Dr Phil Smith, March 2024 – Wildlife Notes

The Met Office tells us that March was “unsettled wet and dull”, with a succession of Atlantic fronts bringing wind and rain. The resulting rainfall total recorded by Rachael Parks in her Formby garden was 91.5 mm, which is about 50% more than average. My measurements at the Devil’s Hole suggest that the sand-dune water-table in mid-March was higher by about 3 cm than the record set in 2021. This may be confirmed by water-table data collected since 1972 by Dr Derek Clarke at Ainsdale National Nature Reserve. Extensive flooding of dune slacks and other low points in the dunes was the inevitable consequence. The Devil’s Hole had impressive sheets of deep water, reflecting the surrounding slopes, while the nearby Cabin Hill National Nature Reserve looked more like the Lake District, with its appropriate wintering flock of Herdwick Sheep!

March is when winter is left behind and spring really begins to kick in. Bird song increases. I had my first Skylark singing gloriously on 3rd and a Chiffchaff with its characteristic repetitive song on 18th. Was it one that wintered here, or a genuine migrant? Wicks Lake, Formby, had a rather poorly-looking Cormorant on 5th, while Common Frogs were croaking from the reedy water’s edge. Other bird highlights included an immaculate male Scaup with Tufted Ducks on Sands Lake, Ainsdale, and two or three rather distant Water Pipits at Crossens Marsh on the Ribble. While there, I heard that two Waxwings were showing nearby on Water Lane having been there for about a week. They were still there but only just visible deep inside a Hawthorn bush. Pete Kinsella sent me some photos taken when they were in full view. The floods at Cabin Hill attracted a sizeable flock of 60 Teal, together with a pair of colourful Shovelers and a less welcome pair of feral Greylag Geese. Annoyingly, I just missed a Marsh Harrier quartering the reserve an hour earlier. Nicknamed the ‘northern Nightingale’ my first Blackcap of the spring was singing at Range Lane, Formby, on 31st while a Little Egret was an unexpected visitor to the Cabin Hill floods. Another surprise was a Grey Patridge calling nearby. This formerly common bird has suffered an 80% decline since the early 1960s.

Tiny white-flowered dune annuals began to appear from the beginning of the month. The earliest is the Common Whitlowgrass, not a grass at all but a diminutive member of the cabbage family. This was closely followed by Hairy Bittercress and then Little Mouse-ear. The latter has five petals, while the slightly larger Sea Mouse-ear mostly has only four. By the end of the month, they were joined by the attractive Rue-leaved Saxifrage. About a dozen species of these small annuals are common in the dunes, relying on short open vegetation or bare patches, often where Rabbits or livestock have disturbed the ground surface. They don’t like tall, ungrazed or scrubby swards. While looking for dune annuals with Robert Freeth at Ainsdale Local Nature Reserve, I bumped into what looked like an unrecorded bush of Don’s Willow. Only around 40 bushes are known in the UK of this incredibly rare hybrid between Creeping and Purple Willow, 36 of them being in the Sefton dunes. I’ll be able to confirm the identification when catkins appear in April.

On 26th, I revisited the small colony of genuine wild Daffodils at Ainsdale NNR, counting 45 flowers. I’ve known them here since 2014 when there were over 100 blooms. The same day, I found a Heath Dog-violet flowering in my garden, the first in the dunes appearing at the Devil’s Hole on 31st. Although common on the Sefton Coast, this species is Red-listed ‘Vulnerable’ in England, meaning it’s in danger of extinction.

Insects were slow getting going but a queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee was on Red Dead-nettle on the outskirts of Formby on 9th, while a dozy Red-tailed Bumblebee posed on my finger at Falklands Way, Ainsdale a few days later.  As usual, a flowering Prunus at the entrance to Ainsdale NNR was a great attraction for early hoverflies, a prime target being the uncommon Large Bumblefly, which mimics bumblebees, with either a white or red ‘tail’. I saw both forms there on 19th and another ‘red-tail’ on the catkins of the big Grey Willow at Pinfold Meadow, also in the NNR. This spectacular hoverfly is tricky to photograph, because it often flies high around the tops of bushes or trees. Another favoured locality for spring insects is a patch of flowering Alexanders at Sands Lake, Ainsdale. This supported a surprising number of Dung Flies but, apart from a Bronze Shieldbug, wasn’t as productive as usual. Shieldbugs also featured during one of my Formby walks, with green, brown and intermediate colour-forms of the Comon Green Shieldbug. The last day of the month was graced by the first Early Colletes solitary bees at the Devil’s Hole. An abundant nester on south-facing slopes in the dunes, this bee used to be confined to Irish Sea coasts from South Wales to Cumbria but has started to turn up in the south and midlands, probably due to colonisation from the continent.