Marvellous May. Certainly one of my favourite months of the year, and the month that usually forms the bridge from spring into summer. True summer is a few weeks off yet, coming around the summer solstice in mid-June, but May gives us a glimpse of those deliciously scented, warm sunny days that enchant us.
This is the month when the initial burst of spring matures into an overflowing of exuberance; swathes and froths of flowers replace the early brave stars. Nature’s colour pallet alters too, from the golden yellows that sparked in the grey gloom of the earlier months, to cloud-like whites that line the lane-sides.
Cow Parsley, Stitchwort, Garlic Mustard (Jack-by-the-Hedge is another name for this plant) and Wild Garlic are all white flowers in bloom now around my West Sussex home. Above these plants of banks and ditches, are the hedgerow blossoms. First is the Hawthorn, also known as ‘May blossom’. Step up close to a Hawthorn in flower (watch out for the thorns!) and take a deep breath… can you smell Christmas? The creamy white clusters of flowers carry the scent of sweet almonds, which always reminds me of marzipan, making me think of Christmas in May! Later in the month, around the last week of May here in the South East but possibly later further north, the Elder replaces the Hawthorn blossom. Elder flowers are of course famously used to make elderflower cordial and even wine, but spare a thought for wildlife and don’t pick too many. Like the Hawthorn flowers, the elderflowers will form berries in the autumn, which are a vital source of food for birds.
Undoubtedly the most famous flower of May is the Bluebell. A carpet of blue across a dappled woodland floor, beneath the freshest acid green of the tree’s new leaves, is possibly one of the most magical sights on a British spring. (*Sorry to nag, but just a serious word quickly – please be considerate when exploring bluebell woods and remember many other people will come to enjoy the spectacle. Keep to the paths, including dogs and children, to avoid trampling the flowers.)
Whilst you are enjoying the explosion of green leaves and beautiful flowers this month, tune in your other senses too and listen out for birds. Our summer visitors come pouring in now and immediately get busy setting up territories and finding mates. Birdsong, especially the dawn chorus is reaching its peak, and well worth getting up a little earlier to hear. The newest arrivals include blackcaps and whitethroats, which have scratchy warbling songs, the cuckoo that is said to be a sure sign of summer coming, and the beautiful Nightingale. Nightingales are disappearing from our countryside due to habitat destruction and dangers on migration, so you might have to make a special trip to a nature reserve to hear one. The RSPB and many local Wildlife Trusts run guided walks and events to help you hear these magical birds that have inspired poets and musicians for centuries.
Cuckoos and Nightingales are certainly rural birds, but there are incredible species dwelling alongside us in our urban areas too. The aptly named Swift is one of my favourite birds, and for the first two weeks of May I spend a lot of time looking up at the sky, hoping to catch my first glimpse of the year of these aerial specialists. A dark bird, with sharply swept-back sickle-shaped wings, the Swift is a master of the art of daring high-speed mid-air gymnastics.They career down streets and around buildings in screeching gangs, with complete command of their element.
Swifts nest in the cavities of our buildings, often under roof-tiles and boarding, or these days, often in specially designed nest boxes. They must have been nesting around the historic market town I call home for generations. This year I am still waiting to welcome them back, and I fear the number of nesting places available is depleted year on year as buildings are replaced, renovated or changed.
One unexpected bird that is thriving in our towns and cities, also comes here to nest, but this one is resident all year round; the Peregrine Falcon. Peregrines hold the record for fastest creature on the planet, able to reach speed of up to 200miles-per-hour in a steep dive when hunting. Having almost vanished from our countryside 20 years ago, due to persecution and pesticide poisoning, these birds of prey found a refuge in our cities and have made a remarkable recovery. Birds, caught in mid-flight, make up the majority of a Peregrine Falcons diet. Plenty of street pigeons and smaller gull species help to feed hungry Peregrine chicks high up on the rooftops of tower blocks, hospital buildings and cathedrals at this time of year! It is thought that the slightly warmer temperature of the city helps these birds as it creates thermals they like to use for energy efficient soaring flight, along with street-lighting providing 24hour hunting opportunities. One of the earliest pairs of Peregrines to take up an urban lifestyle, set up home on the cathedral of my nearest large town, Chichester, near the south coast. A pair continues to nest there each year, and, thanks to a live webcam fixed on the nest, you can follow their lives on an intimate day-today basis.
Tales of the Riverbank
My favourite place to go on a warm sun-filled day in late May, is down to the river. The green of willow trees and riverside vegetation seems particularly verdant and lush, and is often studded with beautiful wildflowers.
In May, the river comes alive with birds. Ducks, Moorhens, Coots and other waterfowl can be seen with young, paddling about in calm waters. Sit quietly and be patient, and if you are very lucky you might see Kingfishers diving for fish, to feed their nestlings secreted away at the end of a long tunnel in the riverbank. Water Voles are easiest to see before the vegetation grows to high and dense, look out for the rounded face and furred tail that tells them apart from the Brown Rat! On very warm days, the first damselflies and dragonflies take to the wing, or you might witness the mass emergence of dainty Mayflies in a glistening, light-catching, dancing cloud rising up from the water.
Wildlife uses rivers and canals as ‘green corridors’ to navigate, and as many of our waterways are benefiting from improving water quality, exciting species you might not expect are using these blue ‘arteries’ to access our cities. So wherever you live, the river is the place to be!
Top tips for May
- Keep feeding garden birds. There is now plenty of natural food to be found in our hedgerows and woodlands thanks to an insect baby-boom, but keeping a small amount of food on offer in your garden will be valued by hungry adult birds who need a quick ‘pit-stop’ as they are busy raising chicks.
- Sow seeds or plant up some pots of flowers to bring colour to your garden, and attract bees and butterflies all summer long.
- Please avoid cutting hedges until late summer or early autumn now, as birds will be nesting. The undergrowth below hedges and shrubberies may also be used by hedgehogs to nest, so best to put away that strimmer!