Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
In contrast to last year, October 2009 was exceptionally mild; one result was that Sand Lizards remained active rather than going into hibernation. Our local expert, Dave Hardaker, told me of a south-facing bank at Cabin Hill where youngsters that hatched from eggs earlier in the summer could be seen basking. During several visits, the last on 31st, I photographed up to three of these well-camouflaged hatchlings. Only about two inches long, they are sandy coloured with faint stripes and spots. One had lost its tail, presumably in escaping from a predator. Overall, Dave and his colleagues, all volunteers, have counted about 70 baby Sand Lizards this year, indicating a particularly good breeding season. Another highlight was the discovery during the summer of a small breeding population at Hightown sand-dunes, an area where Sand Lizards were thought to have been extinct for over 20 years.
This is great news for one of our most important and charismatic creatures which, during the 1970s, seemed to be on the way out but is now estimated to number 1000-1500 individuals. The next nearest colony is in southern England, about 200 miles away.
The mild weather also meant that dragonflies and butterflies were still on the wing well into the month. I had 18 Common Darters at the new ponds on Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve on 8th, the same day producing three Commas, a Painted Lady and two Small Coppers on Michaelmas-daisies.
Partly as a change of scene from the sand-dunes, I went to the official opening of the RSPB’s new nature reserve at Hesketh Out Marsh on 9th. The reserve is on land that I well remember being reclaimed from Ribble Estuary salt-marshes in 1979/80. Such reclamations went on for centuries, producing great tracts of productive farmland on both sides of the estuary. However, Hesketh Out Marsh was an old salt-marsh, the build-up of fine silt being so deep that the land proved difficult to drain for arable cropping. The RSPB has recently breached the earth bank in several places, allowing high tides to flood the former marsh. Already, salt-marsh plants are returning, while wetland birds, including breeding Avocets, are flocking to the impressive network of scrapes and channels created on the reserve. A further bonus is that the effect of tidal surges further upstream is reduced, making it easier (and cheaper) to protect land and property from rising sea-levels.
October is invariably a good month for migrating birds, a northwesterly gale on 3rd producing 20 Leach’s Petrels struggling south along Ainsdale Beach. Later, there was a notable influx of thrushes from Scandinavia, Redwings being reported from about 7th. I saw my first Fieldfares on 13th but spectacular numbers came through later on. I counted 800 in an hour over Cabin Hill on 27th, while John Dempsey estimated 2500 to 3000 passing south at Crosby Marine Park early on 28th. The usual arrival of Pink-footed Geese from Iceland and Greenland led to flocks of up to 20,000 being reported at Martin Mere, where fellow-travellers included two Bean Geese of the tundra race from Siberia and a Lesser Canada Goose which may have flown the Atlantic. Other rarities included a Little Bunting at Seaforth and two Long-billed Dowitchers briefly at Marshside. Finally, the remarkable increase of Little Egrets in our region was illustrated by a count of 65+ roosting on an island in Southport Marine Lake.