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Put your cursor on any photo for a caption, or click here for more May butterfly and insect photos. For the latest observations see @SWC_Nature.

9 May 2018 Those who follow the SWC Nature twitter feed will know that I found this year's bluebell season disappointing  - bar one wonderful day in the woods on the Ashridge estate near Tring. But no matter, we must move on. Devotees of woodland flowers can still find a lot to delight them, including ramsons (wild garlic) which can still form lovely white carpets in secluded riverside dells till mid month or beyond, plus such shy delights for the sharp-eyed as wood speedwell, sanicle, yellow pimpernel and woodruff - photos of all these can be found here.

But spring does not pause for breath and nor will we. May is really the month of glorious yellow buttercup meadows and cow parsley drifts lining every lane and hawthorn blossom coating hedgerows white, and all these are now coming out in force.

There is also an explosion of insect life at this time of year. The air on the hot sunny days in the past few weeks has been full of a variety of little critters, flying, swarming, mating. Not for the first time I marvel at the diversity of all these creatures and at how little I know about them. One I do recognise is the sinister-looking but entirely harmless St Mark's fly (photo - named after 25 of April, St Mark's day, when they are supposed to appear). Those appendages hanging down below their body look like some kind of sting, but are in fact just their legs. They don't bite or do anything, except provide useful food for birds.

I am pleased to see St Mark's flies because, like others, I read alarming reports about the decline in insects in recent times and the worrying implications this could have for the health of the ecosystem. In the past two years I have hardly seen any St Mark's flies, but thankfully this year they are quite abundant. And in general walking around in Kent and Surrey in recent days there still does seem to be a good range of little bugs about, which is comforting.

Less comforting is the absence of butterflies and swallows. The latter I saw for the first time in late April, but in the whole bank holiday weekend I only saw swallows once, in one place. I have this nagging feeling they are getting less and less common in the south east. Since they supposedly return to the place they were born to breed, this is a particular worry: once we lose them, they won't come back.

On the plus side, as you will also know from the Twitter feed, I did hear a cuckoo singing in the valleys and woods around Berkhamsted for a whole hour last Sunday. That is the most cuckoo song I have heard since I don't know when. Reports suggest that they remain common in Wales or Scotland  but in this part of England I sometimes only hear one or two a year, and then only very briefly and very distantly.

Even the satisfaction of hearing that Berkhamsted cuckoo was tinged with worry. Maybe he was singing so persistently because he could not find a lady cuckoo? As they become scarcer, meeting up with a mate must get harder and harder.

As for butterflies, there are still places - the Ashridge estate is one, and the many lovingly cared for reserves on the North Down escarpment between Reigate and Guildford are another - where they are still abundant. I delighted to see the elusive and very cute green hairstreak (photo) this week. But walking through the Weald on bank holiday Monday - a wood and pasture landscape, not heavily doused with agricultural weedkillers - I saw almost no butterflies at all. Where were they all? Why was the air not full of them, as it was of gnats and other nameless insects?

30 April 2018 Spring whizzes onwards. Already it is the end of April, that most wonderful of months! But no matter, because May is wonderful too.

This month marks the transition from woodland flowers to meadow ones. Buttercups are the great glory of May meadows and are now starting to appear. The first ones you see tend to be bulbous buttercups, distinguishable by their turned down sepals (the little leafy bits under the flower). Later meadow and creeping buttercup join them. For most people the species matter less than the fact that whole fields and downland slopes get covered in yellow.

May also sees those fresh green blades of grass put forward seedheads, if they are allowed to by the motor mower or chomping animals. Again, you can see a few heads of meadow foxtail already. Later lots more join them and then by the end of May meadows are no longer fresh and optimistic but starting to look a bit overgrown.

Then there is that other great joy of May, cow parsley, lining every lane and path edge, filling woods sometimes. Its rather ugly UK name is not as nice as its American one - Queen Anne's lace. For a while it and hawthorn blossom fill the countryside with a bridal white. You can see signs of both starting or thinking about starting.

But first there are the woodland flowers to finish. Bluebells are now at best and wild garlic (ramsons) are coming out everywhere. I was also seeing lots of signs of wood speedwell (photo) about to flower this week. It is a shy little plant but not uncommon in ancient woodlands. Look out also for charming yellow pimpernel (photo) and for the lovely but unimaginatively named early purple orchid (photo).

On the tree front the big party is over in many ways, but note that ash and sweet chestnut trees are the last to leaf, still a bit tentative as the month turns. In general the wonderful bright green of the new foliage across the treescape is also something to appreciate, as it does not last more than a couple of weeks.

On the bird front, I heard my first whitethroat - another migrant arrival - this week. They are a common sound in hedgerows for the rest of the birdsong season (ie until late June or early July). It took me a while to learn its song (see here) which is a kind of scratchier version of the dunnock's, and much shorter and less emphatic than the blackcap's. In one place I also this week heard a turtle dove - a beautiful noise (see here). But tragically this bird has declined 93% since 1994 so you are unlikely to hear it. Nice to know that at least one is still alive, however.

As for butterflies, as I write it is that Monday of wintry cold. I am wondering if this and the rather grey weekend just past will have finished off the remaining orange tips and holly blues, not to mention the early spring peacocks, small tortoiseshells and the like. It always seems to be touch and go for butterflies - a few short days in their adult lives when conditions are warm and favourable for them to find a mate. In a way it is amazing any survive at all in this country.

Oh and lastly notice that the queen bumble bees seem to have (largely disappeared). They are now, presumably, setting up their nests and starting to produce young. Their offspring then take to the air to bring delight to late spring and summer.

23 April 2018 What an extraordinary week was the one just passed. As I noted in the last entry it started with little more sign of trees and shrubs leafing than one would see at the end of March. Then in just one week - five days even - everything came out at once. Even oaks and beeches are coming into leaf (and flower) now, and the two trees that are traditionally last - ash and sweet chestnut - are even putting out small leaflets. Never have I know the treescape turn from brown to green so rapidly.

It makes sense when you think about it. Trees are big plants and they generally react slowly to changing conditions. But all the shrubs and trees that would normally have leafed in the first half of April would have put out buds in that period, ready to burst at a moment's notice, while those that traditionally came out mid month would have done the same. They were all waiting for the trigger and when that came in the shape of the hot weather, off they went.

There was also a big rise in tiny flying insects during the hotter weather - no big surprise there, I suppose, and on a couple of days last week I was gratified to find myself surrounded by myriad little flying critters, none of which I could identify. We read so much about how insect numbers are dropping that it is nice to know that in some places at least they are flourishing.

The same was true of queen bumble bees, which were very abundant in places - one hopes they all go on to found successful colonies. Having said this, the numbers of insect fauna (and indeed the amount of birdsong) drop off dramatically when one goes into areas with lots of arable fields. Thank heavens the south east still has plenty of old fashioned pasture, wood and hedgerow countryside.

As if the trees turning green was not exciting enough, I saw my first swallows this week, and also - very distantly - heard a cuckoo (in the Medway valley in Kent: walkers have also reported one near Haslemere). Cuckoos are now painfully rare in this part of the world, of course, and each year I wonder if this year will be the one where I hear none at all. I worry a little that swallows are going the same way. I seem to see fewer than I did a decade ago and when one goes on holiday to the West Country there seem to be a lot more.

On a more cheerful note, it is always great to observe newly-returned swallows. They look so sleek and glamorous, having jet-setted in from their winter vacation in South Africa. There is something about swallows that always looks so enthusiastic and unlike most birds they do not seem to be markedly afraid of humans. They fly so fast and with such skill that I guess we are not much of a threat to them.

Butterfly sightings have been good this week - I have seen a lot of orange tips (photo) and the delightful little holly blue. Also small and green-veined whites, peacocks and just two or three small tortoiseshells. I always feel the latter two species are not as often seen as they ought to be - they are supposed to be common butterflies. But at least last week they had ideal flying and mating weather.

Bluebells are coming out in force and the next two weekends should be good for them. The big three verge flowers of late April - stitchwort (photo), garlic mustard (photo) and cuckoo flower (photo) - are all out in force. Lots of white deadnettle is coming through and also its yellow version, yellow archangel. Dandelions, notice, are at their absolute best, in great thick carpets in some grassy places.

Amidst all these delights, just a tinge of sadness as one thinks of what is already over. Today I found that my local blackthorn blossom - surely it only came out last week? - has already faded. Primroses are disappearing, daffodils are mostly gone and forsythia is no longer in flower. Magnolias are over, hornbeam catkins have no more, pussy willow catkins have fallen, and just today I saw the first signs of fading on wild cherry. It is sad to think it will be nearly a year before we see all these again.....but only a momentary sadness because spring rushes on to new delights.


Em said...

Somewhere on this site you have written that it is perhaps sterile to spend time identifying birds, plants etc but I don't think so. I think it helps enjoy the rich diversity of what is there and appreciate the differences and variety in nature.

Peter C said...

I am glad you think so, and definitely agree!

ramblinros said...

Thank you for interesting nature blog
Found a new-to-me spring flower on Saturday
Spring Beauty - Claytonia perfoliata syn Montia perfoliata -
the stem is surrounded by a curious cup-shaped leaf
Was walking on the North Downs Way eastwards immediately after the Watts Gallery - very sandy -
up a slight rise and then the plant was on both sides of the descending path
for about the next 100m, and then no more

Peter C said...

Nice observation, ramblinros! I have seen this plant once or twice and I do mention it in April Verge and Field Flowers (….

"Also in the wierd category is spring beauty, a plant of sandy soils which has tiny white flowers in the middle of large round leaves."

…….but it is a rather rare thing to see, so I am glad to hear of your sighting.

PeteB said...

On polling day 7 May I went for a long tramp over the South Downs starting in Lewes and eventually finishing in Eastbourne. At the start of my walk (Book 2 walk 25c Lewes to Glynde) I had just left the golf club car park and started on the path past a water trough where a herd of cattle were drinking and grazing when to my surprise I saw what I am sure was a single red? deer hind grazing with the cattle (it was too large to be a roe or fallow deer). The animal was frightened by my presence and seemed to try to hide among the cattle! I had my camera phone but did not want to start unsettling the cattle and I had a long day ahead so pressed on with my walk. The only deer I have seen before on the South Downs were fallow deer in the flat water meadows. I have never heard of red or sika deer on the South Downs and a web search has revealed nothing. Quite a sighting !

Peter C said...

A very interesting sighting, I agree. Of course, historically red deer were present throughout England but I had always understood that now they only live in places such as Richmond Park. The only other place I have once thought I saw one was in the Lake District. Perhaps you should report this sighting to some relevant association or other. I am not quite sure which. (If it was a butterfly or bird or flower it would be easier to think of suggestions!)

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

PeteB said...

Did walk 3.20 Sevenoaks to Wesaterham today after bailing out of it early on Sunday because of violent storm. Bluebells already showing well at Ide Hill and should be at their best in 2-3 weeks which seems a bit earlier than usual? Fields still pretty waterlogged in the morning but after lunch at the Cock Inn terrain and woodland trails much drier.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to learn that Yellowhammers have been detected on the walks this summer (considering their numbers have declined rapidly). I saw some on the Pewsey/Avebury walk recently. They were in a quiet country lane, flanked by tall *all important* hedgerows. I haven't seen this species for years. E.

Peter C said...

I have read that their numbers are declining, but I have to say I hear them quite a lot in the south east. They like hedgerows on farmland but are also heard up on the downs. A lovely song so I hope they don't decline further.

Sandy said...

Fantastic blog - I was particularly interested in the 19 September one about late-surviving flowers. I started noting down flowers still out in Nov/Dec a few years ago - e.g. 24 spotted on 3-4/12/2014 and 27 on 19-20/12/2015. It was astonishingly mild then of course. I don't seem to have any notes from last year but maybe I wasn't out walking at the right time. Look forward to comparing notes later in the year.

Peter C said...

Thanks for your kind comments. Glad you find it interesting.

December 2015 was indeed the weird mild one when all sorts of early spring flowers and even blossom started to come out. But some flowers in early December are not unusual. Before writing the blog I should perhaps have checked my own December Flowers page which lists several. See

Peter C said...

I don’t know why the link in the last post says November in its url. But go to the main blue button menu above the Nature Blog and click December and you will find the page I mean.

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