Category Archives: London Birds

Winter Comes to East Finchley

Dear Readers, on Sunday the snow that the rest of the country has had for weeks finally arrived in London. I still find something magical about it, the way that it covers up all the imperfections for a while, the way it falls so silently. It seems to put the birds into some confusion though: for a few minutes they disappear, as if trying to work out what this white stuff is, and then they’re back.

Starlings queueing up in the hawthorn

Male chaffinch on the sunflower seeds

Female chaffinch and goldfinch

I had been saying that I hadn’t seen a blackbird in the garden this winter when, as if by magic, one appears in the cherry tree next door.

But then the magic really happens.

This beautiful, well-fed little vixen puts in an appearance. She sniffs out all the suet we’ve thrown down for the birds and then goes for a wander.

Occasionally she spots a bird and decides to try her luck.

But mostly she’s just pottering. How do I know it’s a vixen? Because females squat to scent mark, while males raise a leg. She’s in beautiful condition. Look at that lovely long fur.

I wonder if I’ll get a portrait, and then she looks up. Look at that face. She has absolutely made my day.

A Chilly Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Redwing about to fly off

Dear Readers, the cemetery is full to busting with redwings at the moment – these small thrushes are extremely shy, so getting any kind of photo has proven to be a challenge. The one in the photo above headed off as soon as it saw my camera. I wonder if they are hyperalert to people raising metal objects in their direction? I know that the woodpigeons in Dorset were always much more worried when I tried to take a photograph than the ones in London, and I put this down to the fact that the country ones are much more likely to be shot. Anyhow, even seeing a redwing was a nice start to the walk.

As usual, I suddenly notice things that I’ve been passing every week. This grave, in quite a well-manicured part of the cemetery, is completely covered in ivy. I wonder what’s under there? Quite the conundrum.

We loop through the woodland cemetery site, and I stop to say hello to the swamp cypress, now completely denuded of its leaves. But look, it has buds! Spring will soon be here.

And as we walk along our normal path, I suddenly notice an outbreak of snowdrops. What a particular joy they are this year! They must have been pushing up for ages, but I’ve only paid attention to them now that they’re in flower. Years ago, I imagine someone planted a few bulbs, and now they’re colonising the whole area. I love their delicacy and their strength.

Once I’ve noticed them in this spot, I see them all over the cemetery.

And by the stream, in the usual stand of ash trees, a robin is announcing his territory to the world.

These little puffed-up balls of feistiness are in full song: if you listen above the rumble of the traffic from the North Circular you can hear them challenging one another right through the cemetery.

We head towards the woody part of the cemetery. I hear a buzzard mewing, and crows cawing, but don’t see anyone overhead this week. However, there is a fine gathering of crows and magpies, and they are happily picking up chunks of bread that someone has left them under one of the trees. They are joined by at least two foxes, who are too fast for me to catch properly on camera, though there is the faintest suggestion of one in the photo immediately below.

Fox just to the right of the road sign.

We came into the cemetery at about 10.15 (it opens at 10 o’clock) and a car shot past us on the way out – maybe this was the person who feeds the birds. I’m sure they need it in this cold snap. Anyhow, now we know where to head for. Maybe next time I’ll have more luck getting a photo of the foxes.

I was rather moved by this Victorian cherub, on the grave of a child who died at six years old. It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in terms of health: my grandmother lost three of her four children, one to scarlet fever, one to diptheria and one to a late miscarriage, before she gave birth to my Mum. This wasn’t unusual in the East End. But just because early death was so common it didn’t make it any easier; my Nan remembered the poems on the remembrance cards for her dead children for her whole life. I suppose that being in a pandemic is, for many of us, our first experience of a disease that curtails our activities and fills us with fear, one where medical science doesn’t immediately have all  the answers. As recently as the 1950’s people lived in dread of their children contracting polio and ending up in an iron lung. We have been very lucky, and you don’t have to walk far in this cemetery before you start to realise how unusual we’ve been. It makes me very humble when I see what previous generations have gone through, and what I’ve taken for granted, at least until now.

The great spotted woodpeckers don’t care about our troubles  though, they’re much too busy drumming and staking their claims to the best trees. I watch two woodpeckers chasing one another past the chestnut trees, and then get this most excellent photo of one. Yet another candidate for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I feel.

And then I wander down for a quick look at the Mond mauseleum. I’ve mentioned it before, but it really is an extraordinary thing: my book ‘London Cemeteries – An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer’ by Hugh Meller and Brian Parsons describes it as ‘the finest classical building in any of the London cemeteries (along with the Ralli mortuary chapel at Norwood’). It was designed by Darcy Braddell, later a vice-president of the R.I.B.A, and was built in 1909. I’ve mentioned before that Ludwig Mond was a major industrialist and philanthropist. I must confess that I don’t love this building: it seems a bit overbearing and austere to me.

But I am very fond of this little tree that stands at the road junction opposite. I am thinking that it’s a weeping cultivar of silver birch, maybe ‘Tristis’? No doubt you lovely people will put me right. There was no angle from which I could avoid the sign pointing to the crematorium and pick up the purple of the shoots and the snaky twisting of the branches, so this will have to do. But what a pretty little tree this is! I shall have to pay it more regular visits to see how it’s coming along.

A Sunny Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

New growth on the weeping willow

Dear Readers, there was a definite touch of spring in the air this morning, so off we went for our usual trot around the cemetery. I always love the entrance with its cedars of Lebanon and stately weeping willow. Apparently the cemetery used to have a lovely lodge which was demolished in 1850 and replaced by a very functional brick building. The quest for modernity in the 1960s and 1970s seems to have involved many acts of vandalism, but at least the trees are still here. They make me feel more peaceful as soon as I see them.

One of the gravestones along the first path that we walk has fallen over, and turned into an impromptu birdbath. I often see crows taking advantage of the shallow water.

The spring weather seems to have kicked off a whole lot of corvid activity. There was a family of magpies in the ash trees, calling to one another and cheerfully picking through the twigs. I imagine there are lots of little insects who are having their hibernation brought to an abrupt end.

And then further on, I see a pair of crows, one of whom has what looks like a chocolate brownie in his beak. At least I hope that’s what it is. I suppose it could be something more unpleasant, but I don’t know of any animal that produces rectangular droppings, so I’m going with the brownie theory.

Down by the eastern entrance I notice a parakeet, perched up in a high branch. There seemed to be a lot of these birds around today, enjoying the sunshine.

Walking along Withington Road within the cemetery, I was struck by how the sun illuminated some of the angels.

And suddenly I had a sense of being watched.

And yes, it’s the statue of the Scotsman that I’ve mentioned before. He must only be visible from this point at the very turning point of the year, when all the leaves have fallen but the new growth hasn’t got going yet. There’s always something new to see here. And how splendid the rosehips are looking! There are still so many redwings here that I’m surprised there are any left at all.

Earlier, I’d seen two or three crows chasing the poor old kestrel. But as we were leaving there was a right old ruckus, with crows flying in from all points of the compass. Nowadays I always look up and try to get my camera ready.

And there, right in the middle of the whirl of wings was the buzzard. Poor thing, I am beginning to feel almost sorry for it. It’s the bird in the lower centre with the paler mottled underwings. The angle is deceptive, but it’s at least half as large again as the crows. I still haven’t worked out where it roosts, but I can’t imagine it’s popular in the cemetery.

The crows, on the other hand, seemed to be having the time of their lives. They’ll fly at anything – kestrel, sparrowhawk, buzzard or their particular favourite, the heron (which of course looks like a gigantic bird of prey in flight. As far as I know, none of these birds will take crow eggs or nestlings, so it seems almost visceral. Plus, crows generally hang out in family groups or pairs and aren’t supposed to be particularly social: however they’ll happily join in when a mob starts forming. I wonder what studies there have been? Let me know what you’ve noticed, readers: I’m intrigued.

A Bit of a Bubble

Dear Readers, I’m still trying to get out for a walk every day, although with the dark mornings, the Year End (which I fear will be a theme for the next few weeks) and the habit some companies have of scheduling meetings for the Crack of Doom, it’s been a bit trickier than it was in spring. Plus, hauling oneself out of bed on a freezing cold morning takes more willpower than being woken by the sound of the dawn chorus. Nonetheless, I found myself in Coldfall Wood on Friday, and I was very pleased that I did. Although it is still muddy, it is now alive with the sound of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on the trees. I listened to one as it drummed, flew to another tree, drummed on a thinner branch which resulted in a higher pitched sound, and then whizzed back to its original tree. A few weeks ago I reported on a study in San Francisco that found out that white-crowned sparrow females  preferred a deeper- pitched call so maybe female woodpeckers feel the same? At any rate, it’s a joyful sound and, along with the yaffle of green woodpeckers and the male song thrushes testing out their spring songs it gives me some hope that the world is still turning. Plus, the rose-ringed parakeets are getting very over-excited, as well they might – they start selecting nesting sites long before anyone else gets round to it, and some of them are now actively courting.

If you haven’t heard any of these sounds before, here they are. Firstly, a great spotted woodpecker drumming in the Highlands of Scotland.

Secondly, a green woodpecker ‘yaffle-ing’

And here’s a song thrush.

And finally, the sound of rose-ringed parakeets in flight. It’s becoming as much a sound of English woodland as any of the three above, although the sight of those elegant bright-green birds munching on horse chestnuts is still strangely exotic.

Anyway, on we go. You might remember that last year the seasonal pond in the woods overtopped all of the bridges and boardwalks. This year, there has been some work done on the drainage, and the water is flowing freely. Hopefully we’ve found a happy medium, so that there is water enough for the plants and animals that rely on the dampness, while also not turning the whole site into a lake. Let’s see how we get on.

But what is this?

There is foam on some of the rivulets and streams. It doesn’t have the tell-tale soapy odour of pollution, but I’m intrigued nevertheless. So I have a look at the Environmental Agency website, which tells me that the foam (which is made up of millions of tiny bubbles) occurs when molecules such as fatty acids (known as surfactants) interact with the surface tension of the water, and allow air and water to mix more easily. Sometimes these surfactants are natural – they can occur when there is a high volume of organic material, such as dead leaves, in the water. Fatty acids are also released in small amounts by living organisms. When these organic compounds are dissolved in water, they’re known as Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC). The majority of foam in rivers and streams is natural, and has the following characteristics:

  • It might start off white but quickly becomes cream-coloured or brown as it picks up matter and sediment
  • It has a natural, earthy, fishy or grassy smell
  • It occurs in many locations and accumulates in eddies and sheltered areas

  • The foam can persist for some time, but will gradually diminish in size
  • It’s often found where the water is turbulent or agitated (the majority of the foam in Coldfall was along the streams running into the main pond)
  • It’s often seen on windy days or following heavy rain that washes down leaves etc.

So, this seems very like natural foam to me, though I will keep an eye on it – the streams are often contaminated with run-off from the roads round about, and many of the nearby houses have been wrongly connected to the water system.

Just so that we know the difference, man-made foam

  • Appears white in colour, but often has a perfumed or soapy odour
  • Usually appears over a small area, near the site of discharge
  • Doesn’t usually occur over long distances
  • Foam disappears quickly, as modern detergents are biodegradable and will dissipate once the source of the surfactant is removed
  • Generally not related to natural events.

However, when foam-pollution events do occur they can be devastating – the River Ouse was contaminated by a soapy substance that killed thousands of fish in 2018. In 2019 a long stretch of the river Irwell in Salford turned into a ‘bubble-bath’ after someone disposed of something down a surface drain. Rivers have long been thought of as being a way to get rid of something liquid that we don’t want, with little thought for the other creatures and people who rely on it. And I haven’t forgotten the day back in 2011 when the stream in Coldfall turned bright green following someone deciding to get rid of something noxious. Some recent water testing in the Wood showed that the quality was actually surprisingly good, so let’s hope that we can keep it that way.

Sound Credits

Great Spotted Woodpecker by Simon Elliott from XC593993 Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) :: xeno-canto (xeno-canto.org)

Green Woodpecker by Ramya from XC610865 European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) :: xeno-canto (xeno-canto.org)

Song Thrush by Rombout de Wijs from XC611036 Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) :: xeno-canto (xeno-canto.org)

Rose-ringed Parakeet by Stanislas Wroza from XC606442 Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri) :: xeno-canto (xeno-canto.org)

A Mellow Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, for once the elements were with us for this week’s walk in the cemetery. Things are so bad with the pandemic in London now that we wore our facemasks along the High Road until we were actually in and had room to social distance properly. Not all the pavements in East Finchley are wide enough to avoid getting closer than two metres to other people, and with the hospitals fit to busting, and the new variant apparently anything up to 70% more transmissible than previous ones, it seemed sensible to take every precaution we could think of. The last thing we want to do is to catch the virus ourselves or to inadvertently pass it on to anyone else, and I have to say that the vast majority of people are being extremely careful at the moment. I’m sure there are still a few folk who think that they are immortal, or don’t care enough to protect other people, but they really are few and far between around here.

But to get back to the walk – as we approached the entrance, I noticed that there were bits of car all over the place, and as we rounded the corner it became clear that a vehicle had gone bang into the wall of the cemetery. It’s been very icy around here, but this is a straight road so goodness only knows what happened. I just hope that nobody was seriously hurt.

Once we’re into the cemetery, I make a beeline for the chapel. My friend A told me that she’d spotted an interesting fungus growing from one of a group of plane trees, and her directions were excellent – it only took me about two minutes to find it. Having had a conversation with the experts on the British and Irish Fungi Facebook group, we think it might be the Spectacular Rustgill (Gymnophilus junonius),  and what an apt name that is! Apparently it tastes bitter and turns green when you cook it, but I’d have thought that the former fact precluded anyone doing the latter. Anyhoo, this is a very fine fungus, and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance.

Spectaccular Rustgill

The crows, squirrels, parakeets and jays were all in abundance today, gathering food and chasing one another. The crows in particular were very evident. The chap below seemed to be about to peck over one of the mourner’s wreaths that has been left out after a service. When he saw me, he folded his wings and hustled away as if to indicate that there was nothing to see here.

There are already primroses in flower in the woodland burial site, which always cheers me up.

And how I love the sunbeams coming through the trees.

The sun is so low that there are places in the graveyard that the sun doesn’t touch at all. I loved this icy stone with its hieroglyphics of fern and moss and seed.

And there is another crow, pecking over the leaves of a conifer to see what s/he can find. Maybe there are some tiny insects trying to hibernate amidst the needles.

And I do love a good reflection in a pothole. Isn’t that what they’re there for?

Last week, someone asked me about people in the cemetery who were buried following the 1918 flu epidemic, and it got me to thinking. I feel as if I haven’t noticed many non-military graves from this period: I found the one below today, but my husband assures me that the worst of the flu would have passed through by November 1919, so probably this person died of wounds or from the effects of gassing. It’s a very interesting question though, and one that I shall think on further.

I love the way that the melting frost lights up every blade of grass, as if each one was holding up a candle at a rock concert. Remember them?

And then, on the way home, I notice this wall.

Look at the moss! The cracks and crevices between the bricks are positively furry with the sporangia, the reproductive bodies. The moss must have found this spot to its liking, and multiplied like billy-ho (this is a relatively new wall). I loved the green and red of the moss against the terracotta stonework. It just goes to show how nature will colonise even the most unpromising of habitats.

The First Cemetery Walk of 2021

Dear Readers, our first walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery this year saw us getting some glorious weather for a change – this week it has felt as if the sun hasn’t really risen above the horizon, so some brightness was most welcome. The birds seemed to feel it too – this ring-necked parakeet was uncharacteristically obliging as s/he posed in this horse chestnut tree and munched the buds. I see that Defra are talking about culling parakeets, but only in areas where they are new. They are well-established around here, so hopefully they’ll be safe. Personally, I think that with everything else that’s going on, shooting a few parakeets should be low down on the agenda but there’s  no stopping some folk.

Elsewhere, the ash trees were a-twitter with goldfinches, who kept up a constant babble of contact calls that could be heard even over the traffic noise.

There were redwings everywhere, and they were being shy, as usual.

I must have counted twenty blackbirds, probably newly arrived from cooler parts of the continent – although it was long thought that blackbirds didn’t migrate, it’s now known that they often rear their young in one place, and over-winter somewhere else, with one bird spending every summer in a Devon garden and every winter in the south of France. In the winter the birds are much less aggressive and territorial, especially where there’s plenty of food, but they also seem shyer. Not one stood around long enough for a photo.

Fortunately, the moss is a lot more obliging, and on some of the older graves there is a whole miniature ecosystem.

I can just imagine all the tiny creatures slithering and creeping through the ‘jungle’ in search of safety, or prey. And look how the sun catches the moss sporophytes (the ‘flowers’ of the moss).

We have been walking different paths over the last few weeks, and every trip I find another new interesting grave. How about this one, for example?

Gillian Elinor was a bit of a late starter, having given up education to look after her children. However, she was nothing if not determined – she did her A-levels part time, followed by a degree in English and Art History at Birkbeck, followed by a Masters in the USA. Her first teaching job was at the Polytechnic of North East London (now UEL) where she started, at the age of 40, with a one day a week appointment. She stayed for 20 years, for the last 5 of them holding the post of Head of the Arts Department at the University of East London, and devoted many years of her life to the subject of women in the arts. She brought the African and Asian visual arts archive to the university, and was a founder member of Feminist Arts News and was heavily involved in the  Women Artists Slide Library. In 1987 she was joint editor of Women and Craft, published by Virago. She was also involved in the Women’s Art Group in Education, which sought to disclose how few women there were in academic posts.

In her later years, Elinor moved away from the visual arts and became more interested in poetry. Her headstone is an elegant and rather beautiful tribute to her dedication to the recognition of the talents of women, so many of whom are still unsung.

My husband is particularly interested in the war graves in the cemetery: there is a ‘proper’ war graves area, but many are scattered about, often hidden amongst the trees, although all of them have bright, well-scrubbed new headstones, dating from the hundredth anniversary of WW1. This week we found this one; the graves of those who were in the Navy when they died often have more details than those from other services, as in the one below.

A little bit of research shows that Able Seamen Dennis Watts died of ‘illness’ after the war, on 9th March 1946. H.M.S Orlando appears to have been a shore-based HQ on the Clyde in Greenock, sometimes also known as a ‘secret facility’. The trail goes cold at this point however (unless I want to shell out another £180 a year for Ancestry.com). What a sad loss of a human being, though, at only 22 years old.

And this one actually brought me to tears.

George W. Dell was killed at the land-based centre H.M.S Christopher, which was again in Scotland, and was a base for training personnel to use the anti-submarine and patrol boats which were on constant watch around the coast. There are no details, but the lad was only 19. We can only imagine the sorrow with which his parents, back in Barnsbury, Islington, received the news.

That heartfelt message ‘Just one of many – but he was ours’ echoes down the years. I’m sure that the people who are losing their loved ones in the pandemic are just as intent that those that they’ve lost shouldn’t just become another statistic, but should be remembered as the unique individuals that they were. When I read that Joe Biden is planning a remembrance event for 19th January in the US, the day before his inauguration, it makes me think how much we will need something similar when this is finally under control.

But finally, I had never noticed this very elegant little figure before. I am not sure if she is the Virgin Mary, or another saint, but I love how precise and neat she is, with that air of austerity that I usually associate with Japanese sculpture. I think she will be someone that I’ll look out for on future visits.

And finally finally, here are a few more goldfinches, because you can never have too many 🙂

 

 

A New Year’s Eve Walk on Muswell Hill Playing Fields

Dear Readers, if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that beauty can be found by walking slowly and paying attention, even on the coldest and dullest of days. We’ve been avoiding the Fields for the past week or so because the mud was so pervasive and slippery that it was no fun trying to navigate it, but with last night’s freeze everything has turned deliciously crispy. The frost has touched all the seedheads and leaves, painting every detail with icy-white.

Brambles

We skitter down the slope beside the skate park, and then down a further slope to the bottom field. I think of this as ‘my’ wildflower border, though it is a pure accident, it appears. In the spring it was a mass of colour, but now it has a more austere and subtle beauty.

Muswell Hill Playing Fields in June

Each ‘scale’ on the seedheads of the greater knapweed seems to have attracted its own cap of ice.

The greater burdock seeds are iced into something that looks rather like the images of coronavirus that I’m seeing, or maybe a Sputnik (which of course is the name of the Russian vaccine). But they are also perfect examples of evolutionary design, with those hooks that inspired the creator of Velcro. All they need is a large hairy mammal to brush past and transfer them to pastures new.

Aren’t the seedheads of the fennel exquisite? They would be perfect for a winter wedding.

And even the long seedheads of the mugwort are lent an elegance by the ice that they didn’t have when fresh and new.

In this strangely monochrome world I find myself yearning for a bit of colour, however. At the pyracantha hedge on the other side of the field, I hear the familiar breathy call of a redwing. The cemetery in particular is heaving with these birds at the moment, as they pick over the ivy berries, but this little one had stopped for something orange.

This bird from the cemetery yesterday was too far away to get a decent shot, but it was glowing white and red against the ivy foliage.

As we come to the beginning of a new year, I am so glad that I have had a few open spaces to walk in. The birds, insects and plants that I’ve seen have been a real balm for the soul in these dislocating, troubling times. I hope that you have had some access to nature too. Although I managed to have a big birthday trip this year, it’s difficult to see exactly when overseas travel will be safe again. However, it seems to me that there is much to be discovered and marvelled at within a few hundred metres of ones own front door. I will never get to the end of learning about Coldfall Wood and the fields, or the local cemeteries, or even my own back garden, and praise be for that. There is no end of wonder in the world, no end to the connections and relationships that can be made.

I wish you all the happiest and healthiest of New Years. May 2021 bring you everything that you most need.

A Christmas Eve Walk in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, by the time you read this it will be Christmas Day, so for those of you celebrating I hope you have a peaceful time, especially as for many people it won’t be the kind of Christmas that you were hoping for. I am hoping that 2021 will be a lot less ‘interesting’ than 2020 was.

Onwards!

The temperature dropped overnight to the high 30’s (which is coldish for us – don’t laugh, people in Scotland and Canada and other chilly parts of the world). But it was sunny and DRY hallelujah. We decided to go for a quick mooch around Coldfall Wood, which has saved the sanity of many people this year, including me. Every time I go I notice something new, and I think that lockdown has heightened my appreciation for the gradual changes of nature. How about you?

So, on the way I noticed this little posse of starlings. For once they were eerily silent – normally they’re whistling and clicking and generally making a racket. From the amount of suet that they eat every day I’d say that the inhabitants of East Finchley are single-handedly preventing them from migrating. Who’d want to fly all the way to Africa when there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet in the County Roads?

Is it just me or is this one looking a little portly?

And then we stroll into the woods. We’re a little later than usual, so the place is full of dogwalkers and small children and people going for a walk. For many of us, the Christmas preparations are a lot simpler this year. While for me this is a source of sadness, it’s also rather nice not to be run ragged. It makes me wonder what I could have dropped during previous Christmases to make it a bit easier on myself (and to make me a bit less stressed and easier to be with).  Worth pondering if you’re in the middle of a Christmas frenzy I think. 

I noticed how the holly trees often spring up when a tree has fallen or been pruned – that little bit of light seems to help them to lurch into action. I wonder what seedlings are stirring under the fallen leaves even now?

Little holly and yew trees growing in an unshaded spot.

The cyclamen is doing very well behind its stockade of branches. How sweet that someone has cared enough to try to protect it. I think that it might need a bit more room next year though.

And here is another, more advanced holly tree growing up in a gap.

And here’s some ivy, to complete the picture.

I’ve mentioned the mud before, so here’s a photo to give you an idea of how we’re doing (though it’s much better in the wood than it is on the field – at least in the wood there are lots of trees to drink up the excess water, though they are less thirsty without their leaves).

Some little hoodlum has been graffiti-ing the trees with this time-honoured fertility symbol, though why the testicles appear to have little faces is anybody’s guess.

Does anybody see the face of the elderly man in the trunk of this tree? I suspect he’s annoyed about the phallic symbol.

The little streams that run through the wood are making their way down to the wettest area of the wood. This year, so far, it hasn’t risen too far.

The wet woodland – bulrushes dying back, and the boardwalk well above the surface of the water so far.

I rather liked this completely surreal photo of a crow flying overhead. To some people it might be a blur, but to me it’s abstract art.

The crows are bathing in the stream, and turning over the leaves to find morsels to eat.

Squirrels seem to be chasing one another around and one was investigating the hole in a hollow tree. They don’t normally nest in holes, so I wonder if it was caching food, or looking for something to eat? They are very inquisitive and adaptable animals, so nothing would surprise me.

And when I look at the hornbeams in the wood now I am reminded of David Bevan’s talk about the ancient woodland of North London, in which he speculated that although the oak trees are probably several hundred years old, the hornbeams, cut back year after year for firewood, could easily be much older. When you see a hornbeam ‘stool’ like this one, you get the idea of how long the original tree could have been around, throwing up new stems every year only for them to be regularly cut back.

Hornbeam ‘stool’

And in some places in the wood which have been coppiced, allowing the light to get to the forest floor, young hornbeams are growing up as single-stemmed trees.

And so that was our walk for the day, and we headed back so that I could write the blog. Later we’ll be watching the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College on the television, filmed under social distancing rules and without a congregation. Will I manage to stay dry-eyed as those first notes of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ sung by the boy soloist soar through the church? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A Muddy Walk in Coldfall Wood

Holly tree growing at the foot of a dead tree in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, I don’t know about where you are, but here in East Finchley the rain has been a big feature of the weather for the past few months. Couple that with clay soil and you have a positive quagmire which, while it hasn’t deterred me from Coldfall Wood, has made me a little chary about going out on to Muswell Hill Playing Fields. Why, only the other day I saw a man running in plimsolls and baggy shorts (clearly old school, no lycra at all)  come a cropper as he tried to spring like a gazelle over a particularly muddy patch. All was well, but I wouldn’t have liked to be doing his washing. Today, however, I decided that a vast stretch of slippery, squelchy ooze wasn’t going to keep me from my beloved ‘wildflower border’ beside the cemetery, and so off we went, clad in walking boots and optimism.

But first the wood. What a year it’s been for fungi! I am positively tripping over them now I’ve got my eye in. Here is some candlesnuff fungi (Xylaria hypoloxon) growing out of a stump for example. The spores, which are black, can apparently be seen as black smudges on the tree bark, but as this stump is rather damp I think that might not be visible here.

There are some felled branches further into the wood (the tree surgeons have been doing a bit of pruning and tidying up) and they are being gradually broken down by some rather lovely caramel-coloured bracket fungus which has been identified for me as hairy curtain crust (Stereum

And then it’s out across the mud and onto Muswell Hill Playing Fields. It really is a bit of a quagmire, but as with all things there are worse bits and better bits. And soon I’m distracted from the state of the ground by the austere beauty of the plants at this time of year. This shrub was glowing green, and when I got closer I could see why – it’s encrusted with lichens and moss. The branches are miniature habitats of their own. I can imagine tiny spiders patrolling through the ‘leaves’ of the lichen like panthers.

The Japanese Knotweed is a hundred shades of brown and grey. What a dense thicket of stems it forms! I would be amazed if some birds and small mammals didn’t take advantage of it.

But what concerns me a little is that I think it might even be able to outcompete bramble. I’m pretty sure it’s taking over in this part of the ‘border’ between the cemetery and the skateboard park.

There are a pair of alder (?) trees here, and I love the bark and the fruit. Look at all the different lichens on this tree! You might remember a talk that I reported on about the flora of Hampstead Heath by Jeff Duckett, where he mentioned how lichens made a comeback once the Clean Air Acts were introduced in the 1960s. It just goes to show that damage is not always irreversible if we act in time.

Incidentally, I’m not absolutely sure of the ID of this tree, so let me know what you think – the bark looks more birch-like to me, but it’s difficult to tell with all the pretty encrustations.

There are a few last maple leaves on the grass. Both of these look as if they’ve come from a Japanese Maple, and indeed there is a sapling ten metres away. Case closed, I think.

And then it’s a quick slide down a small hill to ‘the wildflower border’ that I fell in love with back in July. There isn’t much in flower now, though there is a single mallow flower, and some white deadnettle in case any bees are about.

But it’s the seedheads that I love. Everything from fennel….

to greater burdock….

to greater knapweed……

to the unexpectedly beautiful seeds of broad-leaved dock.

And maybe it’s no coincidence, but there was a flock of about 20 house sparrows flying between the shrubs and chattering away. At the very least, all the shrubs give the sparrows somewhere for cover and roosting. I wonder if they ever eat the seeds? I know that finches do.

Lots of parakeets about today as well, including this pair who seemed interested in the fruits on the London plane tree, though goodness knows why. We used to use the blessed things for itching powder.

And on the way home, I notice how the weeping willow is already changing colour. I do wonder if, when people plant weeping willows in their garden, they realise quite how big they’re going to get, or how thirsty they are. This one, I suspect, is taking advantage of the drainage ditch next to the fields.

Part of me wants to take a comb to that mane of ‘hair’.

And then it’s off home, for a cup of tea and a clean-up of those muddy boots. It’s always worth getting out for a walk, I find, especially if you can dodge the worst of the showers and stay warm. And as we turn into our street, there was a great tit absolutely singing its head off. Maybe he knows that the year has just turned, the solstice is passed, and spring is on the way.

 

Another Wet Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it takes more than a torrential downpour to keep me from my weekly visit to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery and so it was that I found ourselves standing under a tree during a deluge. I took the obligatory photo of ‘my’ swamp cypress, and I also managed this splendid shot of a fox as he headed into the undergrowth. Wildlife Photographer of the Year awaits me, I’m sure.

But then it let up a little and so on we (my long-suffering husband and I ) slogged. I noticed lots of blackbirds about, for the first time in a while – some blackbirds spend their summers in other parts of Europe and only overwinter in the UK, and some blackbirds pop in from Scandinavia. At one point a few years ago, when everyone was grounded due to the bad weather, there were no less than eight blackbirds in my back garden, all getting along swimmingly provided I kept the food coming. You wouldn’t see that when the territories are established in the spring.

There was no kestrel in the kestrel tree this week, and I assume that, like all sensible birds, s/he was under cover somewhere, hoping for the worst to pass. But nothing stops the crows, and there was a little gang of them looking shifty by Harwood’s path. They were turning over the leaves very methodically, and I wondered if someone had scattered something for them. But they flew off as we approached, and although I had a good look, I was none the wiser.

I have become fascinated by what I think of as the stumperies in the cemetery – the remains of trees which have been cut down and which are now being gradually eroded by fungi or covered with ivy. There is one close to where the wreathes are left following cremations which has been planted up with succulents and what appears to be a smiley face, though whence this came I have no idea.

Some are sprouting a few annual ‘weeds’ on the top, but I wonder if all those stems at the side might actually sprout when spring comes, I shall have to keep an eye on it.

This one is forming a very nice base for some ivy.

This one is becoming a whole mini-ecosystem, with moss and lichen and turkey-tail fungus.

And while the fungus seems to be eating this stump to pieces, there are also some tell tale holes which could be beetle larvae, but could equally well be caused by the thump of green woodpecker beaks as they drill for ants.

So far, so unspectacular. But then, I spotted what appeared to be a doorknob growing under one of the fir trees off Withington Road (a very muddy and underused path), and here is my highlight of the week.

This is, I believe, an earthstar, and I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s Geastrum triplex, the Collared Earthstar. What I love most about this enigmatic fungus is that I probably only noticed it because it’s pouring with rain – when raindrops hit the ‘ball’ in the middle, spores are sent flying out through the hole in the top. When it’s dry, the ‘petals’ of the earthstar curl up and protect the fruiting body, making sure that the spores aren’t released when conditions aren’t ideal. How I love spotting something that I’ve never seen before! It puts a spring in my step like nothing else.

And so we make our damp, muddy way back to the entrance, where I spot two crows sitting on top of the cedar of lebanon. What are they up to? Well, they appear to be bashing their way into the barrel-shaped pine cones, though whether they are after the pine nuts or the little insects that are attempting to have a peaceful hibernation I have no idea. I am full of admiration for these intelligent resourceful birds. Never underestimate a crow.