The wildlife of St Nicks buzzed and bloomed in May as always, regardless of human troubles. The regular group of Wildwatch volunteers could not, of course, meet up as usual for their weekly walk around the reserve. But a few of us could enjoy St Nicks during our legally-sanctioned local walks. We recorded what wildlife sightings we could. Hope you enjoy what we are sharing here. Hope – even more – that you can all enjoy it for yourselves. Soon, soonish, or whenever you can. Safely.
May was warmer than average, particularly in the second half of the month. It was very dry and exceptionally sunny, as confirmed by the Met Office. Many flowers bloomed earlier than usual, but the meadows were parched by the end of May. Numerous insects clearly relished these balmy conditions, but – less visibly – organisms that depend on freshwater or damp soil probably struggled. Such extreme changes in the weather (remember our record-breakingly wet February?) are likely to become more common as global warming continues. This will have drastic consequences for wildlife at St Nicks – and everywhere.
All of the usual spring-time birds were seen at St Nicks, together with some species that are less commonly seen in May.
Among the summer-visitor warblers, Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were the easiest to hear (though, like all elusive warblers, much harder to see), with up to four or five males of both singing at a time. A Willow Warbler was a regular songster near Tang Hall Beck early in the month, but was only occasionally heard later on. It was briefly joined by a Garden Warbler on 9th May, and by a Whitethroat whose scratchy song could often be heard near the playground during the final week of May.
The resident passerine birds of St Nicks did well too. Carrion Crow, Magpie, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Great Tit, Blue Tit and Long-tailed Tit all made regular appearances. So too did Robin, Wren, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Bullfinch and Goldfinch. By the end of the month several of these were observed with newly fledged young, including the three tit species and young robins – with speckled brown rather than red breasts. More surprising were occasional sightings of a Treecreeper and Goldcrests: these are usually only winter visitors at St Nicks.
Woodpigeons (so easily ignored) were, as always, some of the commonest birds at St Nicks, and their Collared Dove cousins were seen too. Mallards could be spotted on Tang Hall Beck, and a pair of Moorhens made (an apparently unsuccessful) attempt to nest here. A total of 33 bird species were recorded this month, including seven seen overhead. Greylag geese, Feral Pigeons, Grey Herons and Herring Gulls were just flying by. Swifts, however, were feeding on some of the abundant insect life – aerial plankton – above St Nicks. A Sparrowhawk and a Buzzard were on the look out for more substantial prey.
Mammals and Amphibians
Grey Squirrels and Rabbits were the only wild mammal species recorded in May. Staff report that Smooth Newts were thriving in the pond at the Environment Centre; and a Common Frog was seen hopping around on the meadow.
Despite a relative lack of experienced observers, there was plenty of insect life to record – more than can be fully reported here.
Butterflies seemed rather scarcer than would be expected, given the fine weather. Speckled Wood and the three white species – Large, Small and Green-veined – were seen most often. Orange-tip, Peacock and Holly Blue were also observed, and Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars chomped their way through some of St Nicks’ disregarded nettles.
Most of the moths seen flying by day here this month were micromoths. Many of these are tricky to identify, although one, Grey Gorse Piercer, was recorded here for the first time. Cocksfoot and Nettle-tap were abundant, and the silky tents spun by Bird-cherry Ermine larvae could be seen on many of their food plants. The most spectacular lepidopteran show of the month was staged by Green Longhorn moths. Dozens of these iridescent beauties swarmed around the Dragonstones; this lekking behaviour has evolved as a way of finding a mate, and was captured in this brief video clip.
All six of the UK’s commonest bumblebee and carder bee species could be seen. Tree Bumblebees were probably most frequent by the end of May – remarkable for a species that first made its way across the English Channel less than 20 years ago. Solitary bees were abundant too, but not always easy to identify. Ashy and Orange-tailed Mining Bees were spotted, as well as Red Mason Bees. A particularly striking bee was either a Flavous or a Panzer’s Nomad Bee, Nomada flava or panzeri – but you can’t be certain without dissecting its genitals.
Flies of all kinds buzzed around in the May sunshine. Boldly coloured hoverflies caught the eye especially. Harmless mimics of bees and wasps, these included Footballer, Long and Marmalade hoverflies and the furry bumblebee-like Common Bulb Fly. Another fly pretending to be a bee was Dark-bordered Bee Fly. You had to get close up to appreciate the patterns of a tiny picture-winged fly, Tephritis neessii, whose larvae feed on the Ox-eye Daisies.
Five species of ladybird were recorded here this month. Other beetles seen included Thistle Tortoise, Willow Flea, Red-headed Cardinal, Common Click, Alder Leaf, Malachite, and Wasp Beetles.
A good variety of bugs were seen as well. Most of the common shieldbugs were recorded: Gorse, Green, Hairy, Parent and Woundwort. A newcomer to St Nicks was a Brassica Shieldbug. Like another striking red and black bug seen this month, the Cinnamon Bug, this species’ range is rapidly extending northwards as a result of global warming. (Of course many organisms are not so adaptable).
Alderflies were spotted by Tang Hall Beck, where their larvae live in the beck-bottom silt. Other insects that spend most of their lives as aquatic carnivores are dragonflies and damselflies. The first of the year at St Nicks were seen in May: a (female) Broad-bodied Chaser dragon, and Large Red and Blue-tailed (male) damsels. Fossil dragonflies date back to before the age of dinosaurs: 300 million years later. Still they dazzle.
Not many spiders – or other invertebrates – were recorded this month. Most noticeable, perhaps, were Nurseryweb Spiders sunning themselves on bramble leaves close to their broods of eggs and spiderlings.
Hawthorn lived up to its other name – Mayflower – this month, as the most abundant tree blossom at St Nicks. Earlier in May it was joined by Bird Cherry, Rowan, Sycamore, and Field and Norway Maples. Blooming later in May were Elder, Dogwood, Lime and Guelder-rose, with pink Bramble and Dog Rose flowering closer to the ground. The sheer abundance of nectar and pollen produced by these trees and shrubs is vital for a host of pollinating insects.
The golden flower-spikes of non-native Laburnums were also popular with bees. The magnificent specimen by the path to the Hazel Court entrance has now been as identified as a different species, Laburnum alpinum, from the earlier-flowering trees behind the compost heaps, which are L. anagyroides. (By the way, you can hear a Blackcap, and other birds, singing close to Laburnum here).
Cow Parsley was, as usual in May, the most prominent herbaceous (non-woody) plant flowering in the hedges and woodland edges of St Nicks. So common, indeed, that is easy to take for granted its delicate charm, captured in an alternative name: Fairy Lace. Other members of the carrot family – umbellifers or Apiaceae – in flower this month were its more robust relative, Hogweed, and also Ground-elder (usually shorter) and Hemlock (often taller at 2 or 3 metres).
Garlic Mustard, Green Alkanet, Russian Comfrey, Welted Thistle and Common Nettle were also flowering in the lusher areas of vegetation. There were also clumps of Honeysuckle (or Woodbine) and Fringecups to be seen in a couple of woodland areas, and Wood Avens could be seen in almost any shady place. Red and White Dead-nettles flowered by woodland paths, as did two other members of the Lamiaceae family, dark purple Ground-ivy and (the rather invasive) Variegated Yellow Archangel.
Meadow Foxtail was the earliest grass to flower in abundance, with Sweet Vernal Grass, Cock’s-foot, Crested Dog’s-tail, Yorkshire-fog and others joining it by the end of the month.
Much more obvious grassland flowers were Cowslips at the start of May, followed later by Salad Burnet, Ox-eye Daisy, and crane’s-bill species including Hedgerow, Cut-leaved, Shining and Dove’s-foot. Red and White Campion did well, and there were even a couple of examples of their hybrid, Pink Campion.
Several species from the pea family – legumes or Fabaceae – began to flower in earnest during this month. These included Red and White Clover, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Black Medick, and Common, Bush and Tufted Vetches. However, June and July are when these, and other meadow plants such as knapweeds, will flower in their full glory. There’s still plenty to look forward to for those who have been unable to visit St Nicks this spring.
Fungi and Galls
Not many fungi were noticed this month. However there was one new fungus recorded in May. This was Puccinia poarum, which causes distinctive orange deformations, or galls, on Coltsfoot leaves.
Numerous other galls were observed, particularly on trees and shrubs. These are caused by many different organisms, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, mites, aphids, midges and other flies, sawflies, and wasps. Also new for St Nicks were one of the largest and most recognizable of galls, oak apples. These are caused by the wasp Biorhiza pallida. Each oak apple (which can be up to 4cm across) contains several dozen tiny wasp larvae that trick their host plant into producing a productive and nutritious home for them. In turn these parasites were observed being hyperparasitized by another wasp species (a chalcid, probably a Torymus sp.). What wonders there are in nature.
This post was written by one of the few Willdwatch volunteers who could make regular visits to St Nicks during May. With much help from a couple of other Wildwatchers who could also get to St Nicks during their daily walks. Help, too, from the rest of the WW team in identifying things.. All photos are from St Nicks – except for the Large Red Damselfly, which was taken at nearby Heworth Holme (managed as a nature reserve by St Nicks staff and volunteers).