The countryside in May
Sarah Ryan is delighting in the sound of birdsong and burgeoning new colour filling the spring landscape
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.
“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.
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.