The month of May is full of delights in the natural world, as birds and animals settle down to breeding, trees and plants come into leaf, and butterflies abound on a sunny day. There is much to see.
By May the later migrant birds should have arrived in Somerset. These include the swift, cuckoo and nightingale. Sadly these three species are much rarer than formerly, and there are a number of research projects attempting to understand more fully the reasons for their decline. However, there are good numbers of swifts in Somerset villages and towns where the older buildings provide nesting sites. Modern buildings do not generally offer the gaps in roofing tiles, or holes in walls that swifts need, and this may be responsible for their decline here. If you are able to put up a swift nesting box this will help to keep the population numbers up. Once established, they are likely to return annually. There are few sights to compare with a gang of swifts zooming around their home territory, their screaming call ringing out.
The decline in cuckoos is also cause for concern, but there are reasonable numbers on the levels, preying on reed warblers, pipits and dunnocks to host their young. We all recognise the call of the male when we hear it, but if you are lucky enough to spot one, you will see a rather strange bird, a bit like a slimmed down sparrowhawk, grey with long tail, striped breast, hooked beak and odd round orange eyes with yellow rim. The sound of the female is less well know, being a bubbling melodic call. The cuckoo has a characteristic habit of dropping the wings and erecting the tail when perched. Cuckoos have featured in mythology for thousands of years, due to their strange behaviour and appearance, and a great number of quirky legends have been attributed to them.
Nightingales have disappeared from many areas in the UK, probably to due to habitat loss and change in agricultural practices. Generally acknowledged as our best songster, they are a fairly plain brown bird a little bigger than a robin. It is the males that sing, and they are just as likely to sing during the day as night, and will do this from the heart of an impenetrable thicket. They are therefore more often heard than seen. Their song is at its best during May, and the loud warbling song is unique and unforgettable.
The hobby is a small migratory falcon, much like a small peregrine. Happily the hobby is holding its own, and large numbers of them arrive on the levels in early May. Initially they stay to feed after their migration from Africa, and then most will disperse throughout the country, a few pairs will stay to breed. The hobby is very partial to dragonflies, which it catches and eats on the wing, of which there is a plentiful supply as the nymphs hatch in the reed beds. You may find the nymph casing attached to a reed stalk once the dragonfly has emerged. Hobbies are swift and graceful in the air, and it is a breathtaking sight to see them hunting over the reed beds.
The next few weeks are the best time to hear the dawn chorus, whereby birds compete with each other at the start of the day. They are establishing breeding territories and attracting mates. Ideally heard just before dawn, so an early start of 05.00AM is recommended in May. It is also the best way to hear what is about, and a chance to hear if the cuckoos or nightingales are present in the area.
SWT Aller and Beer Woods
This is a lovely place for a spring walk, mature oak and ash trees provide the canopy for this reserve, below which dog's mercury covers the ground, with bluebells, violets and wood anemone. The loud cackle of green woodpeckers will be heard, great spotted woodpeckers drumming on a dead tree, along with nuthatches whistling from the oaks. The striking black and white pied flycatchers make their home here. The silver washed fritillary butterfly can be seen, along with the rare white admiral. There is a huge badger sett here, so you may see a badger on a warm evening, as long as you are quiet, and downwind, as they have a very keen sense of smell.
Silver-washed Fritillary © Wikipedia
Common Blue butterflies