Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
It was an interesting month for weather, with cool occasionally rainy days interspersed with hot spells. As many as 15 days with measurable rainfall was reminiscent of the “normal” summers I remember as a lad. In recent years, we have got used to prolonged droughts. Climate change continued to rear its head, however, with a new all-time record high temperature for August Bank Holiday of 33.2o at Heathrow on 26th. It was cool and cloudy here!
Bird migration begins in earnest in August with a few late Swifts and streams of Swallows heading south. A big tide at Hightown produced an impressive roost of waders, including at least 600 Oystercatchers. More surprising was a flock of 450 Sandwich Terns. They usually roost on the beach between Ainsdale and Birkdale but John Dempsey’s volunteers found fewer than expected during their annual survey, perhaps because many chose Hightown.
Although, it felt quite autumnal by the end of the month, August on the Sefton Coast was brilliant for wildlife. The first day found me on Ainsdale Sandhills Local Nature Reserve, where butterflies abounded. Lots of Painted Ladies reflected the earlier invasion, while Graylings jostled for the best position on Sea Holly flowers, showing off their rarely seen upperwings. As expected, the big Natterjack scrape had several dragonflies, including a single Red-veined Darter left over from the July influx. A huge male Emperor caught a Grayling in mid-air, eating most of the body before dropping the head and wings. A mating pair of Dune Robber-flies and several Northern Dune Tiger Beetles also vied for my attention. I returned the following day with two friends. Somehow the Emperor had fallen into the water. Slowly rowing himself towards an emergent plant stem, he eventually hauled himself out and dried off, majestically taking to the air again 20 minutes later. Walking back to the beach, we bumped into Pete Kinsella who pointed out a rare bee-fly, the Dune Villa, nectaring on Sea Spurge. I had only seen one before, 20 years ago.
Dragonflies also featured on Ainsdale National Nature Reserve, where a small glade amongst the pine trees produced two superb male Southern Hawkers and up to seven Migrant Hawkers, an insect that was unknown in the region until the late 1990s. At least four Common Lizards basking on some timber was a nice surprise.
Another recent arrival is the spectacular Hornet Hoverfly, the largest of its family. There has been a remarkable upsurge in records this summer, Pete Kinsella reporting around 30 sightings in August. I found both the Hornet Hoverfly and the smaller Lesser Hornet Hoverfly on a large patch of Apple Mint at Ravenmeols dunes. It also attracted many butterflies with up to 55 Red Admirals, 15 Painted Ladies, 12 Peacocks, 2 Small Tortoishells and a Comma.
Nearby, insects nectaring on Ragwort sheltered from the blustery wind included several small black-and-yellow parasitic flies, known as “bee-grabbers” from their habit of laying eggs on their host bees and wasps while in flight. One I photographed proved to be the uncommon Dark-cheeked Bee-grabber Conops strigatus.
After last year’s discoveries, I checked for Speckled Bush-crickets at Falklands Way, Ainsdale. They were still there, in exactly the same place as before. Trevor Davenport also reported a small colony surviving in his Freshfield garden. Surely there must be more around.
A repeat of the workshop on grasshoppers and shieldbugs that I ran last year for Liverpool Museum’s Tanyptera Project took place on 10th with 15 participants. Strong winds and heavy rain were forecast but, in the event, the rain held off and we found seven species of shieldbug on Freshfield Dune Heath, together with the usual Field and Mottled Grasshoppers.
On another windy day, I decided to venture inland to Haskayne Cutting Nature Reserve in the hope of finding some shelter. At least 30 Painted Ladies were nectaring on a fantastic display of Common Knapweed, while flowers of Wild Angelica attracted small solitary wasps. Photos sent to local expert Ben Hargreaves showed as many as four species were present, including a rarity, Gorytes laticinctus, which has only just arrived in our region from the south.
Following reports of Small Red-eyed Damselflies at the former Festival Gardens in south Liverpool, Trevor and I took the train down on 23rd. We soon located several of these insects with distinctive cherry-red eyes, together with seven other dragonfly species. Small Red-eyes were first reported in Essex in 1999, thereafter rapidly spreading north and west. Like so many other insects now appearing on the Sefton Coast, they are responding to warming temperatures.