What to see in our gardens in mid May 

As the summer moves forward, so the wildlife in and around our gardens changes....and changes fast too. Nick Brown writes about the wildlife around us this May.

Our resident birds have either reared their first broods or set about laying eggs again if they failed. Look out for the recently fledged chicks of robins and blackbirds among others.

In April new migrants arrived and some sang in our gardens as they stopped off to feed. Chiffchaffs were widely reported singing their repetitive ‘chiff chaff’ songs but now most have moved on.

One late arrival back from Africa is the swift which usually appears over our rooftops in early May. Unlike swallows and house martins which are white underneath, swifts are a dull black colour all over. They have long ‘scimitar shaped’ wings which speed them along as they career through the sky. Often they form screaming parties where small groups hurtle about at rooftop height making a distinctive screaming sound....a real indicator that summer has arrived!

 

British Birds

'Hirundine’ is the group name for swallows and martins. Swifts are unrelated to them.

While house martins build mud nests which they glue to walls just below the eaves, swifts leave no external evidence of their presence making it very hard to tell if you have any nesting. They seek out tiny holes in the mortar below gutters and eaves and creep inside the roof or onto the top of walls where their flimsy nests are built in the dark.

Swift

Swift in flight. (c) Claire Ward

Swifts are urban birds as well as rural ones so you don’t need to live out in the countryside to see them. However, they are in trouble because when older properties are renovated, the holes they use are blocked up preventing them from breeding. So a simple way to help them is to put up special nest boxes designed specifically for this ultra-aerial bird..

Swift

Swift leaving its nest box (c) Simon Richardson

On the butterfly front, look out for the holly blue as well as the orange tip, two species which can often be found in gardens.

Holly blues are small, active butterflies, seldom settling. They will now be laying their eggs on the flower buds of the holly.

May Gardens

Holly blue butterfly (c) Kieron Huston.

Orange tips are white but the males have bright orange patches on the tips of their wings. The females (and the males) have a wonderful mottled green markings on the undersides of their wings which can sometimes be seen when they are feeding on flowers.

May Gardens

Orange Tip Butterfly showing lovely underwing. (c) Helena Jones 

They lay their eggs either on honesty (a garden plant) or on hedge garlic (also called Jack by the hedge) which grows along road verges and by paths. Honesty flowers are usually purple whereas the tiny flowers of garlic mustard are white.

May Gardens

Orange Tip Butterfly (c) Dave Clay

Should you be lucky enough to have a wildlife pond (ie one with no fish), then there is much to observe if you sit patiently looking into the water.

Unlike frogs whose spawning takes place much earlier and in one mad flurry, smooth newts will be laying their eggs one by one right through into June.

The females attach each egg to the leaf of an underwater plant, then glueing the leaf around the egg to protect it.

The first damselflies may be seen during May. Smaller and more delicate than dragonflies, adult damselflies emerge and soon females, often with a male still attached to them, can be seen laying their eggs into the water, either by dipping the end of their abdomens onto the surface or by submerging their back ends and laying the eggs on or even in the stems of water plants. It is marvellous to watch them!

If you have managed to persuade the lawn mowing member of your family to leave one part uncut, then you will see a variety of flowers suddenly get a lease of life as may progresses! Daisies, clover (white or red) and purple selfheal may all spring up along with plantain and speedwell. Insects will thank you for this new supply of nectar and pollen.

Of course if you have set your heart on having a small wildflower meadow area, then you may have planted plus of such species as knapweed, oxeye daisy, greater burnet among many others. While some of these won’t flower until June or July, you should start to see their leaves appearing, pushing up among the grasses. If you sowed yellow rattle seeds, then by now the cross-leaved stems should be visible. This plant is semi-parasitic on grass roots and will suppress the growth of dominant grasses, allowing the slower growing wildflowers to reach up and open their flowers to the sunlight.

Yellow Rattle

Hay (also called yellow) Rattle. (c) Les Binns

Even if you devote a small fraction of your lawn to such an experiment by ceasing mowing, I think you will be delighted and surprised by the range of flowers than appear.

For me, May is the best (wildlife) month of the year in my garden....and I hope it might prove to be so for you too in yours, even if the lockdown has been lifted