Nature Diary May


It is impossible to capture all of the intensive wildlife activity that this month has to offer, even if you spend all day, every day outdoors in May.

PLANTS
This is the month for classic displays of bluebell woods although they are becoming harder to find, (thousands of wild flowers are illegally harvested each year and sold through garden centres), but here are a selection of sites to visit:

  • Castle Eden Dene near Peterlee (NZ428392), postcode SR8 1NJ
  • Saltwells Wood near Dudley (SO931870), map
  • Bradfield Woods, Suffolk (TL934575), postcode IP30 0AQ
  • Kiln Wood, Kent (TQ525202), map
  • Ebbor Gorge, Somerset (ST528488), map

Take care when walking among them and remember that we are hosts to most of the world's population of this flower. They are indicators of ancient woodland, and may hang on in old hedges long after the wood behind has disappeared.

Keep your eyes open as you explore any woodland floor. It is at this time (immediately before the tree canopy begins to dominate) that a lot of flowers (not just bluebells) have a chance to grow, flower and attract pollinating insects. We're talking about plants such as wild garlic (ramsons) and the first of the woodland orchids - early purple. Also take this opportunity to capture the blooms that will now be coming to the end of their season, such as primrose and dog's mercury. Try to show massive spreads of flowers by making the most of the unusual perspective wide-angle lenses produce, but also take the time to get in really close with a macro lens on smaller flowers as often the delight is in the detail.

The hawthorn is Britain's most popular hedging tree and it is now in full flower, bearing testimony to its other name of The May-tree.

Take the effort to check out holly trees. The red berries are usually associated with Christmas-time but the delicate flowers that produce them are now showing at their best. Remember to look at more than one tree to find male and female examples. And note your female finds for winter photography, as these are the flowers that produce the stunning red berries.

MAMMALS
Hedgehogs are now in a romantic mood and begin mating. This is not a quiet pastime and they can be heard snuffling and grunting as they go about their business.

Red deer begin to look bleached as their coats start to moult. However, the first calves are now beginning to be born. They will remain stationary, relying on their camouflage for protection. This behaviour can be used to ensure good photographs (providing you can spot them) but approaching too close will cause them to become stressed.

Water voles have had a catastrophic decline in numbers over the past 30 years or so, yet paradoxically, a busy day in May could be the ideal time to seek then out. By choosing a popular spot where a stream flows through a country village try looking for their star-shaped tracks. The chances are that any voles around will be well used to seeing people, and will happily busy themselves in broad daylight. They love willow leaves and apples, so these may also help to pin down likely places. It could also be well worth checking out any local nature reserves that contain water features.

BIRDS
Mallard ducklings will have their first experiences of being on the water. These fluffy chicks are a photographer's dream with a cutie rating of 10/10. Staying close to mum they can be highly mobile and present quiet a challenge.

Many birds will be nesting by now and trying to photograph them may cause unacceptable levels of disturbance at this critical time. However there are places where nesting birds can be seen and photographed responsibly, such as the Farne Isles in Northumbria (NU217358) map where over a dozen species of seabird breed.

House Sparrows were once common but are becoming harder to find with each passing year. Nesting birds are now gathering together in small colonies of typically ten to twenty pairs. Not only do males and females pair for life but they will use the same nest site over and over again. So, if you spot a nesting site one year you can always take the time to plan your unobtrusive photography for the next.

Across the North York Moors and in rough fields everywhere tiny bundles of fluff with legs attached will begin moving around. These are lapwing chicks. If you spot one while you have your camera handy keep your eye on it, as their camouflage is incredibly effective. Use a long lens so that you don't need to approach too close. Initially the parents will "dive-bomb" you even when you are some way off. If they begin to display their classic broken wing behaviour it's time to back off and leave them alone.

Young starlings are now out of the nest and noisily harassing their parents. Families will often gather in rowdy flocks in parks and meadows. With the youngsters constantly demanding food and busily chasing their parents, either on foot or on the wing, there is ample opportunity for taking behaviour photographs.

Just about now whitethroat will be arriving from Africa and beginning to proclaim their territories around farms and on commons. Look for patches of gorse, brambles and small hawthorns when searching for your photographic subjects. Keep your eyes and ears open as males looking for mates will be singing almost continuously and will occasionally launch themselves many metres into the air. They're not called 'singing skyrockets' without good reason.

INSECTS
Pond explorations will now begin to reveal colourful mayflies and dragonflies. Just like butterflies these are best photographed with natural light while roosting. You will need a tripod, close-up filters/extension tubes/macro lens and a reflector for the best results. Anything more than a slight wind will make sharp photographs almost impossible without resorting to flash.

Hoverflies get going very early, visiting flowers such as blackthorn and sallow. There are about 250 species in Britain, just less than half of which are aphid predators, the remainder feed on a variety of foods from dung through rotting wood to plants. You are most likely to get photographs of males as they occasionally hover stock-still in a shaft of sunlight, patrolling their territories. Their wings beat at a ferocious rate so the challenge is to get a shot that actually shows them to be winged insects.

OTHER
Look out for the curious and often elusive vernal fungi known as the morels. There are several related species as well as some look-a-like false morels. An added bonus is that they are easy to identify with the aid of a good field guide. They can be seen across Britain in a variety of habitats such as path sides, banks in broadleaved woodland, grassland, parkland, gardens, car parks, wastelands and cemeteries.



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The Locations: Where grid references are given they are based on the Ordnance Survey Landranger Grid.
You can use these references at streetmap.co.uk to view a map showing the exact location.