May is here. Arguably, the best month for birdwatching brings opportunities aplenty, with migrants still flooding in, while the last winterers are leaving and another range of species comes through on passage. Birds will be on the move everywhere, not just at coastal hotspots, but just about wherever you live in the UK. This is the time when working a local patch can really deliver the goods. Here are five rather special birds to kick off any May.
Many birds are looking particularly good now. This applies to the lovely Black Tern, a passage bird in the UK. They are ‘marsh terns’, at home feeding over freshwater (or seen on the coast). The flight is buoyant and they feed by graceful dips to pick invertebrate food from the water surface. In breeding plumage, they are black-bodied (white undertail) with grey wings, back and tail. A flock of Black Terns dropping in to feed over a gravel pit or small lake is an inland patch-watcher’s small slice of May heaven.
The beautiful Red-rumped Swallow is quite a rare (but regular) visitor to the UK in spring. For instance, there were about 20 seen in the country in April and May last year. They are similar in size and shape to Swallows, also sharing the long tail streamers. But these southern European visitors have a paler (rusty) nape and buff and rufous rump, a pale throat and black undertail coverts. Red-rumped Swallows also have a subtly different flight style, with sweeping graceful glides between bouts of flapping. Like our other hirundines, Red-rumped Swallows are often found feeding on emerging insects above water.
Cuckoos start to arrive in good numbers in April and in May are at their peak of singing and so at their most noticeable. They are shy birds, much more often heard than seen. It is not that they sing from deep within vegetation, often preferring to use exposed perches on the top of trees or on telegraph poles and lines and along fence lines. It is just that they are very wary of humans. Also, they are, by nature, rather individual birds, usually seen singly, which helps make seeing a Cuckoo a far from everyday occurrence. Many people, even birdwatchers, are not always aware that they have seen a Cuckoo, when one flies by. They look like something between a Kestrel and a skinny dove, whizzing along on flapping wings which don’t appear to rise above the horizontal. Sexes are similar, but there is an uncommon red-morph of the female; like a speckled juvenile but in a glorious rufous colour.
As with many wading birds, the winter plumage of the Knot is pale grey above, paler grey-white beneath. But, also in common with many waders, the breeding plumage is glorious. Knot have beautiful brick red underparts and spangled upperparts. This is a great month to catch up with Knot looking at their smartest, as they pass through on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds. Almost exclusively a coastal species, inland Knots are one of those unusual treats that are far from annual at most sites.
Everybody’s favourite auk, the Puffin, is an extremely familiar, yet curiously exotic looking beauty in a family packed with handsome birds. They are smaller than many expect, but unmistakable with their pale face and enormous colourful bill. Unlike our other auks, these are burrow nesters, so need grassy slopes, usually near or on the top of cliffs. They are famously tame and approachable and are simply superb birds to watch up close and personal. Go meet a Puffin!