing along Range Lane, Formby, on 15th, becoming abundant by the end of the month.

As usual, it was a relatively quiet period for wildlife sightings, not helped by the dark conditions that did not encourage me to venture outdoors much. At least I had my garden birds with a regular flock of about a dozen House Sparrows, several Starlings and daily visits from a splendid Song Thrush as well as the usual Blackbirds, Robins, Blue Tits, Great Tits, etc.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes December 2018

Petalophyllum ralfsii (Dr Phil Smith)

After months of dry weather, December returned to something like normality, measurable rain falling on 15 days, including the wettest day since August on 3rd. This helped the severely depleted water-table, my measuring point in the Devil’s Hole blowout showing a rise of 13 cm by the month’s end. Despite this, most of our dune-slacks remained dry. It was also a relatively warm month with hardly any frost.

The moist, mild conditions were perfect for bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), which rapidly recovered from brown, dried-up remnants to brilliant emerald-green patches on both the open dunes and the limbs of older broad-leaved trees. Josh Styles and I continued our study of the critically endangered Large Hook-moss, visiting the large slack south of the Ainsdale Discovery Centre where Des Callaghan reported this species in 2010. Sure enough, it was still there, with several colonies, especially on a lightly-trampled path through the slack where the vegetation was shorter. We recorded quadrats and took soil samples to describe the habitat.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes November 2018

Pseudocalliergon lycopodioides (Dr Phil Smith)

It has been known for centuries that rainfall on the coast is much lower than a few miles inland, yet I have never heard this reflected in regional, let alone national weather forecasts. So yet again, the default forecast for the Northwest of “frequent heavy showers” was wrong day after day. The result was another dry month here with measureable rain on 11 days but not in sufficient quantity to recharge the sand-dune water-table which remained static throughout.       

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes October 2018

Fly Agaric (Dr Phil Smith)

After the great drought of 1976, the heavens opened in September and October of that year, rapidly replenishing ground-waters, rivers and other wetlands. In complete contrast, following this summer’s comparable drought, September 2018 was dry, while October was even worse, with measurable rain on only five days, a named storm on 13th producing the only really wet day. Average October rainfall for Formby is 84mm (3.3 inches); we probably had half that. This is important because, apart from impacts on farmers, gardeners, water-supply, etc., so much of our special duneland wildlife depends on recharge of the water-table to produce seasonally flooded slacks. Instead of rising in October, the water level dropped by about 3cm at the Devil’s Hole measuring point.

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes September 2018

Yucca (Dr Phil Smith)

September was another relatively dry month. Although measurable rain fell on 12 days, there were significant amounts on only three dates. As a result, the sand-dune water-table at my Devil’s Hole measuring point continued to fall when it would usually be starting to re-charge. I had a letter published in the Radio Times pointing out that TV weather presenters are supposed to be educated people and should be aware that this country is only habitable because of regular reliable rainfall. Perhaps, therefore, they should stop perpetuating the myth that rain is bad. Evidently, they didn’t read it!

Dr Phil Smith: Wildlife Notes August 2018

Bishop's Mitre (Dr Phil Smith)

In this driest and hottest summer since 1976, the blessed relief of at least some rain on 12 August days helped to temper the worst effects. However, the damage and costs to the country became increasingly evident, with agriculture reporting production losses of 50% or more. Not to worry, rather than celebrating desperately needed rainfall, the TV weather presenters described the only really wet day during the month (26th) as “Soggy Sunday”!

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.

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