If you are a nature lover, May is the month that you just want to go on for ever. The countryside is bright green and lit up still further with the colours of myriad wild flowers. Nesting birds are busy gathering food and making repeat trips to hungry nestlings. Butterflies and other insects are on the wing, taking advantage of all the new feeding opportunities. May really is a magic month for anybody who is even remotely interested in the natural world.
One of my favourite May-time activities since childhood has been to search for the chick-filled nests of our breeding bird species. This year, I was delighted to stumble across a blue tit nest secreted in a large wooden post at the edge of a car park in Nidderdale. The adult bird entered the post-box sized nesting site through a cleft on the top of the structure, before making its way down to a level area where its chicks were hidden away from predators. After each feed, the bird exited the nest site via a hole much lower down than the entrance, sometimes carrying a white faecal sac produced by a chick, thereby helping to keep the nest clean and tidy.
I could not resist the temptation to tip-toe my way up to the post and peer down into the crevasse, where I soon picked out open-mouthed chicks in the shadows. As I poked my face into the hole in an attempt to count the nestlings, the baby blue tits became excited, started uttering weak vocalizations and wriggled their heads around. The sound I was making had fooled the tiny chicks into thinking an adult – complete with a juicy caterpillar – was about to pay a welcome visit.
Blue tits spend a lot of time foraging among shrubs and small trees, and the May blossom they often visit is a truly wonderful sight around Otley at the moment. The white flowers that provide the dazzling display at this time of year belong to the hawthorn tree. It is surely one of England’s great nature spectacles, and the tree provides important habitat for a wide range of bird and insect life year round. Many of the large hawthorns in Wharfedale are trees that once formed part of important field boundaries. The checkerboard pattern they help create tells the story of land ownership and countryside change over several centuries in this special part of Yorkshire.