Watching Wildlife in May
May is a month when spring should be well under way — although it’s still unpredictable. We’re on the cusp of summer, and days are lengthening, but they can also be unseasonably cold and wet. Resident birds and animals are getting on with the business of breeding and rearing young, spring migration continues as later arrivals join the vanguard species already here. In the meadows, hedgerows, woodland and bog wildflowers are blooming and flying insects fill the air with a busy hum.
Average May Temperature: 4°C-13°C
Average May Rainfall: c. 80mm
Average May Sunshine: 6 hours /day
The weather in Ireland in May is still very unpredictable. April showers never really stick to April in Ireland, and invariably roll over into May. It can often be unseasonably cold, but when the dun does come out it can also get quite warm. Winds remain very variable. Change… as is often the case with the Irish climate, is the only constant.
Clothing & Gear Tips
May can be a challenging month… because its so variable. One minute you’re freezing cold from a biting and unforgiving wind, the next you find yourself in the lee of a headland or hedgerow, the sun comes out, and you’re sweltering. Again, layers is the key to comfortable wildlife watching whatever the May weather throws your way.
Waterproofs: don’t leave home without them! May can be wet, wet, wet, and you need an outer shell that can keep you dry — it also needs to be wind proof to keep those chill blustery winds at bay.
As for April, a good insulating base layer (or a thick t-shirt), a decent fleece or mid layer and a high performance waterproof shell should see you comfortably through most condition’s you’ll encounter in the field in May.
You’ll also want waterproof footwear that will keep your feet dry and give you plenty of grip. If in doubt you can’t go wrong with a good pair if wellies!
TOP TIP: Always check the forecast (try www.met.ie for Irish weather updates — or check out the excellent AccuWeather app online or on iOS or Android on your smartphone for up-to-the-minute forecasts) and dress appropriately.
A good pair of binoculars is always a boon. Binoculars help you get closer to wildlife without disturbing it or scaring it away. They can also help you to identify birds, animals and even inaccessible wildflowers at distance.
Spotting scopes are a real boon if you’re scanning from the coast for seabirds or other marine wildlife, and can help with identification and enjoyment of distant birds and animals anywhere that getting physically closer isn’t an option.
What to look for
May is a busy month for Irish wildlife, and can be a great time to get out and explore.
Marine / coastal wildlife
There’s plenty going on around Irish coasts in May… here’s a selection of highlights.
A visit to a breeding seabird colony in May really is an unforgettable and awe-inspiring experience. The birds are in “breeding overdrive”, with tonnes of activity at colonies right around the Irish coast. Tens of thousands of gannets, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, kittawakes and more are breeding on Ireland’s offshore islands and coastal cliffs. And don’t forget to keep an eye out for chough, raven and peregrine along coastal cliffs.
The Skelligs off Co. Kerry, The Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare, the Saltees off Co. Wexford and Rathlin Island off Co. Antrim all offer great opportunities to get close views of nesting seabirds without disturbing the birds themselves. If you do visit an Irish seabird colony this breeding season (and I’d highly recommend it) please follow the Seabird Colony Code of Conduct outlined by the Irish Wildlife Trust and Birdwatch Ireland to ensure minimum disturbance to the birds.
Top Tip: when visiting a seabird colony be conscious of your impact and do everything possible to minimise disturbance to the birds. Use binoculars to get closer views, rather than approaching nests and always put the birds’ welfare first.
Offshore you’ll still find plenty of Manx shearwaters passing by, sometimes in large numbers, and you’ll be able to spot them from headlands, islands or boats during the month of May in favourable onshore winds. It can be a good time to spot skuas too — so, again with favourable onshore winds, keep a look out for great skuas, Arctic skuas the occasional pomarine skua and, if you’re very lucky, perhaps a long-tailed skua. The latter turn up rarely around the Irish coast, and are more often seen off the north and west coasts than the south and east.
Look out for the diminutive storm petrel (about the size of a house martin) skipping across the waves offshore in May. This tiny ocean-goer arrives in Ireland in numbers to breed every spring. Ireland supports the largest breeding population of the European storm petrel in the world, with around 25% of the population choosing Irish offshore islands as their nesting sites.
Storm petrels are nocturnal breeders and only return to their nesting burrows after dark — so are best looked for when foraging at sea. They can be seen from the coast all around the country, but peak concentrations are found around breeding hotspots — particularly the south coast, off county Kerry, where huge colonies breed on the Skelligs and The Blasket Islands.
For closer views look out for storm petrels from a boat. They can often be seen from passenger ferries on the Dublin-Hollyhead and Rosslare-Pembroke / Fishguard route.
Top Tip: if you’re travelling on a ferry to Britain or Europe take advantage of the excellent seabirds-watching platform. It’s also worth looking out for other marine wildlife like common dolphins, harbour porpoise and minke whales from the deck of the ferry.
May is peak basking shark season around the Irish coast, so look out for these gentle giants from headlands and other vantage points around the coast. Ideally you want a sustained bout of calm weather and plenty of sunshine to encourage phytoplankton near the water’s surface. That in turn will brings these huge fish up in the water column to feed, and they can often be seen on the surface when conditions are right.
Typically you’ll see the black dorsal fin and the top of the tail break the surface simultaneously — and occasionally the tip of the snout as the fish opens its mouth wide to hoover up plankton. The distance between the dorsal fin and the tail helps you to gauge the size of the shark.
Whales and Dolphins
May typically sees minke whale activity increasing in inshore waters, and with patience and perseverance it should be possible to spot Ireland’s smallest baleen whale during suitable calm conditions this month. They are most often seen from headlands around the south and south west coasts, but occur in all Irish waters. Look out for them surfacing, often beneath clouds of diving seabirds.
Other cetaceans to look out for in May include common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and the occasional Risso’s dolphin.
Check out this dedicated feature for tips on making the most of spring migration in Ireland.
May sees the arrival of the remainder of our spring migrants. Birds like the swift, spotted flycatcher, pied flycatcher, garden warbler… and of course more of the birds that began arriving in April. Listen out for calling cuckoos this month too, and if you’re lucky enough to be in their budding recolonisation range centered around Co. Wicklow May is a great time to listen for drumming great spotted woodpecker.
The same rules apply in May — almost anything could turn up in Ireland during the migration window, so it’s always worth keeping an open mind when out birding, especially around coastal hotspots (check the Spring Migration link above for details).
Resident birds are typically ahead of arriving migrants when it comes to nesting. While in April you tend to see parent birds collecting nesting material and nest building, by May they’re generally feeding young, and you’ll start to notice adult birds ferrying food back and forth to hungry chicks. Some early nesters, like blue tits, blackbirds and robins, may even be starting to fledge now — so keep a look out for parents feeding fledglings.
You may also hear chicks calling for food from the nest. Please resist the temptation to approach the nest as doing so can have devastating consequences for the birds. Use binoculars or a spotting scope to enjoy parent birds coming and going at distance.
Top Tip: please don’t approach occupied birds nests. Breeding birds are protected by law in Ireland, and it is an offence to disturb any nesting bird. That includes photographing a nest, young birds or eggs in the nest or adult birds at the nest — any photography of birds at the nest legally requires a license issued by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
A remote nest box camera can be a fantastic way to get close up views of nesting birds without disturbing them at all, and I’d highly recommend one if its something you’re interested in.
You don’t necessarily have to install your own either — live streaming of nest cameras is becoming increasingly popular, and you can keep an eye on everything from blue tits to peregrine falcons by checking live web cam feeds online.
Foxes are a key mammal species to look out for in May. Around this time of year young foxes start to venture above ground for the first time, and are in the process of being weaned. That means vixens have to find more food for hungry little mouths, and you’ll often see them out and about foraging and hunting during the day to maximise their capacity to catch prey.
Top Tip: take extra care with chickens and small domestic animals like guinea pigs and rabbits at this time of year, and make sure they’re locked away in fox-proof runs or buildings during the night, and at dawn and dusk when foxes are most active.
Mammals like squirrels, hedgehogs, stoats, pine martens, badgers, hares, rabbits and wood mice are also very active at this time of year as they rear their young and forage incessantly. Dawn and dusk are the best times to look for mammals… and encounters will often be by chance and fleeting, so keep your eyes peeled and make the most of the moment if you do see a wild mammal.
All of the mammal advice in April’s Wildlife Calendar still applies.
Bats are on the wing most nights now, unless the temperature really dips — if you have a bat detector or know someone who has it can be a great time to get out for a bat walk as the light fades and darkness falls. Even without a bat detector you can often see bats wheeling overhead, hunting small flying insects, silhouetted against the evening sky.
Common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle are the most commonly encountered of Ireland’s nine confirmed bat species.
Reptiles and Amphibians
The first tadpoles are turning into froglets and crawling out of ponds and ditches round about now. Look out for these tiny frogs-in-miniature near any standing water with a bit of surrounding cover. Ireland’s only land reptile… the common lizard, can be seen basking in sunny locations at this time of year. They can be easier to spot early in the morning when they are cold and generally more sluggish.
Insects and other invertebrates
Insects are becoming increasingly active as the weather warm (slowly) into May.
Keep a look out for different bumblebee species, solitary bees and hoverflies — there’s a great guide to bee and hoverfly ID on the Pollinators section of the National Biodiversity Data Centre website.
On fine evenings in May you’ll often see clouds of St. Mark’s Fly hanging in the air, and the eponymous “Mayfly” makes an appearance, perhaps unsurprisingly, at this time of year.
Butterflies to look out for include the orange tip, the “whites” (small white, large white and green veined white), the blues (small blue, common blue and holly blue), peacock, speckled wood and green hairstreak. The magnificent migrating painted lady butterfly typically arrives in Ireland this month, having travelled all the way from North Africa — an impressive feat for such a fragile and delicate creature.
Rarer butterflies on the wing in May include the exquisite pearl-bordered fritillary and marsh fritillary.
Early damselflies — the more delicate and diminutive relatives of dragonflies — should be on the wing now. Look out for large red and common blue damselflies near water. You may also be lucky enough to spot a cockchaffer or, to give its colloquial name, the “Maybug”. These large brown beetles can reach sizes of 25-30 mm. Adults only live for 6-8 weeks, with numbers usually peaking in May.
May can also be a good month to look for moths. If you own a moth trap, or know someone who has one, milder May evenings can yield excellent results. Even without a dedicated trap a white wall or sheet with a lamp shining on it should attract moths in. You’ll need a good moth field guide to identify what you find. If you’re really lucky you may attract some of our impressive large moth species like the hawk moths or the puss moth.
Bluebells are the undoubted stars of the show in May, and there are few sights to beat an Irish woodland carpeted in a dense display of nodding purple-blue blooms. Look out for the best displays in your local woodland… although you’ll often find small remnant populations in once-forested areas along pasture margins and hedgerows.
Hedgerows, verges and meadows burst into colour in May as early flowering plants still in bloom are joined by a host of new arrivals, including several Irish orchids like the early purple orchid, the common spotted orchid, the marsh orchid and the fly orchid.
You’ll find a long list of Irish wildflowers to look out for in May on the excellent wildflowersofireland.net website by Zoe Devlin — and Zoe’s superb book (reviewed here) of the same name is an excellent resource for anyone interested in Ireland’s wild plants.
Don’t forget to give us your hints and tips on other wildlife to look out for in May— and likely locations for wildlife near you in the comments below, and keep us posted on all your wildlife sightings over on the Ireland’s Wildlife page on Facebook.