One of the things that I most recommend if you feel downhearted, or stressed, or distracted, is to find a little piece of greenness and sit in it for a few minutes. It can be a garden, a city square, a park, a field. I can guarantee that after a few minutes, you will notice something. Maybe there will be an insect doing something interesting, or a leaf that doesn’t look quite like all the others. If you close your eyes, you will hear birdsong threading its way between the sounds of the traffic and the chattering of passersby. For a few minutes you will be taken out of your head and into the big, rich, varied world around you, with all kinds of organisms going about their daily lives. If you are like me, you will realise just how much you don’t know, and your curiosity will be piqued, but more than that you will be restored to your true, animal self, the one that knows that the deadline, the perceived slight, the to-do list, are all superficial compared to the hum of bees and the insistent pounding of sap below the bark.
Today, I visited Cherry Tree Wood, a small park squeezed between East Finchley High Road and the Northern Line. Once upon a time it was joined up with Coldfall Wood, but today the two parts are separated by the houses of Fortis Green and the County roads.
Nonetheless, it is ancient woodland and this becomes clear when you see the massive oaks and the hornbeams that circle them.Unlike Coldfall Wood, the forest here has not been coppiced since the 1930’s, and so the woody part of the park is not very diverse – the ground layer is completely bare, and so it is largely populated by blackbirds and crows turning the leaf litter over.
However, at the edge of the wood there are some lovely areas of hawthorn and bramble, nettle and cow parsley, which form a great habitat for insects. The first Orange-Tip and Brimstone butterflies are spotted here, but not today on this grey Friday morning, with the sky threatening a downpour at any moment. What there is, is birdsong.
The summer migrants are arriving, and, as I plonk down on a log, I realise that I can hear the monotonous but cheery sound of a Chiffchaff, surely amongst the world’s most onomatopoeic birdnames. I have tried to capture the song for your delectation in the little film below. This non-descript little bird is a member of the warbler family, a ‘little brown job’ as birders like to say. He has flown here all the way from Africa, avoiding drowning, starvation, and being blown out of the sky by hunters in Cyprus and Malta. He has somehow arrived, and now he is claiming his territory. How much energy it must take to keep churning out that song, over and over again!
I venture further into the wood, and find another log to sit on. A small, silent brown bird lands above my head and surveys me solemnly before taking wing. I hear another song, and catch a glimpse of a pale grey bird with a black oval patch on the top of his head. This one also has a descriptive name; Blackcap. This bird is another species of warbler and in 2012 a female (with a rust-coloured cap) spent a few minutes every day in my garden, feeding on the suet. I’ve seen Blackcaps in the wood before, but have previously been so interested in looking at them that I didn’t really listen to their mellifluous, fluting call. Today I just turned on the filming feature on the camera so that I could record their song, and let myself bathe in the sound. If you listen carefully, you can also hear a Green Woodpecker ‘yaffling’ in the background, and assorted blackbirds and robins.Not every sound in the woods is so glorious. A grey squirrel becomes very cross, and decides to scold either me or an invisible rival for several minutes. When I first heard the sound of an angry squirrel, I couldn’t believe that it was coming from such a small animal. As you know, I greatly admire squirrels for their feistiness and character. I apologise in advance for my unsteadiness of hand in the little film below. That’s what excitement does for you.
Soon, it was time to head home, but as I did so I looped past the playing fields. This is one thing that Coldfall Wood does not have, and it’s surprising how many creatures value an area of grass. I looked quickly, not expecting to see anything, but here’s the lesson – never, ever give up the hope of seeing something. For, running around near the children’s play area was a largish fawn-coloured bird, quickly joined by her mate.
Time was that these were not unusual birds, and any home with a lawn could expect a visit at some point during the day, along with Song Thrushes. Yet, they seem to have become more and more scarce, leaving the field to blackbirds as our only common urban thrush. Mistle Thrushes are big birds, with a warm pattern of chocolate brown, caramel and cream on their breast. These birds were collecting worms; pausing, head cocked, hammering away, coming up with a small wriggling form hanging from their beaks. First one flew back to a large hawthorn tree, then the other, then both were back.
This was great news. Not only were there thrushes here, but they were breeding. In amongst all the traffic, the dogs, the children on their swings, the games of football, the litter, the pollution, nature was getting on with business as usual.
Well, this was richness enough for one day. I felt completely taken out of myself, ready to face work and domesticity again. For half an hour, I had silenced the chatter in my head to pay attention to something else. I wish for all of you a quiet green place, bees and beetles, Chiffchaffs and Mistle Thrushes, Cow Parsley and Hawthorn. And if you don’t have any to hand, you are very welcome to share mine.