British wildlife in May

With birdsong in full force and summer knocking on the door, there’s plenty to discover this month.

Hazel dormouse. © David Chapman

As spring casts its rousing warmth across the country, get ready for your wildlife sightings to soar.

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If you are planning to see wildlife, please follow the latest government advice regarding coronavirus, and bear in mind that there are different restrictions in place between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.


Lime hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae)

Lime hawk-moth. © David Chapman
Lime hawk-moth. © David Chapman

A real dandy, one of our best-looking moths, the lime hawk-moth launches on warm May evenings. Its distinctive scalloped wings and bold pattern that ranges from green to chestnut are quite a statement, but also make it harder to spot when resting among dappled leaves or against tree trunks during the day.

Our love of avenues of limes and other trees along our streets brings the lime hawk-moth to the heart of urban areas, and it is common in parks and gardens.

It is not the lime’s fragrant flowers that attract it – this moth doesn’t feed at all as an adult – but its heart-shaped leaves, on which the females lay their eggs. In the absence of lime, the moths will also use elm or London plane – an ornamental tree, particularly widespread in the capital.

After some weeks feasting in the canopy, their large, stripy, yellow-and-green offspring, which are topped off with a blue ‘tail horn’, descend to the ground. The caterpillars can often be spotted on pavements or among vegetation in late summer, as they seek a safe place to pupate. Once they have found a suitable spot in soil or leaf litter they will remain there until May, when they are ready to rise again.


Eurasian woodcock (Scolopax rusticola)

Eurasian woodcock. © Robin Chittenden
Eurasian woodcock. © Robin Chittenden

The “long unwieldy bill of the woodcock” remarked upon by 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White, is in fact the perfect asset for this dumpy wader as it probes woodland soils for invertebrates.

Their beautiful mottled feathers make woodcock notoriously difficult to spot, but this month males drop the subterfuge and take to the sky on their bizarre ‘roding’ courtship flights.

Purposefully patrolling their territory at dusk, a combination of squeaks and grunts adds to their display. Woodcock are present year-round but numbers swell to an estimated 1.5 million every winter, as Russian, Baltic and Scandinavian expats seek a milder climate.


Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)

Cow parsley. © Alex Hyde
Cow parsley. © Alex Hyde

Cow parsley fills the verges of country lanes with ‘white froth’ during May. It is one of the earliest to bloom in a sequence of similar-looking wildflowers in the carrot family, characterised by clusters of delicate flowers, reminiscent of an umbrella (giving them their alternative name of umbellifers). Their open flowers are a magnet for insects, including hoverflies and bees.

Cow parsley is fast-growing and abundant on fertile verges. Earlier this year, Plantlife released its Good Verge Guide full of management tips to ensure vigorous plants, such as cow parsley, share our roadsides with some of the other 700 wildflower species recorded along verges.


Hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius)

Hazel dormouse. © David Chapman
Hazel dormouse. © David Chapman

After hibernating the coldest months away, hazel dormice are finally awake and active. They spent the winter not in a teapot (as Lewis Carroll would have us believe), but alone in a neatly woven nest, secreted away in dense scrub or leaf litter.

We often picture dormice as dozy, but they are remarkably agile mammals, foraging across the canopy and understory. During late spring and summer, flowers are important for nutrition, with favourites including bramble, hawthorn and honeysuckle.

It is autumn when dormice turn their attention to their namesake hazel and other high calorie foods to pile on the grams once again for their winter snooze.


Ring ouzel (Turdus torquatus)

Ring ouzel feeding on berries. © Oliver Smart
Ring ouzel feeding on berries. © Oliver Smart

These beautiful mountain blackbirds, a speciality of northern England and Wales are returning to their territories. On reaching our shores from their Atlas Mountains wintering grounds, some ouzels continue on for Scandinavia, whilst our local breeders head for the steep and rocky uplands.

A glimpse of the male, with the distinctive white crescent on his breast gleaming, is breath- taking. Nick Baker writes of the magic of encountering one of these “spirits of the uplands” in Red Sixty Seven. Though secretive, you may be lucky enough to catch their repeated, wistful notes drifting over moorland and hillsides.

Learn more about ring ouzels and other migrating birds: 


Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

Groundsel. © Colin Varndell
Groundsel. © Colin Varndell

An annual plant that thrives in disturbed ground, groundsel is popular with butterflies and other insects and is just one of a number of yellow-flowered daisies.

Once pollinated, groundsel produces feathery heads of more than 1,000 seeds. Those seeds not eaten by birds make the most of opportunities such as gaps in pavements but it is this adaptability that leaves the species in danger of being underappreciated.

The More Than Weeds project is paving the way, helping people to notice plants like groundsel and its fellow urban ‘weeds’ that splash a bit of colour onto our grey streets.


Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha or Melolontha hippocastani)

Cockchafer. © James Lowen
Cockchafer. © James Lowen

The large and spectacular cockchafer, a type of scarab, tumbles into night skies this month. Their burrowing larvae mature over several years, feeding on roots, so cockchafer numbers fluctuate but some years culminate in chaotic mass emergences.

These rotund beetles spiral their way through a short (five-to-seven weeks) adulthood with an audible buzz. Face-to-face with a cockchafer, you’ll notice the fan-shaped antennae (known as ‘pectinate’). These superb structures are filled with sensors thought to help them find food and a mate.

The scientific name of the common cockchafer, Melolontha melolontha, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.


Large white butterfly (Pieris brassicae)

Large white butterfly. © Laurie Campbell
Large white butterfly. © Laurie Campbell

April and May 2020 were the UK’s sunniest on record, leading to nearly all our butterflies emerging early. Was this a one-off, or part of a trend? Butterfly enthusiasts are eager to find out.

One species that broke records in 2020 was the large, or ‘cabbage’, white. It has two broods: the first traditionally on the wing in April and May, the other in midsummer.

New research has shown that big, pale butterflies are better at protecting themselves from high temperatures, by using their wings as solar shields to reflect heat.


Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

Male blackcap in song, in Norfolk, UK. © David Tipling
Male blackcap in song, in Norfolk, UK. © David Tipling

Spring’s dawn chorus is not to be missed – the volume and variety of birds singing is so intense and uplifting. Simon Barnes, in his book Rewild Yourself, reckons it is the “single biggest wildlife miracle that we have in Britain”.

Aim to be in place by 5am – a woodland or park is ideal, but every habitat has a dawn chorus. Among the multitude of robins, wrens, thrushes and tits, one abundant warbler you are almost bound to hear is the blackcap, whose song is so sweet and sustained that it is often mistaken for a nightingale.


Brook lamprey (Lampetra planeri)

Brook lamprey. © Jack Perks
Brook lamprey. © Jack Perks

In his memoir A Curious Boy, palaeontologist Richard Fortey calls the brook lamprey “a fugitive from deep time”. It’s an apt description, because this weird and wonderful creature is one of the most primitive types of vertebrate alive today.

The proto-fish is silvery and eel-like, with a body slightly thicker than a human index finger, though its strange, sucker-like mouth is hard to see in the wild. Look for its sinuous form in clear, gravelly streams or ditches. In spring, groups of adults can sometimes be seen spawning in writhing groups.


Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)

Singing nightingale. © David Chapman
Singing nightingale. © David Chapman

When the human world is in turmoil, we can all take comfort in the beyond-human one. Birdsong is proven to give us a natural high, and one song in particular has been written about by almost every nature writer: that of the male nightingale. Shy and dowdy he may be, but when he opens that beak, he has the power and clarity of an opera singer, and the improvisation and range of a jazz diva.

Though legendary for singing on May nights, this relative of the robin also performs in early morning and at dusk. The fact that it skulks in the shadows only adds to the sense of occasion. New undergrowth and scrub are what the species needs, ideally less than 10 years old. Sadly, heavy browsing by deer and a decline in traditional woodland management have sent numbers into freefall.

There’s also evidence from Spain that, due to drought, some nightingales there are evolving shorter wings, leading to fewer surviving the migration to and from Africa. It’s not yet known if this affects the UK population.

But as Luke Massey puts it in Red Sixty Seven, a book celebrating our 67 most vulnerable birds, “Will we really let this be the last song of the nightingale?”


Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius)

Red-tailed bumblebee. © Laurie Campbell
Red-tailed bumblebee. © Laurie Campbell

Two hundred years ago this month, HMS Beagle was launched. Later, the ship would famously take Charles Darwin to see exotic flora and fauna in South America, though it’s often forgotten he spent far longer watching everyday wildlife closer to home.

In Kent, the naturalist observed “humble bees” in forensic detail, becoming one of the first to notice that they patrol the same linear foraging routes over and over. Probably our most distinctive widespread species is the red-tailed, which loves clover, dandelion, daisy and thistle flowers.

White tailed bumblebee, Bombus lucorum

Orca (Orcinus orca)

Orca. © Genevieve Leaper
Orca. © Genevieve Leaper

Due to COVID-19, this is the first year since 2012 that volunteers won’t gather on clifftops in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland. Usually in May they scan the sea for cetaceans – especially orcas, small numbers of which visit these waters from Iceland and Norway during the summer months.

The huge predators come to hunt grey and harbour seals (the latter have pups in midsummer, so are particularly vulnerable) and sometimes venture amazingly close to shore. Each individual orca can be recognised by the pale patch, or ‘saddle’, behind its dorsal fin, which may itself bear telltale nicks or scars.


Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus)

Holly blue butterfly. © Colin Varndell
Holly blue butterfly. © Colin Varndell

If you’re lucky, you might in a village spot a common blue, but realistically this is the only ‘blue’ likely to be encountered in the average British garden. Chris Packham called it the “daintiest darling” in his book Back Garden Nature Reserve (still in print after 19 years).

The holly blue is among the first of the year’s butterflies not to have hibernated as adults – ones on the wing now overwintered as chrysalises, which formed last autumn. Numbers peak in May, and there’s a second brood in July to August.


Hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata)

Hemlock water dropwort. © David Chapman
Hemlock water dropwort. © David Chapman

This isn’t the plant with which the Greek philosopher Socrates is said to have killed himself, but it is likewise extremely poisonous. Superficially resembling cow parsley, it produces neat clusters of white flowers in summer and has lacy leaves rather like giant coriander or flat parsley. The grooved stems might remind you of celery.

Hemlock water dropwort loves to have wet feet, growing along ditches and beside muddy streams and rivers. Perhaps alarmingly, it is also abundant – but best left alone.


Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

Kittiwake. © Getty
Kittiwake. © Getty

Together with the chiffchaff and cuckoo, jackdaw and curlew, the kittiwake is a bird that calls its own name. In truth, the endlessly repeated cry sounds more like ‘kitti-waaaake’, but nevertheless is impossible to escape at many crowded seabird nesting cliffs, especially in the north and west of the UK.

Unlike other British gulls, this is a truly pelagic species that only frequents coasts during the breeding season. You won’t find it inland, except for one remarkable urban colony on the buildings and bridges of Newcastle and Gateshead.

A pair of puffins build a closer bond through billing, a courtship routine involving the quick tapping of their beaks. © Becky Bunce.

Roach (Rutilus rutilus)

Roach. © Jack Perks
Roach. © Jack Perks

With 12 native species as well as several introduced ones, the carp and minnow family is Britain’s biggest group of freshwater fish. One of their quirks (though you need to be an angler to see it) is a lack of teeth. Many of these fish breed in warm weather this month and next, so briefly become much more noticeable.

Roach spawn in shoals around reeds or other vegetation, thrashing about as males chase females. They have a chunky silver body with bright red fins.


Emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia)

Female emperor moth. © Sorcha Lewis
Female emperor moth. © Sorcha Lewis

Flame shoulder, sallow kitten, powdered quaker… May’s moths write a special kind of poetry with their names. In looks, though, few can hold a candle to the emperor, Britain’s only representative of the silk moth family, Saturniidae, which in the tropics includes bird-sized giants. 

The wings of this large, spring beauty sport two pairs of ‘eye spots’ reminiscent of the roundels on old RAF aircraft. Perhaps, like those of the peacock butterfly, they startle or intimidate predators. When a male moth opens its hind wings, there is also a startling flash of bright orange.

Emperor moths are widespread and not especially scarce but, to glimpse one, your best bet is to stroll across a heath, moor or another sandy, scrubby habitat in fine spring sunshine. Male emperors fly by day – and strongly, too – so, at first, you might think you’ve spotted a butterfly. By contrast, the ‘empresses’ emerge after dark. Neither sex has mouthparts, meaning their time in this world is limited – they meet, mate, then die.

Moths are fascinating and interest in them is growing. Later this year, Butterfly Conservation publishes the first atlas of moths in Britain and Ireland, based on over 25 million records submitted by enthusiasts.


European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)

European hedgehog among dry leaves. © Olena Khudiakova/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media/Getty
European hedgehog among dry leaves. © Olena Khudiakova/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media/Getty

Aristotle thought that hedgehogs mated belly to belly, with the female standing upright. It was a reasonable assumption, given the insectivores’ upper body is covered in around 5,000 spines (and, to be fair, Aristotle correctly recognised these as a form of hair).

In fact, the old joke about hedgehogs mating carefully is fairly accurate. It is preceded by long bouts of huffing and grunting, and a nose-to-tail chase that hedgehog expert Pat Morris describes as “singularly lacking in apparent affection”. Lucky garden owners can hear the performance on warm evenings from May onwards.


Yellow iris / flag iris (Iris pseudacorus)

Yellow iris. © Iain Sarjeant/Getty
Yellow iris. © Iain Sarjeant/Getty

Iris was the Ancient Greek goddess of the rainbow, tasked with carrying messages for the other gods. Though the Balkans are rich in irises, only two are native to the British Isles, of which the glorious yellow flag is the most abundant by far.

From May to August, its flowers glow in ponds, canals and anywhere marshy, the length and breadth of the country. Dense iris beds offer valuable shelter in the shallows to species such as moorhens and water voles, help control floods and act as a giant filter, improving water quality.

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European turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur)

European turtle dove drinking at water's edge in Spain. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty
European turtle dove drinking at water’s edge in Spain. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

The gentle, ventriloquial ‘turr turr’ of a turtle dove, coming from deep inside a hawthorn tree or hedgerow, was until recently a classic sound of the countryside. Sadly, within a human generation, this summer migrant has almost disappeared from Britain, due largely to hunting in the Mediterranean and the loss of weedy fields.

Today, the turtle dove just about retains a toehold in south-east England and East Anglia. Its hypnotic call features in a new track of birdsong, Let Nature Sing, that celebrates nature’s dawn chorus choir.


Yellow dung fly (Scathophaga stercoraria)

Yellow dung fly in Scotland. © Iain Lawrie/Getty
Yellow dung fly in Scotland. © Iain Lawrie/Getty

With about 7,000 species in the UK, in every conceivable habitat, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to Diptera (the order’s name means ‘two wings’). To see this handsome example, simply head to a nice, fresh cowpat: you won’t have to wait long.

Virtually the entire insect is the colour of English mustard, except for its eyes and wings, which are chestnut-brown. The adults are fierce predators – just look at those mantis-like front legs – but the larvae munch dung.

Male Bombylius major from Peterborough. © Steven Falk

Sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

Sedge warbler. © Laurie Campbell
Sedge warbler. © Laurie Campbell

Now’s the best time to set your alarm and get outdoors to appreciate the dawn chorus – by 6.30am, it has peaked already and is dying down. One of the jazziest performers is this streak-backed little bird, which sings its scratchy, chattering song from reeds and bushes, often in quite small wetlands beside rivers or canals.

Some say a male sedge warbler never sings the same song twice. He has “endless capacity for variation”, writes Simon Barnes in his book On the Marsh, “as if…the whole spring was one song.”


Jelly ear (Auricularis auricula-judae)

Jelly ear fungus. © Alex Hyde
Jelly ear fungus. © Alex Hyde

Some fungi produce fruiting bodies year-round, and jelly ear is one. It grows weird, rubbery mounds on elder bushes and is most visible in winter and spring, being tough enough to survive frosts. The squidgy structures have an unsettling resemblance to wrinkly old human ears.

Jelly ear is proof that, while we associate fungi with autumn, hyphae never stop. Hyphae are the mass of tangled fungal threads spreading unseen through wood, plant matter and earth in unimaginably vast numbers, harvesting nutrients for the parent organism.


Pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus)

Pygmy shrew. © Jelfer Heder/Minden/FLPA
Pygmy shrew. © Jelfer Heder/Minden/FLPA

This is easily the dinkiest British land mammal, usually no heavier than 6g. Close up, its long snout recalls a tiny tapir, albeit one with twitching whiskers and pinprick eyes. But the pygmy shrew is seldom glimpsed alive, as it spends spring and summer deep in the forest of grass stalks.

A hyperactive lifestyle burns the calories, yet the shrew has little in reserve, so must hunt more or less nonstop, consuming one-and-a-quarter times its body weight in insects and spiders every day.


Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

Golden plover. © Nigel Blake
Golden plover. © Nigel Blake

In spring and early summer, northern peat bogs come alive with the plaintive cry of golden plovers. These quicksilver, arrow-winged birds fly fast – so much so, a debate in 1951 about their aerial prowess led Sir Hugh Beaver, of the famous brewing dynasty, to dream up the Guinness Book of Records.

Peatlands are a vital habitat for ‘goldies’ and other wading birds, as well as important carbon sinks. But even now, they are still damaged by peat extraction for sale to gardeners.


Red clover (Trifolium pratense)

Red clover. © Genevieve Leaper
Red clover. © Genevieve Leaper

‘Rolling in clover’ certainly applies to bumblebees. They can’t get enough of the nectar-packed pompoms of red and white clover, and there is a simple way to help. Join the ‘no mow’ campaign and leave part of your lawn uncut.

Clover should be quick to appear, often with daisies, buttercups and (from June) selfheal. Yet a measly 30% of participants in Gardenwatch, the UK’s biggest ever garden survey, run by Springwatch, the Open University and BTO, said they allow their lawns to grow long.

Cornflowers © Rike / Getty

Marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibundus)

Marsh frog. © Jason Steel
Marsh frog. © Jason Steel

Of all the exotic amphibians to have gained a toehold in Britain, the marsh frog is the most colourful, appearing Kermit-green at times. It’s about half as big again as our common frog, with a voice to match. In April and May, the males keep up an incessant squeaky chorus, inflating their huge vocal sacs.

As with every introduced amphibian, the species’ spread is closely monitored. So far, this handsome alien is restricted to Kent, East Sussex and around London.


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Main image: European turtle dove drinking at water’s edge in Spain. © Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty