The Grey Seal colony across Morecambe Bay has seen pupping recently, and a couple of youngsters have been spotted pausing to rest on the beaches of Blackpool. In his monthly nature guide, Stephen Dunstan tells you what to do if you spot one and tells us what else to look out for on our beaches and green spaces in February. Main photo: Lee Rawcliffe.

The first spring migrant birds to reach Blackpool appear in March. Striking Wheatear appear on the Promenade, Chiffchaff sing from trees across the town and the more generally familiar Sand Martin hawk insects over Marton Mere.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. Some species that are perceived to be resident actually begin to migrate through the town, as part of the population comes back from climes further south. One of the most striking of these for a number of reasons is the Stonechat.

Stonechat (Creative Commons)

Firstly the Stonechat is a bonny bird. This may not be a popular view but the male in particular is rather like a souped-up model of the familiar Robin with a more extensive red chest and a vicar like white ‘dog collar’. Secondly the Stonechat is an approachable bird. It’s possible to get close enough to see the key features on them without binoculars. Thirdly they draw attention to themselves, perched on gorse bushes (it’s invariably gorse bushes) making the sound like pebbles being banged together that gives their name. More people should know about Stonechats than actually do, they are a well-kept secret.

And at this time of year they are conspicuous. As they pass through on their way to other areas, particularly inland fells they often desert in winter, they can be seen in more places than usual. Although they are quite dependent on gorse they can be fairly cosmopolitan during this time of movement, with singles or pairs turning up in potentially any relatively undeveloped green space in the town.

If you don’t get lucky this month there are still other opportunities to see Stonechats in the town or not too far away. A pair usually nest at Lytham St Annes Nature Reserve, which despite the name adjoins the airport just beyond Starr Gate. Others can be seen at Rossall School and Rossall Point in Fleetwood, and around Fairhaven Lake.

Sea potatoes! (Steve Daniels, Creative Commons)

Given there are storms forecast at least early in the month there should be interesting nature experiences to be had down on the beach too. Strong winds can lead to a lot of marine life washed up. Starfish wrecks can occur, razor shells similarly and even urchins can litter the strandline. The most common sea urchins in the Irish Sea are known perhaps unflatteringly as Sea Potatoes. I was down at Starr Gate today for the national Wintering Gull Survey and there were thousands of their distinctive white tests (skeletons) in a short stretch.

On the subject of wintering gulls it may seem strange to say but it’s the best time of year to see big numbers of seagulls on our shores. Of course the narrative is that these ‘flying rats’ are increasing and out of control, whereas the reality is that they are declining and on the amber list of species of conservation concern. In winter though, a bit like the Starlings of murmuration fame, numbers are swelled by an influx from the continent. here are also a couple of species that wander from further north, Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull, though with climate change they are coming south less often than they used to. If you do get close enough to any ringed gulls to note the code do send details in (via Blackpool Social Club if you prefer). Here is an example Herring Gull that was at the waste transfer station in Mereside today.

The Grey Seal colony across Morecambe Bay has seen pupping recently, and a couple of youngsters have attracted media attention by pausing to rest on the beaches of Blackpool. There may be further sightings like this, in which case obtain appropriate advice and try not to stress the pup, but on calm days adults should also be visible offshore as well as Harbour Porpoises briefly breaching the surface with their dorsal fins.

February sees large numbers of Pink-footed Geese on the estuaries either side of us, as birds that went to East Anglia return to augment the ones that have stayed all winter. It is undoubtedly the best month of the year to pick out visitors among them, but it’s also fair to say that a telescope and some prior experience goes a long way in this aspect of birding. One species that can be picked out relatively easily is the Barnacle Goose. As I think I’ve explained in my Nature Almanac before the situation with Barnacles Geese on the Fylde is a strange one. We have a feral population that roams between Blackpool Zoo and Staining, which people think is increasing when it’s actually in decline due to predation by urban nesting (but also declining) gulls. The birds that appear with Pinkfeet are probably wild birds that have just got lost and picked up with another wild goose flock. They are beautiful birds irrespective of their origin.

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  • Show Comments (1)

  • Toy Rutherford

    I’m amazed by the clarity and thoroughness of this article, well done.

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