Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
Extreme weather dominated the month, this being the coldest December since either 1910 or 1890, depending on who you believe. Locally, around ten inches of snow fell during the night of 17/18th, the most I have seen in Formby over a 40 year period. Sea-ice was reported near Blundellsands Coastguard Station. Certainly, there has been nothing like it since 1981 when ice-flows washed up on Formby beach; however the snow wasn’t as deep that winter.
Struggling out onto the dunes on 22nd revealed a spectacular ice-age landscape, pines heavy with snow, some being broken down by its weight. Covered in ice crystals, the snow surface sparkled like diamonds in the low winter sun. There were few birds to be seen, except for about 20 Fieldfares seeking out the few remaining Hawthorn berries at Ravenmeols dunes, while a dozen Long-tailed Tits were active in bushes alongside St Luke’s Church Drive.
Although many people put food out for garden birds, in the freezing conditions it is also important to provide water. I watched Robins, Dunnocks and Blackbirds regularly coming to drink from a dish just outside my lounge window. Later, during the thaw, a Song Thrush took the opportunity to have a bath, splashing around in evident enjoyment. Elsewhere, there were many reports of Bramblings and Blackcaps visiting garden feeders.
Our local wetlands were pretty well frozen solid from early in the month but flocks of waterfowl on Sands Lake and Southport Marine Lake managed to keep small areas ice-free. Sands Lake had 40 Shovelers on 5th and an impressive flock of 240 Tufted Ducks on 16th. Black masses of Coot on Southport Marine Lake largely defied accurate counting, except on 11th when they were more spread out and I achieved a record figure of 1470. With them were 308 Tufted Ducks, 63 Pochards and 243 Mute Swans. Highly dependent on food provided by the public, the swans increased to 259 by 28th. This may also be a record, as the largest winter count I can trace in the literature is 251 in December 2006. On other occasions there were even flocks of Gadwall, Wigeon and Pintail on the lake, the latter reaching a peak of 70. Annoyingly, I managed to miss a young Iceland Gull which was coming to bread at the Marine Lake early in the month.
Other avian highlights during December were a Rough-legged Buzzard photographed by Derek Forshaw as it flew south over Marshside on 1st and a Firecrest, which spent several days at Hesketh Park, Southport, from 8th. I managed to see it briefly on my third visit. This well-wooded park was full of birds, mixed flocks of tits and Goldcrests, together with the occasional Tree Creeper and Nuthatch, adding to the interest. Less welcome were up to five Grey Squirrels, Southport being within the buffer zone set up to protect the Sefton Red Squirrels from their North American competitors. Meanwhile, Martin Mere reported its highest ever count of 2100 Whooper Swans on 30th.
I visited Freshfield Dune Heath Nature Reserve on 17th to see the excellent progress made on clearing birch scrub close to the area where Sand Lizards were introduced in September. This has opened up a section of old boundary bank or “cop” which should provide ideal habitat for the lizards. While on the heath, I was pleased to see a flock of 15 Redpolls and also a Woodcock, several other bird-watchers reporting sightings of this elusive wader during the cold weather.