What to Look for in Nature – June
Welcome to Summer! Not only does June include Midsummer’s Day, the point of the year when day-length is at its longest, but is also the peak time for wildlife activity.
Across the country, wildflowers are blooming, insects are buzzing, birds are nesting and young animals are growing fast. Any creatures that hibernated for the winter are back to full action by now, and our summer migrants have all arrived and settled in. With so much going on, June is an exciting month, but it can seem hard to know where to look first…so here are a few highlights you might want to look (and listen!) out for.
A brave new world
By June, we start to see the first young fledging birds in our gardens and parks. Birds such as Robins, Blackbirds, Starlings, House Sparrows and the Tits are all likely to have young in the nest by now, and many will be ready to take their first flights. It must be rather a leap of faith – good job they only have to rely on instinct! In the nest, baby birds are vulnerable – the sounds of calling to the adults and the smell of the nest could attract predators – so they want to leave as soon as possible. This means that the fledglings of many of our familiar garden birds are not perfectly equipped for flight when they first hop out, and it can take a few days of hopping and fluttering around before they learn how to use their wings fully. If you find a baby bird on the ground, the best thing to do is to leave it well alone. If there is immediate danger, such as cats or traffic, gently move the bird to a safer spot close by. The adults will be nearby, and returning regularly to feed it.
Nature’s colour pallet
After the yellows of early spring and the blues and whites of April & May, the overall hue of the countryside’s wildflowers takes of a distinctly pink shade from June. Wild Roses, Orchids, Campion, Foxgloves, Vetches and Cranesbills are now taking centre stage. Joining the throng are the bright white Oxeye Daisies, tufty Clover flowers beloved by bees, and the rambling scented blooms of the Wild Woodbine or Honeysuckle.
There are some great guides online to help you identify the wildflowers you see, such as these from PlantLife.org.uk
You’ll often find field guides to wildflowers (and other useful books on wildlife) in charity shops or bookstores, or why not pay a visit to your local library for some wild reading!
Here lurk beasts!
Lucking in the undergrowth of our woods and parks are some truly impressive beasts! Our largest native beetle, measuring up to 7.5 cm long, these insects are easily recognised. I am of course talking about the Stag Beetle. Their hard wing cases are a shiny black-brown, and the males of the species have a formidable set of ‘antlers’. Although these look like pincers, they are actually used for wrestling with other males in battles of territory and females. Stag beetles are only on the wing for a few short weeks in summer, but spend many years in their larval form! The beetles start off life inside rotting wood such as old tree stumps, with the female sometimes burying down half a metre below the soil to lay her eggs. The larvae then feed on the wood, for up to 7 years, growing to a whopping 11cm long, before pupating and emerging the next summer as the adult beetles. Stag beetles inhabit woodlands and orchards, gardens and parks, even in urban areas and can be found all across the UK. Unfortunately they get more rare the further north and east you go, and are entirely absent from Ireland (sorry folks!), so your best bet is the South East of England.
June is the ideal time to look for Stag Beetles, although they can start appearing from mid-May. Look for them in areas with lots of dead wood, at dusk, on warm and humid days. Your first clue might be a loud whirring sound as one flies past and clatters clumsily amongst the leaves. Stag beetles are a rare and declining species, partly due to our tendency to tidy away any dead wood from our gardens. Leaving tree stumps in place, or burying logs on end in a quiet corner of the garden, is a great way to create extra habitats for these fabulous creatures. If you are lucky enough to see a Stag beetle, you can report your sighting here: PTES Great Stag Hunt, and help conservation scientists monitor their populations and distribution.
Something rare and special
One of my favourite habitats to visit in June is the Lowland Heathland near my home patch in West Sussex. This is a rare habitat, home to some extra special species. By day I sit amongst the short heather, entranced by dancing fairies. In reality, I’m actually watching Silver Studded Blue butterflies, a heathland specialist and my favourite of all the butterflies. It was an encounter with Silver Studded Blues which kick-started my passion for conservation, over a decade ago. Tiny and delicate, with a fascinating ecology, these dainty insects are beautiful and complex. Roosting communally amongst the heather, Silver Studded Blues live in close knit colonies, rarely traveling far or flying high. On cooler days they perch quietly in the heather, and laying down I approach at eye level, to marvel at the minute detail of their markings. The thin legs are striped black and white, like the butterfly is wearing long over-the-knee socks, whist the undersides of the wings are decorated with orange sequins. A silvered dusting highlights the baby-blue upper-wing of the males. The caterpillars are equally curious; feeding on the tender shoots of young Bell Heather and striking up a particularly fascinating relationship with a species of black ant that shares the butterfly’s habitat. The ants guard the caterpillar, which then pupates within the ants’ nest, only to be escorted back above ground by an entourage of ants when it emerges as an adult.
As darkness falls, the butterflies seem to vanish into the heather, but if you linger a little longer, an eerie sound will reverberate across the dusk-shadowed landscape. Summer nights on the heathland are haunted by a strange ‘churring’ call, and a mysterious creature revealed by short looping flights and flashes of white. It is of course the Nightjar, a summer migrant and another heathland specialist. These nocturnal birds feed on insects, cruising through the evening air, collecting beak-fulls of moths and midges. The males indulge in display flights, advertising their whereabouts and territorial claim by clapping their wings together or flashing white patches of feathers on their wings. A dead tree branch provides the perfect perch from which to sing their strange unearthly calls.
*Please note that nightjars are one of several species of birds that nest on the ground. Please keep dogs to the path, and watch your step to avoid disturbance. Thank you.
(I feature a couple of my favourite heathland wildlife species in my column in the June edition of New Nature magazine)
Check out: 30 Days Wild
If you’re still reading this far down this blog post, I guess you are pretty interested in wildlife and nature! But how ‘wild’ are you? We often hear about the benefit of contact with nature on our wellbeing, and this month there is the perfect excuse to test that theory! Have you heard about #30DaysWild? 30 Days Wild is a campaign run by The Wildlife Trusts, encouraging everyone to let nature into their lives. The challenge is to do something ‘wild’, however small, every day for the whole month of June. It’s not to late to join in! The project has been running for a few years, and a fabulous community of like-minded people has built up around it, with the help of social media. People of all ages, backgrounds, lifestyles and knowledge levels come together via the 30DaysWild Facebook page, to swop ideas, inspire, collaborate, ask for advice or simply show off! Why don’t you come along and join in?
What’s on my June ‘Bucket List’?
One experience I have not yet had, that I hear is at its ultimate best in June, is a seabird colony. Visits to the coast are few and far between; I tend to haunt the drovers’ tracks and Wealden woods of the western South Downs, wandering field headlands rather than tidelines. When I do head to the coast, it is usually in winter, when the thrill of a deserted windblown beach is a refreshing adventure too good to miss. I hope one summer soon, I will get the opportunity to head north, or west, and visit wild coastal cliffs and islands. These marine fortresses are home to vast numbers of seabirds, communal breeding sites where birds have returned for centuries. Gannets, gulls, and auks, arrange themselves in tiered levels, like high-rise tower blocks: every ledge and shelf, supporting a bird and its precious eggs. I am told that the sight, the sound, and indeed the smell, is an incredible experience!
June is undoubtedly the month to always carry a field guide, a camera and a notebook – whether its flowers or butterflies along the grass verges, bees or fledglings in your garden, reptiles on the common or even rock pool creatures at the seaside, wherever you go there will be something fabulous to see!