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PMcS 2006




Hawthorn blossom - 'may'

This month look for:

Birds nesting
Song birds singing - the 'dawn chorus'
Butterflies, dragonflies and damsel flies emerging
Trees and hedgerows in flower
Woodland flowers
Meadow flowers, including orchids

The month of May is a wonderful time to see wildlife.  Our summer migrants are here and their songs are mixed in with the residents.  Summer specialities such as nightingale, cuckoo, swifts and swallows bring a special edge to wildlife watching.  Warblers fill the woodlands and hedgerows and the sea cliffs clammer with breeding birds fighting for their own little space.  In the gardens and parks blue tits, great tits, robins, blackbirds and song thrushes lead a frantic life seeking food for the insatiable appetite of their young.  After one or two broods the blue tits particularly look frazzled.

bluebells on an open hillside

Many of the trees and hedgerow shrubs were breaking into leaf by the middle of April and are now festooned with bright, fresh almost iridescent young leaves.  The blackthorn flowers are over and have turned brown, but the hawthorn flowers (or 'may') provides breathtaking white ribbons crisscrossing the countryside and lining even the most uninspiring roads.  Towards to end of the month the elder also flowers with big odorous saucers of tiny flowers.  The young oak leaves start off brown and then turn light green and only later take on a darker green hue.  The ash is one of the last to break into leaf.  Its mat black hard casings eventually split to reveal the new expanding growth below.  The ash will be one of the first to lose its leaves too, but in May such thoughts of Autumn seem a long way off.


 ivy-leaved toadflax

yellow rattle

The spring flush of grass growth is already over.  On the meadows that have escaped modern intensification, the diversity of flowers and grasses provides a spectacular show.  Yellow rattle, dandelions, buttercups species, meadow vetch and oxeye daisy are sometimes joined by common spotted orchids.  On the downland, where floral diversity is at its best in the countryside, the colours and scents are complimented at the end of the month by the brilliance and beauty of the some of the early blue butterfly species feeding amongst the flowers.

Habitats and species
Parks and gardens: Gardens are blooming and some fledglings are already leaving nests.  However in the main the adults are gathering, worms, caterpillars, and even green fly in lean years, for their young.

Woodlands (including wood pasture): The woodland flora is at its best in late April and early May, and the woodland floor is awash with bluebell flowers.  In the damper woodlands these are often mixed in with, or replaced by, the white flowers and pungent wide leaves of the ramsons.  Ramsons give off a powerful garlic smell when crushed under foot and are often called wild garlic.

The canopy will soon close over and darkness descend onto the woodland once more.  Then the birds will fall silent having staked their claims, nurtured their young and fledglings flown the nest.  In May however activity is happening everywhere.  Look out for hole nesting greater spotted woodpeckers (who you may hear drumming) and whose old nests are adopted by birds such as tits, red starts and starlings.

The woodland bird song is at its peak in May from the gentle warble of the turtle dove to the explosive songs of the blackcaps, garden warblers and wrens.

Arable and hedgerows: In some arable field edges the first poppies show off their red faces. Their petals are paper thin and fall off almost immediately if picked.  Poppies are no longer so prevalent in arable landscapes, as they must have once been, now that farmers are so thorough with their herbicides.  Just occasionally a field is missed for some reason and a scarlet steak of poppies can be seen from miles away.
Road verges: Cow parsley is now profuse in the hedgerows with its white umbellifer flowers festooning many road verges.  It competes with false oat grass, white dead nettle, broad-leaved dock, nettle, jack-by-the-hedge and cleavers for space.  Red campion and greater stitchwort replace the early spring flowers.  On dry stone walls the fleshy round wall pennywort leaves mix with flowers of the ivy-leaved toadflax, which resemble miniature mauve snapdragons flowers.

red campion


unfurling fern

Ferns have started to elegantly unfurl their fronds - as process known as 'circinate venation'.

Chalk and limestone grasslands: The downlands and the limestone grasslands are at there best in May, June and July.  The colours of the flower start off largely yellow and move through to reds, mauves and purples.
Meadows (neutral) and flood plain grasslands: May and June are the best times to sees meadow flowers before the hay is made in July.  The wet fringes of meadows often play host to horsetail, pennywort and ragged robin.
Acidic grasslands:
Heathlands: The heaths are now awash with yellow gorse. In the pools dragonflies dart backwards and forwards, some aggressively protecting their territories and some on a hunting mission.  They can become prey to the ultra fast hobby.

Birds of the heathlands such as whinchats and stonechats clack from bush tops, showing off their bright orange colouration.  Form the silver birches tree pipits make their song sorties, descending with a high pitched piew-piew-piew.

In wet hollows the fly catching sundews shine like red pearls - but they have a murderous secret.  Their sticky hairs are not to feed but to catch insects.  Once caught the plant digests them to make up for the low nutrients in the soil.


Cotton-grass (which is actually a sedge) spreads along hollows and with its white fluffy 'flowers' dangling from its stems.

Some heathlands are home to the rare nightjar.  Its wide gape is used at dusk to sweep for moths and other night flying insects as it scythes through the air.  It is most likely to be heard, with its charring call cutting through the still night air, before it is seen.

Mountain and Moorlands (uplands):
Rivers and ponds (including bogs and mires): In May the short lived adult mayfly emerges only to mate and then die after 24 hours.  It is not for nothing that their latin name is based on the word ephemeral!  The nymph stage lives for a year and needs clean water.  Mayflies are an important food source for many fish.

Water crowfoot thrives in the clear streams forming an important waving its white flowers and filamentous green leaves in the rushing current.  It provides shelter for many insects. The golden yellow flowers of the bold marsh marigold form large clumps crowning the fleshy leaves at the rivers edge and where the ground is damp.

Sea and the sea shore (including estuaries):
Mammals: As the insect population has now increased bats are out in force swooping through the air using their sonic location equipment to hunt them out.

In gardens strange noises emerging in the night may well be mating hedgehogs.  It is hard not to recall the old joke: 'how do hedgehogs mate'...'carefully!'.

Birds: Woodlands, hedgerows, heathlands, wetlands and sea cliffs provide perhaps the best bird watching at this time of year.  You may be lucky enough to find broken eggs shells on lawns.  These may have not been predated but are likely to have been shells ejected from local nests.  The adult bird will take the shell, once the nestling has hatched, some distance away from the nest in order not to attract predators.
Amphibians & Reptiles:
Insects: Insects start to make a big impact this month, quite literally.  If you hear a thump against the outside of a window it may well be a cockchafer beetle.  This is one of our largest beetles and the brown, slightly fury adult appears in May, and heads towards street lights and lit windows in search of a mate.  The pupae live for two years as plump 'c' shaped larva in the soil and form an important food source for rooks and crows.

By mid May dragon and damselflies have started to emerge and quickly go about breeding.  The adult damselflies bind themselves together whilst the eggs are laid on submerged wetland plant leaves.  Some dragonflies are fiercely territorial and you can often witness spectacular aerial clashes between one male and another.  However they need to take care as hobbys are now in Britain and with their super fast flight can easily hunt down these impressive insects.


female southern damselfly


The important mayfly group of insects also emerge in May, as their name suggests.  Mayflies only live in clean fast flowing steams where water crow-foot can be found.  For this reason they are a good biological indicator of a clean environment.

Amongst the insects that have already emerged are some of the blue butterflies such as adonis, chalkhill and the common blue.  Common blues feed on the flowers of the pea species, but the adults only have a short three week life span.  However as there are upto three generations in one year you get a number of chances to see this beautiful insect.

male common blue butterfly

Plants: During May we go from only a hand full of flowers, largely in woodlands and hedgerows, to an explosion of flowering species.


All images and text are copyright PMcS 2006