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

19 May 2019 We are in the final, most glorious phase of spring now, when all the countryside seems to be in flower. This is particularly a time for buttercups - tall meadow buttercups and shorter creeping and bulbous ones, which turn grassy fields into a sea of yellow. Mown or trodden grass can be an intense white carpet of daisies.

There is in general a tendency in spring for flowers to form large patches. A lane verge will be a riot of red campion, or shorter grass can have big concentrations of bright blue germander speedwell. Cow parsley seems to turn every wayside into a frizz of white. And just starting now, one of my favourite flowers, the oxeye daisy, which covers grassy banks, particularly by roads and railway lines.

In the hedgerow hawthorn is still in blossom in many places, but it will fade soon, as it is already doing so in some places. Notice that sometimes as it goes over, its white flowers sometimes turn a very pretty shade of pink. This is so unexpected that you can conclude you are looking at a different species.

The loss of hawthorn flowers is not noticed for long, however, because as May turns into June we come to the peak time for hedgerow shrub flowers. Already you can see elderflowers coming out and even some early bramble flowers. Wild roses - dog rose, burnet rose - follow in June and for the connoisseur there are other delights such as the very odd flowers of guelder rose (photo), snowberry and the spindle tree.

When it comes to birdsong, there is already something of a decline in activity from the heights reached in late April and early May. Blue tits and great tits have largely fallen silent, robins are heard only now and then, usually toward dusk, and even blackbirds, who were singing everywhere and all day early in the month, are now getting more selective about when they pipe up. Chiffchaffs and blackcaps are also less heard than two or three weeks ago.

There are new delights, however. I have been hearing my first sustained yellowhammer song of the year this week - a run of notes followed by a drawn out "eee", though they don't always do the eee. This is a bird that is supposed to be in worrying decline, but still seems fairly common in the south east, both in farmland hedges and on shrubby downland. If you get a glimpse of them (and they tend to sing from a prominent perch), they have lovely yellow highlights to their plumage, as you might expect from their name .

I am always told that skylarks are under threat too, but this is another bird that seems easy to hear in our part of the world. Go up onto the downs and you can hear several at once, but even over ordinary arable fields it is not uncommon to hear them. Long may that be the case.

Other iconic birds continue to be a worry. I am still seeing pitifully few swallows, which is a big worry. They had a terrible year last year when their migration to the UK was interrupted by bad weather in Southern Europe, and so far this year seems no better. I also saw the second flock I have seen this year of house martins yesterday (over the village of Hurstpierpoint in Sussex). On a brighter note I have also seen my first swifts of the season this week, screaming overhead in country villages. I hope to see more of all of these birds in the months ahead.

One last migration I am looking out for is the one of red admiral and painted lady (photo) butterflies, which should be starting about now. Both fly up from the continent to be with us in the summer. I saw four red admirals during the week on the Isle of Wight, so maybe they are on their way. Like painted ladies, they had a very bad year in the UK last year, so let's hope this one will be a better one.



3 May 2019 After the slow creep of the winter months, spring whizzes by so fast. Already we are saying goodbye to April, the wonderful month of transformation. The leafing of trees and shrubs is almost complete (with one exception, of which more in a minute) and already we have said goodbye to so much: blackthorn blossom, wild cherry blossom, wood anemones, the evocative calls of the nuthatch. This week I have also been noticing lots of dandelion seedheads in fields and on verges.

And bluebells on the wane. This is always a significant moment in spring, as it marks the point where attention shifts from woodland flowers to ones of meadow and field. You may still get good bluebell displays in places this weekend, of course, but hree days ago I was in the wonderful bluebell woods on the Ashridge Estate near Tring - Dockey Wood, Flat Isley - and while they were still a sea of blue, you could see signs of the flowers going over. Later in the week, near Winchester, I was walking through bluebell woods that were half over - or more.

As it happens, this does not mean the end for woodland flowers. As well as ramsons, mentioned last week, all sorts of little delights choose now to flower in woods - woodruff, sanicle, wood speedwell, pignut (all of which I have seen) and yellow pimpernel (which I have yet to see). But in general, attention in May turns to cow parsley and hawthorn blossom, already half or more out in many places and soon to turn almost every roadside into a sea of white, and to seas of buttercups in fields and oxeye daisies on grassy banks. May and early June are, not surprisingly, the most flowery months, and adequate compensation for the passing of the delights of early spring.

I said nearly all trees were now in leaf. The exceptions are ash and sweet chestnut. The latter have small leaves now; on the former foliage is even more tentative. In fact, if you see a bare tree at present, it is likely to be an ash. It is not untypical for them only to be starting to leaf in early May, but what is surprising is that this year they failed almost universally to flower (photo) in April. It is most odd that not just some but all ashes should all fail to flower, particularly as there has been no very pronounced weather event to cause this. Not unprecedented, though, as it also happened in 2014. Perhaps ash trees just take a rest every five years...?

I also find myself puzzling over the variability in bird song. On Tuesday I was walking in the dusk near Tring and glorying in the absolute cacophony of birdsong to be heard - particularly the multiple layers of blackbird song. This, I reflected, was the perfect time of year for it. But yesterday, on an admittedly grey but not particularly cold day near Winchester, I heard none, despite being in very suitable habitat.

At times like this I find myself worrying about the decline of insect life and how it may be affecting our birdlife, and I had a neat illustration of this on Monday when I visited the Otmoor RSPB reserve near Oxford. There I heard the beautiful purring sound of a turtle dove - just the one, carefully protected by the RSPB - and equally delightfully saw lots of lapwings doing their display flight (they tumble out of the air, which is where they get their name from) and making their inimitable cry. A cuckoo was also singing there all afternoon (maybe several cuckoos, though I only ever heard one at a time).

Once, I reflected, all these would have been as much a part of a normal spring as bluebells. I myself am old enough to remember a time when every child knew the song of a cuckoo even if they knew no other birdsong. I can't say I ever remember hearing turtle doves when I was younger, but certainly until a few years ago there used to be a lapwing displaying each spring in a field near where I live, and I have very occasionally seen them on country walks. But basically now to experience these once common signs of spring you have to go somewhere like Otmoor, which is a bit sad.

Are swallows and house martins going the same way in this part of the country? I worry about this, as the last few years seem to me to have seen a decline in these birds. It is noticeable too how many of them one seems to see in places outside the south east, such as Devon. Last year was a dreadful year for both species here, supposedly because bad weather in southern Europe interrupted their migration. This year I have been looking out anxiously for them. So far I have seen about five swallows in two locations in Kent and one cheerful flock of about a dozen house martins, which does not seem much, but is better than nothing. I will continue to scan the skies for more, keeping my fingers firmly crossed.



25 April 2019 We are now in the peak season for bluebells, so if you are not planning a trip to a bluebell wood in the next week, why not? Having said that, catching them at their absolute best can be a frustrating business. If the wood has become too shaded, the bluebells can look rather wan, and all too soon they start to go over a bit. And even if you do find them full out, when you get your camera out all that fabulous blue (or rather purple) seems to vanish into thin air on the viewfinder (hint: use the telephoto). Still, a good bluebell wood in full bloom is akin to a religious experience. You won't be sorry you made the effort.

For guaranteed bluebells, try the National Trust-run Dockey Wood on the Tring Circular walk, but you won't be alone there. Much quieter and just as stunning is the nearby Flat Isley, a short walk away if you can find your way through the woods but featuring somewhat later on the Tring Circular. But there are a lot of other walks with bluebells on - see here for a long list. And in some ways the best bluebell wood of all is the one you don't expect - when you cross a field and see in the trees on the far side a deep blue haze.

Ramsons (wild garlic) are also coming into flower, but I almost hesitate to mention this for fear that I will encourage "foragers" to descend on them to despoil them of leaves for use as a wild ingredient. Yes, I know wild garlic is vigorous plant that can stand quite a bit of picking and still come back the next year as strongly, but a large patch of decimated wild garlic is a wretched sight when the woods left alone to bloom in peace look so beautiful. If you must harvest some, then please please please do it in a patch not easily visible from a footpath. Anything else is vandalism.

Coinciding with both these flowers is the closing of the woodland canopy. Trees that up to now have been hanging back, such as beech and lime and poplar are now coming into full leaf. Beech is especially beautiful when it is first out, a lovely eye-aching green, as I experienced this week just before the lunch stop on the Ockley to Warnham walk. It is a sight to see even on a dull day: with sunlight shining through it, it is amazing.

That being said, two species of tree are conspicuous for holding back from leafing. Ash is always one of the last, and before it leafs it has to flower, which it is very slow to do this year. The flowers look like frizzy lettuce, with slight differences between the male (photo) and female ones, the latter sometimes looking like leaf shoots. By this stage in spring you can almost reliably identify ash as the only trees still with bare twigs - but not quite because sweet chestnut is also a late leafer, often not really getting going until May.

At best April woods are also filled with lovely layers of blackbird song. This is a time of year when they seem to sing the entire day, and towards dusk the effect can be quite overwhelming. I have read that blackbird song is considered one of the most beautiful in the whole world, and we can enjoy it just by going for a walk. They continue to sing right through to the start of July, but this phase when they seem to be singing at all times of the day does not last so long. So as I am always saying, enjoy it while you can.

Late April also sees verge flowers coming to a crescendo. Everything at this time of year seems to form large patches. Stitchwort (photo) is a star attraction at this time of year and garlic mustard (photo) is just getting into gear. Cuckoo flower (aka lady's smock) is already fading a bit but you can still see big dreamy pink drifts in ditches and damp meadows. But as April turns to May you can see big concentrations of many other flowers: dandelion, forget-me-not, ground ivy, alkanet, white deadnettle and - a particular favourite of mine - the blue spikes of bugle (photo).

So much to see and so little time. That shopping trip can wait.






























































































15 comments:

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
https://www.flickr.com/photos/ramblinros/13649168915/

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 (http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/search/label/April-verge)….

"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 http://nature-and-weather.walkingclub.org.uk/2011/12/november-hedgerow-and-flowers.html

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.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter

Glad you are also enjoying the sunny weather and the May/June flora display. Hope your trip to Devon went well despite the train disruptions at
Paddington the day I went to Hartlocks nature reserve. I saw the lady, monkey and hybrid orchid. Also green hair streak and grizzly skipper butterflies.
Went to Homefield Wood nature reserve in Marlow yesterday. Great day out very sunny. Saw hundreds of Military (soldier) orchids, Greater butterfly, Fly,
Spotted, Scented, Bee and broad leave helloborine orchids. Plus a Marsh Fritillary orchid which is odd. Another frittary is the Green heath and silver
wash fritillary. I shall explore Warburgh nature reserve when I get back from Scotland. Off to Newtonmore on Saturday 9th and 23rd to Mull.
Regards Monica

Mike A said...

Wild tales from the Village
For those of you who haven't seen this program, you may wish to watch it on Iplayer at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b086k8db/wild-tales-from-the-village?suggid=b086k8db
It's an animal drama that tells the story of a year in the life of an extraordinary village, hidden away in the timeless French countryside. Narrated by Tcheky Karyo, this tale reveals the parallel world of incredible tiny creatures that live side by side with the unsuspecting humans

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