Birkenhead Park, 25th February 2024

There was a frost last night, and the day was still, cold and misty although the sun came out in the afternoon. We went a different way than we usually do, halfway towards the cricket club then left. In the clumps of trees there we could hear a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming, then another and then a third one in the distance. The first one was right over our heads but we still couldn’t find it. Then it flew ahead and we finally glimpsed it, doing an acrobatic upside-down walk along a horizontal branch. It appears to be a female as it has no red patch on the back of its neck. I thought it was only the males that drummed, but I was surprised to discover that both males and females do it.

Also among the trees were Magpies, Wood Pigeons, Crows, a Blue Tit, Grey Squirrels and Feral Pigeons. The daffodils are coming out, there were Primroses in the grass, and we puzzled over this twiggy Lime tree. They usually sprout profusely from the base, and you can see this one has done that, although the gardeners have trimmed it back neatly. But what’s that huge twiggy mass higher up? I have not seen a Lime tree do that before.

At this time of year the Yew trees are flowering in their idiosyncratic way. All the male trees bear clusters of tiny pollen sacs along the twigs, each about 2-3mm across. I thought they just broke open to release their pollen but now I see from my close-up photo that a sort of cauliflower-on-a-stalk emerges.

On the Lower Lake were Mute Swans, Coots, Mallards, Tufted Ducks and lots of resident Canada Geese making a racket and engaging in territorial fights.

Birkenhead Park has suffered recently from the storms, as have so many other parks. There were several trees down and tidied into piles of cut logs. We were shocked to see that the old Mulberry had disappeared from its well-foraged spot, up a bank on the northern side of the lower lake, about 50 yards east of the Rockery. No sign of the remains, so that one had been taken away. The ranger said they are planning to plant another, but probably not in the same place.  We did note that some fallen trees had made big dents in the railings as they fell.

On the bank opposite the Boat House we re-visited the tree planted for the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, not long before she died.

In a flower bed outside the Visitors’ Centre was a pair of small Camellias with mostly white flowers, but occasional red, pink or variegated ones. That’s quite special.  I think it’s variety ‘Angela Cocchi’.

After lunch we looked for the Paxton tree, planted in November 2022. It is a Chinese Tulip Tree Liriodendron chinense, one of a trio planted here, at Liverpool Princes Park and at Chatsworth by the Duke of Devonshire, to commemorate Joseph Paxton. He was head gardener at the Duke’s seat at Chatsworth and also designed Princes Park and Birkenhead Park, which had their 180th and 175th anniversaries in 2022. 

Around the Upper Lake one Horse Chestnut bud was just breaking, the Turkish Hazel was dangling its brown catkins, Rhododendron and Laurustinus were in flower and I spotted my first Lesser Celandine of the year.

More lovely trees. This clump reminded me of one of David Hockney’s first Yorkshire paintings.

The lakeside weeping willow was a beautiful golden yellow in the sun, with the buds just breaking.

The booklet “The Unusual Trees of Birkenhead Park” features their striking clump of Purple Cherry Plums Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardi’. We had never seen them in early spring before, and of course they aren’t purple yet, but covered in small white flowers. They are lovely in any season.

Public transport details: Train from Central towards West Kirby at 10.05, arriving Birkenhead Park station at 10.15.  Returned on the 437 bus from Park Road North / Asquith Avenue at 2.10, arriving Liverpool 2.25.

Anyone is welcome to come out with the Sunday Group. It is not strictly part of the MNA, although it has several overlapping members. We go out by public transport to local parks, woods and nature reserves all over Merseyside, and occasionally further afield. We are mostly pensioners, so the day is free on our bus passes, and we enjoy fresh air, a laugh and a joke, a slow amble in pleasant surroundings and sometimes we even look at the wildlife!
If you want to join a Sunday Group walk, pack lunch, a flask, waterproofs, binoculars if you have them, a waterproof pad to sit on if we have to have lunch on the grass or a wet bench (A garden kneeler? A newspaper in a plastic bag?), and wear stout shoes or walking boots. We are usually back in Liverpool City Centre by 4pm at the latest.
If you are interested in the wildlife of the north-west of England and would like to join the walks and coach trips run by the Merseyside Naturalists’ Association, see the main MNA website www.mnapage.info for details of our programme and how to join us.

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Southport Crematorium, 18th February 2024

This is a place we had never been to before, but we had recently heard it was a haunt of Red Squirrels, so worth checking. It isn’t a large cemetery, just the chapel building itself flanked on the south-west side by a little maze of cremation memorial stones, marked by bright flowers, some of them plastic.

But there were live plants in pots, such as Hellebores and Hyacinths, and lots of Snowdrops. Some of them had their feet in large puddles.

To the north, little paths lead to memorial glades and each has a central stone “ziggurat”, with more memorial name plates attached. Benches are nearby for quiet contemplation. The glades are mossy underfoot, not very grassy, as they are shaded when the trees are in leaf.

There are bird feeders dotted about all over the place, but most were empty. At the two stations where they had been refilled, there weren’t many birds. We saw a Blue Tit, a Great Tit, Coal Tits. Robins and Blackbirds. A couple of Wrens darted across a path, and there were Wood Pigeons high in the trees. There wasn’t even the sound of a Woodpecker. I think there must be too many people coming to leave flowers and tidy their plots.

There was one groggy Bumblebee which nearly hit me in the face. I waved it away and it disappeared before I could look at it properly. It was probably a queen Buff-tailed, which are known to emerge early on mild, sunny days. The best tree of the day was this one, absolutely covered in fat buds, probably a Magnolia. It will be magnificent when it blooms.

And what about the Red Squirrels? There was a road sign on the way in, warning drivers to go slowly in case they hit one.

We asked some of the other visitors about them. One said they were seen around the chapels quite a lot, but another said they hadn’t seen so many lately. We didn’t see any except a possible fleeting glimpse at a distance which might have been imagination. Someone had put fresh monkey nuts (peanuts in shells) on a tree stump but they seemed undisturbed as we left.

The Crematorium and its memorial gardens are only small, hardly enough for a day’s visit,  but it has good transport connections, the bus stops right outside, there is a covered area for lunch and  decent loos, so it’s definitely going on our list. North of the memorial area there are 20-odd acres of pathless woodland, which may be worth exploring when it is less soggy underfoot.

Public transport details: Train from Central at 10.17, arriving Ormskirk 10.47. Up the connecting path to the bus station and then the 375 bus at 11.01 towards Southport, arriving Carr Cross, outside Crematorium, at 11.25.  Returned on the 300 bus northbound (from the same stop as we arrived) at 1.30, getting off at Eastbank St, Southport at 1.40, then to the station for the southbound train at 1.57.

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Port Sunlight, 11th February 2024

Port Sunlight, a model village built to house the workers at the Sunlight Soap factory, is a good place to go in chancy weather, as it has several warm and dry places to retreat to if necessary.  We walked along the Dell first, as it has several interesting specimen trees, and even the bare winter trees are lovely, such as this shapely Oak.

Near the Dell Bridge we could hear various twitterings and cheepings, including the long ‘wheeps’ which may have been a Nuthatch. Other birds were Crows, Wood Pigeons, Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits, but something was making an unusual chattering and beeping noise, which was almost electronic. There were no Starlings about, so maybe it was three Jays, roosting deep in a tree, and perhaps exchanging subdued contact calls.

The recent storms have done some damage. An old Lombardy Poplar had lost a large branch, and a whole tree was down at the top of the bank.

Dotted around were patches of Snowdrops, Crocuses and not-yet-out Daffodils. They are excruciatingly neat, in well-defined colour groups, with barely a bloom out of place!

The garden around Christ Church has a Cherry Plum tree which was just breaking into blossom. It is the first of the Prunus group to flower, usually beating Blackthorn by at least two weeks. There were also the first flowers of Forsythia and Quince.

Cherry Plum
Forsythia
Quince

When we were here last year, on 26th March 2023, we noticed that they had recently felled a row of tall Lombardy Poplars at the junction of Church Drive and The Causeway.  On the lawn behind the stumps there has been new tree planting – the ones with labels were Rowan, Pin Oak, Red Oak and Downy Birch, and there were many other without labels.  But the stumps of the original trees, which were just sprouting last spring, have grown great bushy crowns of new shoots, all in just a single summer.

It had been warm in the occasional sun, but penetratingly cold when the heavy clouds came over and threatened rain. We visited the garden centre, lunched in the Queen Elizabeth Memorial Rose Garden, popped into the Lady Lever Art Gallery for a warm up, then took the train home. It was too cold to be lingering.

Public transport details: Chester train from Central at 10.15, arriving Port Sunlight at 10.33. Returned from Bebington station at 1.42, arriving Central at 2.05.

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Sefton Park, 4th February 2024

These mild days seem to have fooled some creatures into thinking there is an early spring. Usually there are great flocks of gulls on Sefton Park Lake, but most of the adults appear to have already left for their breeding grounds, leaving just juveniles.  But all the other waterbirds were present.  Since we are not supposed to feed them bread, Margaret had picked up two Little Gem lettuces reduced to 10p, so we tried it on them. Coots loved it, but the shy Moorhens never got near enough to try. The Mallards were completely unimpressed. The few Tufted Duck out in the middle didn’t come to investigate, neither did the remaining hundred or so Black-headed gulls or the half dozen juvenile Herring Gulls. It was a different story with the Canada Geese, at first wary, but then going for it with gusto. The final test subjects were three Mute Swans further along. After one taste they turned up their beaks and swam away.

At the northern end of the main lake, by the island, were two Little Grebes, usually one up, one down, but there were definitely two because one was much lighter than the other. Is the pale grey one a juvenile?

Around the back of the island was something new – a floating island of vegetation. A sign calls it a freshwater ecosystem island, part of the EU funded Urban GreenUP research project on climate change. Its intention is to support pollinating insects, underwater root systems and to see if it reduces algal blooms. Despite also claiming to be a safe haven for wildlife, nesting birds seem to be excluded by the chicken-wire fence around the edge.

Near the Eros statue, the regular political protest was “Climate Change is a Hoax” We didn’t take the bait. We looked for the prominent Witch Hazel bush which is usually in spectacular flower at this time of year. Sadly, it appears to have been severely cut back, and the flowers were very few, mostly going over.

The other winter-flowering shrub there was in fine fettle, however. Sweet Box Sarcococca confusa was flowering sweetly, smelling of honey or jasmine. One website calls it “ambrosial”.

Other signs of spring included a small winter-flowering cherry tree near the Gothic fountain, the winter-flowering Viburnum x bodnantense near the Eros statue, the copious catkins of the Alder trees nearby, the first Hawthorn leaves in a sheltered spot along the Jordan brook in the Dell and the swelling blossom buds of what is probably a young Norway Maple tree near the southern fountain.

Viburnum x bodnantense
Hawthorn leaves breaking
Norway Maple flower buds

Several times during the day we saw Ring-necked Parakeets fly over and heard them calling. We chatted to a fellow who said there are over 100 of them in the park now, and they are aggressively taking over all the old tree holes that the Stock Doves used to nest in. We also spotted a Nuthatch near the old bowling greens. We had gone that way to see the crocuses along the path to the obelisk. They aren’t at their peak yet. We also admired the row of old London Planes on the opposite side. Clearly planted when the park was laid out (1871/72), they are now over 150 years old but may have many years left in them. The first examples of this hybrid were planted in around 1670 and none has yet died of old age.

Crocus avenue
London Planes

Near the Oasis Café is a Birch tree infected with the bunches of overgrowth called “Witches Broom”. On Birches they are thought to be caused by the fungus Taphrina betulina¸ but don’t usually harm the tree. They are thought to be excellent habitat for many invertebrates, like spiders.

The Persian Ironwood tree on the bank in Dell had very sparse blossom this year, although it’s always a surprise that such a dark twisty tree can produce such amazing little explosions of shocking pink.

Along the brook called the Upper Jordan there is a new sign about “Leaky Dams”. At intervals along the watercourse, logs and twigs have been piled up, making small weirs and bridges to slow the flow of the water. It increases biodiversity, improves the water quality and reduces flooding of the paths. The work was carried out in January 2022 by staff of the Mersey Rivers Trust using material from the park itself, and funded by the family that run the Oasis café. We spotted one creature using the shelter. A free-living Brown Rat crept out timidly from behind a rock and set off along the bank. Despite most people’s horror at the word “rat” I don’t suppose these country rats are any worse than Grey Squirrels, they just lack the “cute” fluffy tail.

The sun came out, and it was a mild day, but winter will be returning by next week. Some animals and plants may be caught out!

Public transport details: Bus 82 from Elliot Street at 10.10, arriving Aigburth Road opp Ashbourne Rd at 10.25. Returned on 82 bus from Aigburth Road / Jericho Lane at 2.06, arriving City Centre 2.25

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Hoylake, 28th January 2024

It was a day to see Wirral’s Wonderful Waders. There was a high tide due at Hoylake at about 12.40, which brings the wading birds right up to the remaining bit of beach/marsh.

From Manor Road station we walked down Manor Road and Hoyle Road to Meols Parade, near the lifeboat station.  The weather was mild, overcast and breezy. The tide was still a long way out and we could see a distant thin line of Cormorants at the water’s edge. A few Redshank and a couple of dozen Shelduck were pottering about the pools between the clumps of invasive Spartina grass.

Redshank
Shelduck

Parade Gardens are right next to the seafront, behind a sheltering wall. This tree shows why that wall is there.

There was a Dunnock on the back of a bench and several Pied Wagtails flew out onto the beach. Flowers included Daises in the grass, Shepherd’s Purse on the edge of a pavement and some Daffodils coming out in a sheltered corner. One flowerbed has been earmarked for an RNLI-sponsored wildflower patch, and it has been adorned with a pair of their sea boots.

A little further north, set back from the seafront, is the small Queens Park. There are some nice Himalayan Birches along the path, with their catkins forming.

In one corner is a kid’s Nature Trail and a bug hotel called Critter Castle, built by local schoolchildren. It is surrounded by very good signage about what creatures the castle might attract – stag beetles, woodlice, solitary bees – a naturalist has been at work, clearly.

We lunched in the shelter of Parade Gardens and used the facilities of Popsy’s Café , just over the road in Hoylake Community Centre. We turned our eyes to the beach, and what a spectacle there was! The tide was now in and great masses of birds were standing on every inch of dry land, apparently sorted into species “layers”.

There were Redshank and Dunlin at front, a few hundred Oystercatchers in the middle and several thousand Knot at the back.

Several groups of birdwatchers with telescopes were looking out from the raised area around the lifeboat station. They said there were Grey Plovers and Black-tailed Godwits amongst the Knot, but we didn’t spot any.  But it reminded us of our late friend Chris Butterworth, who did regular bird counts for the Wirral Estuary Bird Survey (WEBS). When asked how anyone could count so many birds accurately he said “You just count the number of legs and divide by two”.

As the tide started going out again the Knot took to the air, flying in shaped flocks – “murmurations” –  and also swooshing low over the water.

Just beyond the water’s edge were several larger birds which we though were the Godwits, but now I see by the curved bills on my picture they must have been Curlews.

We headed back up King’s Gap and glimpsed a marvellous building we’ve never noticed before. An octagonal lighthouse on Valentia Road, completely surrounded by houses. It was rebuilt in 1866 on the footprint of an earlier lighthouse of 1764, one of a pair called the upper and lower lighthouses. The lower one was at the high water mark and is now gone. Their purpose was to aid sailors to line up on a safe anchorage. The Old Upper Lighthouse and its adjoining keepers’ cottages is now a private residence and is Grade II listed.

Hoylake village centre has the most stylish and wittiest street furniture on Merseyside, with a punning reference to “Knot”. As well as two sculptures of the birds of that name, one on the sidewalk and one on the roundabout, they use the motif of ropes and knots on all the benches, bollards and bicycle stands.

Public transport details: West Kirby train from Central at 10.05, arriving Manor Road 10.30. Returned from Hoylake Station at 14.02, arriving Liverpool 14.35.

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Crosby Marine Lake, 21st January 2024

At this time of year, when we re-start our Sunday walks, there are often uncommon birds on the local coastline. Today was one of those days and we set off on a twitch. There had been reports of an adult male Smew on Crosby Marine Lake, a very striking white-and-black bird, and it had definitely been seen there on Friday and Saturday, but sadly, it was gone today. I think I have only ever seen one in my life.  But we saw some other unusual birds there, which were nearly as good.

Potters Barn park

The last few days have been very cold and frosty, but it warmed up yesterday and today was mild with occasional showers. However, Storm Isha is brewing up. In Potter’s Barn park we noted a Robin, Blue Tits, a Blackbird and Grey Squirrels. Someone seems to throw down patches of seed for the birds and one had attracted a shy Collared Dove.

At the flooded car park at the south-eastern corner of the Marine Lake was a party of early-rising birdwatchers, having a break near their cars. They had already been in the adjacent Seaforth Nature Reserve and reported no Smew there, and not on the Marine Lake either. Bad news for us. However, we like all birds, and along the path on the southern edge we passed a noisy colony of House Sparrows, hiding in a thorny thicket near the dock mural.

As we got a view of the water we saw our best birds of the day, two or three Goldeneye and a Red-Breasted Merganser. They were diving and feeding, so there must be quite a lot of shellfish for them on the bottom.

Two Goldeneyes, one apparently strutting his stuff for the other
Red-breasted Merganser

A Heron also flew off, and later we saw a Little Egret in the reeds, then in flight over the water.

We climbed the bank to look through the railings into Seaforth NR, but there was nothing to see. There is no way in on that side: the only entrance is through the main dock gates, and they say that in the interests of security visitors must be members of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust AND apply for an annual permit, which incurs a hefty fee.

But there were Crows and Magpies on the bank, and Oystercatchers and Wood Pigeons on the grass.

Magpie foraging in the undergrowth
Oystercatcher
Wood Pigeon

We headed into Marine Gardens for lunch. The wind was getting alarmingly gusty, but we found a sheltered spot in the rockery, and listened to the wind roaring through the branches of the old clump of Crack Willow.

This shrub with the red berries gave us pause. I’m sure we have looked at it before, and it looks like some kind of Euonymus. I looked it up at home, and it is Evergreen Spindle Euonymus japonicus. Most gardening websites advise against planting it, as it never flowers or fruits when clipped, they say, but they grudgingly admit it does well in coastal sites.

I could walk home from there, and looked for things in flower as I went. Marine Gardens had a clump of Greater Periwinkle flowering well. There were Snowdrops and Laurustinus in Victoria Park and the small winter-flowering tree Viburnum x bodnantense in a neighbour’s garden. My garden had quince buds just starting to break, a garden-variety Primrose and one very late and ragged flower of New Zealand Daisy Bush.

Greater Periwinkle
First snowdrops
The winter-flowering shrub, Laurustinus
Viburnum x bodnantense
Primrose
One very late flower of the New Zealand Daisy Bush

Public transport details: Bus 53 from Queen Square at 10.10, arriving Crosby Road South / opposite Marlborough Road at 10.40.  The others returned on the 53 bus from outside Waterloo Station at about 1pm, but I could walk home.

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New Brighton, 17th December 2023

It was a bright and sunny day for our last Sunday walk of the year. From New Brighton Station we walked south to Vale Park, then northwards along the prom, with the wind and sun behind us. The tide was near the top, and a few Oystercatchers were idling on the breakwater.

Some kids were playing on the remains of the Black Pearl, but it hasn’t been rebuilt since the storm washed most of it away a few years ago.

Along the edge if the prom a few tattered weeds were clinging to life. Amazingly, both Sea Mayweed and Ragwort were still in flower. What tough plants they are.  A small flock of Turnstones and Redshank had taken up their usual roost on the pontoons.

But what were the two or three smaller ones with their heads tucked in?  Not Dunlin, because their legs were orangey, not the Dunlin’s black. Not Sanderlings, which are whiter than that. Nothing rarer like Stints had been reported, so I think they were Purple Sandpipers, which are said to hang around with Turnstones.

A Turnstone (centre) and two smaller companions

We went for a cuppa in the Floral Pavilion café, then set off home. No more Sunday walks now until 21st January. Happy Christmas to all, and here are Santa and Thomas the Tank Engine from Grosvenor Park Chester last week.

Public transport details: Train from Central at 10.20, arriving New Brighton station at 10.42. Returned on bus 432 from Morrison’s at 2.35, arriving Liverpool 3.00.

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Chester, 10th December 2023

From the station, we walked down City Road, along Russell Street and Dee Lane, and turned into Grosvenor Park by its north-east corner. There had been drizzly rain earlier, but it soon stopped, and it wasn’t cold. However the paths were littered with twigs and small branches following last night’s Storm Elin.  The only birds we saw were Wood Pigeons, Crows, Blue Tits, a Robin, and on the lake some Mallards and Moorhens. But there were occasional signs of the turning year.

Immature Hazel Catkins
Viburnum bodnantense flowering

The Tulip tree by the Rose Garden was full of its weird cone-like fruit.

Across the lawn is a splendid Cedar of Lebanon. A fallen branch showed off the even-length needles, the pointy cones and the odd remains of a mature cone, looking like a small candle, with just the base and central pillar remaining, all the seed scales having flaked off.

We lunched by the River Dee. One Cormorant flew over the water, but we were soon surrounded by Black-headed Gulls, all on the lookout for scraps.  Many had blue Darvic rings, and we were able to note six of them – 2B82, 261A, 285A, 295H, 296H, 297H,

In the evening I reported them on the website of the Waterbird colour-marking Group which returns all the previous sightings immediately. This group were ringed at Chester between February 2021 and December 2022. All previous sightings had been in Chester, although they were all missing every summer, presumably returning to their breeding grounds. We have in the past found BHGs at Chester which had been reported in Norway or Poland in the summer, but nobody has reported any of these recently-ringed birds anywhere other than Chester.

We went a different way after lunch. Over Queens Park Bridge to the Welsh side. The path there is called Salmon Leap.  It overlooks the weir and what appears to be an old water wheel. Apparently there is a Salmon fish trap in the adjacent little building, which is used and monitored at some times of the year, and the scientists reckon about 4000 Salmon a year go up the Dee, mostly quite small ones.

Just south of the Old Dee Bridge is a little green area called Edgar’s Field Park, named after Edgar the Peaceful, Saxon King of Wessex and All England, 943-975, nephew of Athelstan and older half-brother of Ethelred the Unready. He is said to have had a palace on this site. Long before him, the site was a quarry where the Romans cut the sandstone to build the fortress of Deva. There is a surviving shrine to Minerva, the patron goddess of quarrymen, carved into a rock face. She is standing within a stylised temple and holds a spear in her right hand and possibly a shield in her left. An owl is perched on her left shoulder and an altar is shown to her right.

We returned to the station via Bridge Street, passing the Grade II* listed King’s Head pub. It looks like a portrait of Charles I on the pub sign, a king who famously lost his. The building is prominently dated 1622, but it is said to have been re-built at that date on 13th century foundations.  It claims to be multiply haunted and does a thriving trade in “Haunted Hotel” tours.

Public transport details: Train from Central at 10.15, arriving Chester 10.55. Returned on 2.30 train, arriving Liverpool 3.15.

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Redbubble Puffin Art

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Redbubble British Wildlife Art

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