Bird Watching in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

‘My’ swamp cypress


Dear Readers, what a misty, chill, autumnal day it was today (Saturday)! We were slow off the mark for our weekly walk in the cemetery, but when we got there it was extremely quiet – maybe we’d missed all the people who normally come early, or maybe the weather just persuaded people to stay in bed. At any rate, I was happy to visit with the swamp cypress, who is standing in a puddle of copper spent foliage. Just look at the colour!

What was remarkable today, however, was the number of bird sightings. Howabout this kestrel for a start. This little fellow was sitting in an ash tree, watching the ground for mice. He looks a little scruffy but then none of us are all  that dapper at the moment.

He waited around for a good five minutes, then got fed up and headed off, flying sleek and low over the graves. He looked much sleeker in flight than he does here.

There were lots of smaller birds around – mixed flocks of tits, and lots of goldfinches pecking over the ash keys. Ash really does support a lot of different creatures. No wonder it was (probably) the World Tree in Norse mythology.

Goldfinch in the ash tree

And then, the best sighting of the day. I have been hearing green woodpeckers in one corner of the cemetery for weeks but have never got a photo. Finally, I saw one not too far away in a tree.

And I was very pleased with myself until my lovely long-suffering husband piped up.

‘What’s that green bird?’ he asked. ‘Is it a parrot?’

Well, no. About 10 metres away was another green woodpecker. What a splendid bird it is close up, with its red crest, blue eyes and gold tail feathers. This one was thumping about on an anthill, because unlike other UK woodpeckers, it doesn’t eat grubs from tree bark but concentrates on ants. Now I know where the anthill is, I’ll be able to keep an eye open.

Apparently the females have a black moustache, and the males have a moustache with a red centre. I didn’t manage to get any head-on photos to check with this bird. They are surprisingly large too.

Green woodpecker (Picus viridis)

I think that green woodpeckers look a little like dragons, and to be honest I couldn’t have been more delighted if they had been some kind of mythological animal. This one drilled away into the soil for a good two or three minutes as I stood there clicking away. It seems to me that getting outside on a miserable day sometimes brings its own rewards – I imagine that animals are a bit more relaxed when there aren’t so many people about. It certainly cheers me up.

Incidentally, does anyone remember this remarkable photograph captured by Martin Le-May in Hornchurch Country Park in 2015? No photoshop or other nonsense involved.

Apparently Le-May was walking in the park hoping to show his wife a green woodpecker as she’d never properly seen one before, so they both had their cameras and binoculars. What appears to have happened is that the weasel grabbed the woodpecker as the bird hunted for ants. Maybe the mammal underestimated the size of the woodpecker, but then weasels are renowned for punching above their weight. The bird took off, with the weasel presumably trying for a neck bite. Le-May saw the bird throw the predator off, and both went their separate ways.

No such drama for me, fortunately, just a sense of being incredibly lucky to have seen a kestrel and a green woodpecker in one visit.

A buzzard flew over again, this time with about twelve crows in attendance. I can’t help but think that the buzzard roosts in the wood. I wonder if it will nest next year? That really would be something.

And I imagine that the green woodpecker was the greenest bird in the UK until these little guys arrived.

Rose-ringed parakeet (Psitaculla krameri)


I suspect these guys are already looking for tree holes to nest in – they can start breeding as early as January. They certainly like the big old Victorian-era trees in the cemetery. Fortunately, between the cemetery and Coldfall Wood next door, there are a large number of mature trees to choose from, and we seem to be holding on to our populations of cavity-nesters – woodpeckers, stock doves, nuthatches and parakeets. Long may it continue. 

7 thoughts on “Bird Watching in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

  1. Anne

    What an exciting outing this one was! There is a certain attraction raptors – large or small – have that encourages me to admire them every much as any lion or leopard. I was thrilled along with you when you saw the kestrel and pleased you had photographed it. Then came the woodpecker; I smiled at the twigs obscuring a clear view for that it my problem with woodpeckers: they are often high up in a tree with far too many twigs or branches in the way! The pièce de résistance though is the Green Woodpecker on the ground: what a superb view of it! Also, I do not think I have heard of a woodpecker eating ants. There is always something new to learn. Thank you too for including the remarkable photograph of a weasel on the back of a woodpecker, which may be familiar to others but is a first for me.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I love that weasel on the woodpecker photo, what a once in a lifetime shot. I’m sure I’d have dropped my camera in all the excitement. Plus there’s the added bonus that both animals survived.

  2. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    Lovely pictures of the Green Woodpecker, we haven’t seen ours so much this year. You were certainly lucky to get such clear ones as they’re normally such shy birds, but you always know it’s one when they get disturbed and fly off by their lovely dipping flight. I was lucky enough to see a couple of the Parakeets when i went to Mount Vernon the other evening, only my second sighting.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Yes, I love that dipping flight! It’s like they’re on an invisible, shallow roller coaster. I always think the crows look as if they’re sculling across the sky…

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    How amazing to capture all those birds in such a short time. They are all so different too. Maybe I should venture out on grey and misty cold days too! (Though we have snow falling now, off and on, for 2 days).

  4. Ann Bronkhorst

    Yes, the Victorian tree plantings have left lasting benefits in so many ways, but I worry for the future as the great trees lose boughs or decay and need costly upkeep. I fear that in this and other cemeteries they will become ‘uneconomical’. As you’ve written before, this cemetery abounds in ash trees, mostly self-seeded, and ash-dieback is sure to cut swathes through them, sooner or later.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I always hope that the cost of removing them will be greater than the cost of keeping them, but as the march of the earth movers continues in the cemetery I am a bit nervous, I admit.


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