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 they have occasionally been seen at the feeders at Sutton Bank, drop by you might get lucky. 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 our most cherished 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.
  • 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 Gormire Lake, 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.

Return of the Goatsucker

The story of one of our most enigmatic birds or the title of a horror sequel? Read on to find out which it is…

Nightjar copyright Dan Lombard, Yorkshire Coast NatureDespite the recent cold weather, April has been a very exciting time for anyone who loves the natural world. At the same time as being allowed to travel again, returning migrant birds have brought diversity and joy to our landscape and my life. Morning birdsong has made me feel more alive and the brilliant colour of birds such as Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers flashing through the trees in oak woodlands has been a glorious sight.

May promises more African arrivals as the weather becomes warmer...

In a few short weeks we will welcome back one of our most mysterious birds, the European Nightjar.

Their journey has been long and hard; thousands of miles from their wintering sites in the southern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They will leave the rich habitat mosaics of savannah, scrub and tropical forest of Africa and arrive to nest in the mixed, semi-natural and commercial forests of the North York Moors National Park.

Typical Nightjar habitat in Britain is dry lowland heath with scattered low trees, scrubby woods, forest edges and clear-fell. The birds roost by day, perching horizontally along a low branch on a tree or on the ground, their cryptic markings blending in with tree bark, earth and leaf-litter.

They are both crepuscular and nocturnal, becoming active at dusk when the males fly between various perches uttering many strange calls including their eerie ‘churr’ call. This song, which has a ventriloquist quality, can continue for up to ten minutes and has been likened to the purr of a sewing machine (or in earlier days, a spinning wheel), mostly at the same pitch but occasionally falling before rising again.

Nightjar chick copyright Richard BainesDisplaying males glide in ‘butterfly flight’ with wings up in a V-shape, clap their wings and fan their tails to show the white spots on their outer primaries and outer tail feathers. They can sometimes be brought closer to an observer by the flap of a white handkerchief, which they may take to be another male displaying in their territory. Females and young males lack these white markings. No nest is made and the eggs (usually two, and mottled for camouflage) are laid on the ground and the young birds are fed by both parents.

Like many other night birds, negative and sometimes sinister folklore has grown up around them. In Yorkshire they were believed to be the wandering spirits of children who died unbaptised. The Latin name Caprimulgus translates as ‘Goat-sucker’, reflecting a belief from the days when people grazed their goats and sheep on commons that the birds, with their wide gapes, were capable of suckling milk from the animals – and infecting them with disease at the same time. In fact, Nightjars were simply intent on catching the insects which associate with these animals, and their gaping mouths, equipped with bristle-like hairs, almost certainly evolved to assist in this process.

Yorkshire Coast Nature are running special Nightjar Safaris starting on 28 May. Check out their website for more details, including how to book.