Dr Phil Smith – May 2024 Wildlife Notes

According to the Met Office, May 2024 was the warmest on record, mainly due to high overnight temperatures. It was also the hottest spring overall. Rainfall in England was above average, though the Met Office maps show that the Sefton Coast bugged the trend, having roughly normal rainfall. This was confirmed by Rachael Parks’ rain-gauge data which gave a total of 71 mm in 13 rain-days for Formby. As expected at this time of year, the sand-dune water-table fell by 14 cm during the month. However, being high to begin with and because there was no spring drought, our sand-dune flora “never had it so good”!

Following on from Steve Cross’s two Green-winged Orchids last month on the road verges at Thornbeck Avenue, Hightown, two more were spotted in the Hightown dunes. A particularly fine specimen in the garden of the Sailing Club headquarters was unfortunately, mowed later in the month. Sea Sandwort flowered abundantly on the nearby ‘shingle’ beach but I could find only one Yellow Horned-poppy and most of the Isle of Man Cabbage on the frontal dunes seems to have been washed away during earlier storm-surges. Another good find at Hightown dunes was 36 Common Twayblade orchids where birch trees had been removed by volunteers in one of two slacks that I monitor regularly. The orchids were in bud but should flower in June.

Images; Phil Smith

The Thornbeck Avenue verges looked amazing – ankle deep in rare Clustered and Knotted Clovers, as well as a huge variety of other plants. With friends, I repeated a floristic survey of the verges, last done in 2013, when an impressive 77 species was recorded. Two visits in May clocked up 124, a remarkable total that will no doubt be overtaken in June. How about eight species of clover and no fewer than 24 grasses for starters? An exciting find was the beautiful hybrid between Wild Pansy and Field Pansy, Viola x contempta. Although it’s not rare, I had never seen one before. We also began a repeat survey of the verges at Kenilworth Road, Ainsdale. As at Hightown, these verges were created when adjacent housing was built on sand-dunes. A key species at Kenilworth is the ‘nationally rare’ Smooth Rupturewort; we found unprecedented amounts of it, while the two rare clovers were also present in great abundance.

As usual, new non-native plants featured in my notebook, Sands Lake at Ainsdale contributing two of them: the lovely blue-flowered Smooth-leaved Iris and Slender Sweet-flag, both nationally scarce. Tracy Lockwood drew my attention to a spectacular plant of Crimson Clover at Deansgate Lane North, Formby. This also turned up at Thornbeck Avenue, where it can be counted as new to the Sefton Coast.

Perhaps my botanical highlight of the month was 15 plants of Smooth Cat’s-ear on the edge of the carpark at my Formby home. I did a coastwide survey of this Red-listed ‘Vulnerable’ rarity in 2007 but have struggled to find it since, perhaps because it has the annoying habit of closing its flowers in the afternoon.

The warm weather also brought out lots of insects, many of them much earlier than usual. Thus, my first Banded Demoiselles on Downholland Brook at Alt Bridge were on 8th. A few years ago, I would not expect to see these stunning insects until the last week of May. They were soon joined by Large Red Damselflies and then the common Blue-tailed and Azure Damsels. Other good finds here were the hoverflies: Common Snout Fly, Lemon Marsh-fly, Pied Plumehorn and Bumblebee Plumehorn. Several Dock Bugs and Swollen-thighed Beetles were also noted, these being unknown in the region until a few years ago. One of my strangest finds at Alt Bridge was a stilt-legged fly Neria cibaria. I had to ask a fly expert to identify it from the photo. Although quite widespread nationally, this seems to be the first record for Sefton.

Visits to the former nature reserve at Haskayne Cutting were rewarded with a superb male Brimstone butterfly patrolling its territory and posing briefly on a Red Campion for its portrait. At least four of the wetland Stripeback hoverfly were a bonus. My routine count of marsh-orchids produced a total of 204, more than last year but still a big reduction on the thousands a few years ago.

A surprising find on the outskirts of Formby was a Birch Shieldbug with several small white eggs on its thorax. Perhaps this indicated an attack by the parasitic fly Phasia hemiptera, which is known to go for shieldbugs. During one of my trips to Devil’s Hole, I bumped into Pete Kinsella, whose phenomenal eyesight helped to pinpoint three rare Pine Longhorn hoverflies and two Red-legged Robberflies, as well as an adult Natterjack Toad, the first I have seen for three years! At last, the high water-table and mild, damp nights have produced the best Natterjack breeding conditions for many years.