North York Moors

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May

Turtle doves by Richard BennettTurtle doves by Richard Bennett

Long warm days coupled with lush trees and hedges alive with the sound of birds, plus carpets of bluebells, one of spring's defining moments.

Our tip

Birdsong is really noticeable now, particularly at dawn and dusk, as birds clamour to partner up with mates, stake out their territories and nest. As birds begin to arrive from the continent to stay in the rich feeding grounds of the North York Moors over summer, competition for good nest sites really hots up. Get up early and head to woodland half an hour before dawn – you'll be amazed by what you hear. Also look out for events around International Dawn Chorus Day in May, Ryenats usually hold one and guests are always welcome.

Also look out for:

  • The beautiful but nationally declining turtle doves, now on the ‘Red List’ of conservation concern. Mainly found in south eastern England, they are occasionally seen on the southern edges of the National Park, and for the last few years at Sutton Bank. Turtle doves, often  seen in pairs so fondly referred to  as the ‘bird of love’, are only around  for a short time, usually in late  April/May through to mid-August before they migrate. If you see turtle doves – and people have spotted them in their gardens – then let us know, as recording bird sightings and behaviours helps  in the battle to save one of the most cherished of birds.
  • Visit a riverside on a still warm day to see the annual hatch of mayfly, where the insects emerge from the water for the briefest of lives: some have under an hour in which to mate, lay eggs and then die. Watch trout jumping to gorge on them. Swallows swoop in low constantly, along with robins, chaffinches, grey wagtails and dippers, and at dusk bats will take their fill too.
  • Over on the coast, it’s breeding time for shore crabs and the female crabs have to moult their shells prior to breeding – so look out for lots of old shells washed up on the shore.
  • Head to Wykeham Forest Raptor Viewpoint for a chance to see many different birds of prey. From goshawks with distinctive 'sky dance' courting to common buzzards, kestrel, sparrowhawk, peregrine, red kites and rare honey buzzards, a delight to watch with their curious ‘wing-clapping’ flight displays.
  • Watch out for the speedy merlin too flying low over the tops of heather hunting for small birds. Fylingdales Moor Conservation Area leaves stands of mature heather as safe nesting zones for these agile flyers.
  • The North York Moors is the furthest north you’ll find the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, supporting 10% of the UK’s remaining colonies. Find cowslip and primrose growing in an open sunny woodland clearing in a limestone area (in the dales near Hawnby is one such place) and you may spot this rare little orange and brown butterfly.

Walk of the month

It's a quintessential spring experience as carpets of bluebells cover the floor of ancient woodlands, creating a soft, dreamy blue haze. A soothing sight and a heady scent, also drawing in insects looking for food in the nectar rich flowers, a visit to any bluebell wood is a treat.

Take your pick from Riccal Dale, near Helmsley; Newton Wood and Cliff Ridge Wood near Roseberry Topping; Garbutt Wood with its dramatic view over Lake Gormire, near Sutton Bank; and Pretty Wood at Castle Howard and East Moor Banks which can both be enjoyed on a circular walk from Welburn (pdf).

Yorkshire Coast Nature tips

The experts at Yorkshire Coast Nature are our eyes on the ground, here's Richard Baines' pointers on what else to look out for this month.

Hats off to the rule breakers

Only three things are certain in life; birth, change and death. If change is so certain, why do we create labels for species? The robin nests in low bushes, the swallow nests in barns. Well I know one thing; life would be so much more boring without these old labels because it’s fascinating watching wildlife break the rules we give them.

I have spent my whole life watching birds, excited to see who adapts quickest, inspired to see how species change and which habitats they change to.

Yellowhammers fascinate me. Look out for them in farmland, on hedges, say both old and new bird guides. But if you venture into the Great Yorkshire Forest in the North York Moors National Park and listen carefully in the forest clearings, you will hear many renditions of ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’, their famous song.  

Yellowhammers have been forest clearing birds for a long time, maybe thousands or millions of years. They love open habitats with scrub or low thicket stage tree growth. They have only adapted to hedgerows since we have had hedgerows, which is a very, very short time in the evolution of Yellowhammers.

Linnet (c) Richard Baines Where there is a good range of scrub and/or gorse, look out for another forest clearing bird often labelled in the farmland suite; common linnet. 

In the spring male linnets are a fine sight with their rose-pink chest and grey head.

Both of these birds broke out of forest clearings and into farmland when a new opportunity arose. 

Hedges were first planted systematically in the 13th century but we don’t know how long it took yellowhammers and linnets to adapt. I would guess fairly quickly.

Yellow Wagtail (c) Richard BainesAnother big habitat adaptation which appears to have taken place in my lifetime is by the big sunshine bird, the impressive yellow wagtail. Yellow wagtails were historically labelled as nesting in water meadows or wet grassland. In our eastern part of Yorkshire, I regularly see them breaking those rules by singing and carrying food into arable crops, such as winter wheat and occasionally spring beans.

This adaptation must surely be due to the dramatic loss of wet grasslands and water meadows, it’s the usual case of adapt or die out. Now the problem is how can they find enough insect food in a pesticide ridden arable crop to make this new change work? 

In many cases I suspect they depend on nearby grassland with livestock, puddles on farm tracks or muck and water in farmyards to find their food. It would be very sad to see yellow wagtails vanish. A male yellow wagtail dropped in front of my group yesterday, at point blank range on our Yorkshire Birding Day. It felt like a piece of the sun or a jewel from Africa had landed, a real wow moment.  

The next time you’re in a book shop, old or new, pick up a bird book and see if you can find some of these defunct habitat labels and then seek out the rule breakers!