The coun­try­side in May

Sarah Ryan is de­light­ing in the sound of bird­song and bur­geon­ing new colour fill­ing the spring land­scape

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

May bal­ances pre­car­i­ously be­tween spring and full glo­ri­ous sum­mer. Af­ter light sprin­klings of rain and longer hours of sun, the coun­try­side erupts into pan­de­mo­nium. Ev­ery mo­ment of the day is full of sound and colour. The robin be­gins with the first chirps of the dawn cho­rus; fresh green leaves reach for the mid­day sun; white flow­ers glow in the evening moon­light. Life is in­sis­tent at all hours of the day. Farm­land cov­ers much of Cam­bridgeshire, but pock­ets of wood­land can be found nearby. The west­ern edge of Grafham Wa­ter is one of my favourite places to walk lo­cally, es­pe­cially in the

Vic­tor James Da­ley, ‘The Hawthorn’

early evening. Blackthorn’s tiny white flow­ers have faded to a tea-stained brown, and soft, pale-green leaves un­wrap from its spiny branches. The hedgerow is still laden with tis­sue-like blos­soms, as hawthorn flow­ers take their turn. It is also known as the May tree, or May­bush, so abun­dant are its blooms at this time of year. Though pretty, they pro­duce a sweet, vaguely mouldy scent. This is be­cause the flower gives off trimethy­lamine, one of the first chem­i­cals to be re­leased by de­com­pos­ing flesh. Though it may seem a mor­bid as­so­ci­a­tion, it is ac­tu­ally a clever trick to help the plant flour­ish. As well as soli­tary bees, its pol­li­na­tors in­clude flies and bee­tles, who crawl over the flow­ers in search of the food pro­duc­ing such a tempt­ing scent. The trees pro­vide sus­te­nance and shel­ter for hun­dreds of other coun­try­side in­hab­i­tants, one of whom I have spent years try­ing to spot.

Furtive per­former

“It is all a-bloom this morn­ing In the sunny silent­ness, And grows by the road­side, ra­di­ant As a bride in her bri­dal dress"

Trea­sure hunt walks are often or­gan­ised in search of the nightin­gale, Lus­cinia megarhyn­chos, and its beau­ti­ful, com­plex song. Stop­ping by a thickly forested hedge, I’ll peer be­tween dense twigs, de­ter­mined to catch sight of the se­cre­tive singer. Per­haps there is a brief flut­ter, a flicker of light and shadow, and noth­ing else. I have not been lucky yet, but I’m happy to walk the foot­path as its quick, com­pli­cated song fills the evening air. Per­haps the mys­tery is prefer­able for both lis­tener and singer any­way. Of course, the nightin­gale isn’t the only one up. The dusk cho­rus is as de­light­ful as the dawn and in full swing by now. The black­bird and song

thrush flute and chirrup, and the robin can­not be qui­eted. As well as be­ing the first up in the morn­ing, he is also last to bed. The cuckoo has no­to­ri­ously ruth­less breed­ing habits, lay­ing its eggs in other birds’ nests, where the chick hatches, ousts its con­tenders and grows on food from the un­know­ing sur­ro­gates. Ev­ery now and again, its lilt­ing call rings out.

Ex­u­ber­ant flow­er­ing

Sim­i­lar in flight, though smaller, is an­other elu­sive evening vo­cal­ist: the night­jar. This sum­mer vis­i­tor has just ar­rived from Africa to feast on the bounty of in­sects. His high-chur­ring, low-purring song con­tains more than 30 notes per sec­ond. Be­neath my feet, blue­bells and ram­sons, or wild gar­lic, are ev­ery­where. Red cam­pion, with its sim­ple lobed, ma­genta pe­tals, is start­ing to come in, along with sim­i­lar starry-white greater stitch­wort. This is also known as snap­dragon, for its brit­tle stems. Cow pars­ley seems to be tak­ing over, start­ing with the road verges, where great clouds of white bil­low up­wards. Wild flow­ers are ev­ery­where, birds are ev­ery­where and the coun­try­side just tipped a lit­tle closer to sum­mer.

“O Nightin­gale! that on yon bloomy spray War­blest at eve, when all the woods are still, Thou with fresh hope the lover's heart dost fill, While the jolly hours lead on pro­pi­tious May" John Mil­ton, ‘To the Nightin­gale’

Left to right: An Em­peror moth, with its ‘eye’ mark­ings, on hawthorn; colour erupts in a blue­bell wood; the elu­sive nightin­gale makes it­self heard; bowed trum­pet heads of pur­ple vetch.

Walk­ing through a sea of wild gar­lic in ver­dant wood­land.

Sarah Ryan grew up in the Scot­tish Bor­ders, climb­ing trees and por­ing over wildlife books. Those habits have lit­tle changed and she still makes time daily to get out into the woods nearby, or at week­ends to ven­ture fur­ther afield. In­spi­ra­tion comes from Roger Deakin, Nan Shep­herd, Kath­leen Raine, Chris Wat­son and out­side the win­dow.

Left to right: A reed war­bler un­wit­tingly feeds a cuckoo chick; cow pars­ley in pro­fu­sion along a spring verge; dainty red cam­pion flow­ers punc­tu­ate the green­ery.

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