Chris Chappell urges you to indulge yourself in the great variety of good things on offer in the countryside in May.
Spring has arrived at last, and along with it there is a great deal of activity in the natural world. Across the Levels, cuckoos are now calling, as the males look for a mate. Reed warblers, a favourite target of the cuckoo, chatter loudly in the reed beds, as the cuckoo watches from a nearby tree, waiting for a chance to deliver an oversize egg. Bitterns are calling from the reed beds with the distinctive boom, as the males try to attract the attention of a female. The woods resound with the calls of willow warblers, chiffchaffs and blackcaps, while ferns unfurl from the ground below, poking through a carpet of bluebells.
Swifts and house martins have arrived in the towns and villages, and will soon return to their nest sites. Swifts don't build nests as such, they will just use a convenient niche under a loose tile. The house martins build their nests of mud under the eaves of houses, sometimes renovating an old nest, sometimes starting anew. The house martins sometimes return to find sparrows have moved in, always the opportunist. Swallows are principally farmland birds, often known as barn swallows, choosing to nest in barns or outbuildings. They build a rather small nest of mud and grass. However, they will of course nest in porches and garden sheds when they can, not always in the most convenient place.
Butterflies abound on sunny days, peacock, brimstone, orange tip, comma and speckled wood will all be seen. Now there are some flowers to feed on, they will flourish and start to breed, laying their eggs on the foliage, which will soon hatch as caterpillars.
This is the best time to hear the dawn chorus. The birds start to sing just before daybreak, so you will need to set your alarm. An early start will be well rewarded with the bird song ringing throughout the woods as numerous species compete for attention. It is an experience you will always remember. Song thrushes call from the top of a tree, their loud call consisting of short phrases repeated two or three times. You may hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker, as it claims its territory by hammering on a hollow trunk. The loud cackle of a green woodpecker, or yaffle, will echo through the oak trees.
All this to a background of tits, warblers, finches noisily chiming in. Robins, dunnocks and the boisterous little wren will also join in. If you are very lucky you may hear a nightingale, with its unmistakeable warbling and trilling call, their song is not restricted to the night time. However, this now rather rare bird is at the western limit of its territory. The nightingale is a fairly undistinguished brown bird a little bigger than a robin, more heard than seen, as they like to sing from a dense copse.
The hobby is one of the special summer visitors to the Somerset Levels. It is a small migratory falcon, much like a small peregrine. Happily the hobby is holding its own, and large numbers of them arrive in late April /early May. Initially they stay in the area 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. Hobbies are swift and graceful in the air, and it is a breathtaking sight to see them hunting over the reed beds. They have a distinctive moustache with white bib, curved wings, and rapid darting flight.
Spring plants and flowers
May blossom is the flower of hawthorn and is now coming in bloom, lighting up the hedges and hillsides. The woods are full of the spikes of cuckoo pint, or wild arum, also known as lords and ladies. This strange plant will produce bright red berries later in the year, but is generally thought poisonous and best not handled. Wild clematis is starting to creep along the hedgerows. Yellow rattle, oxeye daisy, buttercups and spotted orchid will be seen in meadows that have escaped modern farming methods. Long Wood (just north of Cheddar) is the Trust's oldest reserve and there should be a good display of bluebells around mid May this year. While in the area you can also visit the adjacent reserves of Black Rock, Velvet Bottom and Ubley Warren, which between them have too many attractions to list, but boast snakes and lizards, and some rare bird and plant species. Plan a day out with the help of your SWT Nature Reserves Guide.
This is another 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. And a good spot to make your early trip for the dawn chorus, with a chance of hearing nightingale and pied flycatcher. Look out for silver washed fritillary and white admiral, rare an d beautiful butterflies.
Male Reed Bunting
Young Slow Worms