Throughout 2010 I am revisiting the little green nature book that accompanied my childhood and seeing if I can still spot the plants and animals featured in its monthly sketchbook pages.
The book is “Wild Life Through the Year” by Richard Morse and it was published in 1942. You can read about earlier months here.
Trying to tick off some of the 12 items a month featured in the sketchbook is giving me a certain focus as I look around at nature in the city, although there are some I am never going to spot. For example, the two birds featured this month are both now endangered species in the UK.
May in South Wales in 2010 began as a colder, more showery month than April, built up to a mini heat wave and ended with much-needed rain.
It has been the month when the weeds finally came to a head – my favourite ones are featured in a blog post here.
The birds have all had their babies and have been taking away fat-with-insects from the bird table to their broods. Busiest are the great tits, coal tits, blue tits, blackbirds and nuthatches. The adults are all looking very scruffy as they lose their old feathers and grow a new set at this time of year. Bald patches are much in evidence.
We have a lot of tree and bush cover in the garden, so even when the youngsters leave the nest they often stay on nearby branches to be fed. By the end of the month the only fledgling I have seen at the bird table is a brown starling.
The starlings have never visited our garden before, but this spring they seem to fly in as a small mob, raid the bird table noisily and retreat again. I was so impressed I wrote a blog post about starlings.
By mid May the last spring cherry blossom has blown away like confetti and the most noticeable trees in flower are the big horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum), with spikes of white or pink flowers like candles on a Christmas tree.
Meanwhile the hedges and small trees are mainly covered in white frothy flowers such as the elder and hawthorn (mentioned below) and the mountain ash or rowan (Sorbus aucuparia).
At ground level in the shade of the trees the effect is continued by masses of lacy cow parsley.
This froth is also reflected in the cultivated part of my garden, where masses of white Choisya ternata (Mexican orange blossom) flowers early in the month made way for boughs of Spiraea arguta, whose common name is garland may.
On the insect front, I am now seeing the white butterflies I would have expected to see in April. But one thing I am always fascinated by at this time of year are the lime nail galls on the leaves of a lime (linden) tree that overhangs the bus stop. These are the tiny nests of the lime nail gall mite, Eriophyes tiliae. So I took a picture…
Here is what you would expect to see in May in the 1940s…
1. Flowers of hawthorn 2. Orange-tip butterfly 3. Long-eared bat 4. Red-backed shrike 5. Flowers of elder 6. Sweet vernal grass 7. Mayflies in flight 8. Spotted flycatcher 9. Swan’s neck thread-moss 10. Water buttercup 11. Common shrew 12. Fairy-ring toadstools
1. Flowers of hawthorn
This is an easy one, as we have hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) in the garden – a pretty pink-flowered variety as well as the standard sort. It is also known as “may”, because it comes into bloom at this time of year and country hedges are usually foaming with the white flowers. It is also fragrant and you can smell it through open car windows as you drive through country lanes.
I remember almost every year in my childhood, at that time of year when I threatened to go to school without my coat, my father would say, “Ne’er cast a clout till may be out”. A “clout” is a piece of cloth or clothing.
I know he was thinking it meant wait until the month of May is over, but later I realised it was advice more closely attuned to nature. It means it’s not warm enough to leave your coat off until it’s warm enough for the hawthorn to come into flower.
This year I could see the advice in action. May did start with a couple of really quite chilly weeks and only as the hawthorn came into flower did the temperatures rise…
2. Orange-tip butterfly
The orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines) is a member of the Pieridae family of white butterflies and is one of the first butterflies to emerge in spring – not counting those which have overwintered as adults.
I’m afraid I don’t think I have ever seen one live, during my country childhood or now in the city. But the underside of the orange tip’s wings is wondrously camouflaged, so maybe I have passed one without noticing…
3. Long-eared bat
The brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus) is today the second most common bat in Britain. I have never seen one in the flesh, but we do have Britain’s most common bat in our garden, the pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus).
This little bat comes out in the evening as the light fades and the night insects start to rise. We usually have three – one big and two small – which trawl for the insects in the gap between the house eaves and the tree eaves. Sometimes they swoop low within a foot of your head. They are lovely little things and their acrobatics are superb.
4. Red-backed shrike
I have never seen a red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio), which according to Wild Life Through the Year, has the strange habit of impaling its prey on thorns, as if keeping a larder of dead insects.
This is now extinct as a breeding bird in Britain, although it bred here during the 1940s when that book was written. Today it is an endangered (Red List) species and will only be seen rarely in passage over the South and East coasts of Britain.
5. Flowers of elder
My favourite summertime drink is still sparkling elderflower pressé – so refreshing. When I was a child we had a small old, twisted elder bush (Latin name Sambucus nigra) and gave the flowers to the little old lady next door to make elderflower cordial. You can also make white wine – or a red wine from the berries, but of course if you use all the flowers there won’t be any berries.
In folklore the elder is supposed to ward off evil influence and give protection from witches. If an elder tree is cut down, a spirit known as the Elder Mother will be released and take her revenge – so you have to appease her with a chant if you are forced to cut it down.
Today we have another small old elder in the heart of the wooded part of our garden and there is a rather ancient and mystical feel to it. An Elder Wand is the great wand of destiny in the Harry Potter books.
6. Sweet vernal grass
Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) gives the vanilla scent to new-mown hay and its pollen is particularly aggravating to hay fever sufferers.
Some of our neighbours’ lawns are looking pretty messy at the moment, with long full-grown heads of various grasses. And when I looked closely I found sweet vernal grass was there… It’s one of the smaller species.
I picked a few stems surreptitiously for identification but didn’t take a picture there and then as the neighbour might think I was photographing his overgrown lawn in a critical way!
7. Mayflies in flight
It all seems rather sad. Most adult mayflies live from just 30 minutes to a day or so, depending on the species. It cannot eat and exists purely to find a mate, have sex and lay eggs.
Of course, the insect has already lived for about a year as an immature larva feeding on pond and river plants and algae. As “Wild Life Through the Year” puts it: “Those fragile insects which grovel in the mud for years for the sake of a few hours of aerial joy.”
There are 51 species of mayfly in Britain and apparently the most common is the Pond Olive (Cloeon dipterum), which can live up to a fortnight.
Pond Olives are also unusual in that the eggs hatch on contact with water. The nymphs (larvae) live underwater for months, eating microscopic algae, and often overwinter in this form. The adults hatch in the spring, with a second generation in the summer.
8. Spotted flycatcher
Although in theory it can be seen in summer all over Britain except the far north and west, the spotted flycatcher is another endangered (Red List) species. Its numbers have declined by 85% in the last 25 years.
9. Swan’s neck thread-moss
May has been a pretty bad time for the mosses, which are looking pretty dull and dry after all the sunshine and the mini-heat wave at the end of the month.
So imagine my surprise, as I was refilling the birdbath with water, when I noticed a patch of moss I had never seen before – and looking pretty perky. Maybe it has been helped by the water I splash around in that area.
I suspect it may actually be the swan’s neck thread-moss (Mnium hornum) from the sketchbook. Wow, that’s another moss identified! I add this in September: Or is it common cord-moss (Funaria hygrometrica)? Click here to see my earlier moss hunting successes.
10. Water buttercup
The water buttercup described in Wild Life Through the Year seems to be Ranunculus aquatalis, which is more commonly known as common water-crowfoot or white water-crowfoot.
It grows in mats on the surface of ponds. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed it, although we do have ordinary creeping yellow buttercup (Ranunculus repens) in the garden as a weed.
11. Common shrew
Although I haven’t seen one lately, we have had shrews (Sorex araneus) living in our garden – and dying at the claws of neighbours’ cats.
We once found a shrew’s nest made of neat little pieces of paper and leaves in the garage when spring cleaning and in the summer I used to see a little shrew running across the garden on a flagstone path close to a wall, every night like clockwork as the light faded.
12. Fairy-ring toadstools
Several different fungi make rings of this sort and you can find out more on Wikipedia . The species pictured in Wild Life Through the Year is the fairy-ring champignon, Marasmius oreades.
We occasionally get little brown straw mushrooms in our lawn, but these great rings are a whole different level of brilliant fungi…
See more pictures from my garden in May on Flickr…
See other months in the Wildlife Through the Year archive