Category Archives: London Birds

Babies and Some Cheekiness

Dear Readers, blue tits always sound a bit flustered to me, but for maximum anxiety you need to be present on fledging day. Goodness, the poor parents! I couldn’t work out exactly how many babies there were, but I’d estimate at least six, and they were all over the place. For the adults it must have felt like herding cats, plus they were intent on feeding all the little ones.

 

Fortunately the fledglings soon get fed up with waiting around and start pecking at things at random, until eventually they learn what’s edible and what’s not. And as at today, none of the babies had managed to drown themselves in the pond, which is always a result.

I decided to put out some suet and live mealworms just in case the blue tits would find them. Sadly, everyone else found them first. Firstly the starlings, with their latest broods of youngsters….

And then an occasional visitor, who always scatters everyone else. The jackdaw spent a good five minutes meticulously searching out the mealworms before flying off. S/he must have a nest somewhere, I’m sure. Look at that face! No wonder no one messes with the jackdaw (except for the magpie).

And finally, I have planted some packets of seeds in some of my pots, and every day someone digs them up. I had my suspicions, but today they were confirmed.

And then another squirrel ran into the garden. Would there be war?

Well, these two obviously knew one another because they touched noses and then sat happily together, squashing my wildflower mix under their furry bottoms. If there was ever evidence that once you have a wildlife garden you have no control whatsoever about who turns up, this is it. And honestly? I don’t begrudge them. There’s plenty in my garden for everyone.

A Walk with a Good Friend at Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, as a society I think we often undervalue friendship in favour of familial or romantic partnerships, and yet the people who are often there for us through all of life’s uncertainties are our friends. On Thursday I visited Walthamstow Wetlands with my friend S. This year we will be celebrating our fortieth ‘friendiversary’ – we met in Scotland when we were 21 and both working as Community Service Volunteers. We haven’t seen one another since before this latest lockdown, and yet one sign of friendship for me is that we instantly drop into conversation as if we’ve never been apart. With so much shared history, there is much that we don’t have to explain to one another, and sometimes a whole incident can be retrieved from memory with a few words or a gesture that would be inexplicable to anyone else. True friendship is a very particular kind of love: my friends are often very different from me and from one another, and yet what we share is a deep concern for nature, a desire for justice and a need for real connection.

So, we grabbed a coffee at Walthamstow Wetlands café and sat down to catch up. There was much to distract us: there was a spotted flycatcher hawking from a nearby tree, and the cries of swifts from the nest boxes in the chimney of the old engine room.

However, all was not as it seemed – I got talking to a chap from the London Wildlife Trust who told me that, ahem, there weren’t yet any swifts in the nest boxes – the cheery sound of swifts nesting was a recording meant to encourage any passing swifts to take up residence. I shall have to see if it’s worked when I visit next – there were plenty of swifts over the garden in East Finchley this morning, so let’s see if it works.

S and I were just settling down with the flat whites when I noticed a Canada goose leaving the reservoir behind us and heading up the bank with a few goslings. Adorable! And then there was another gosling. And another one. And another one.

In the end we counted 17 goslings. Good grief! I wondered if they all belonged to this set of parents, or if they’d just picked up a few along the way – geese often adopt stray goslings, so strong are their parental instincts. What was lovely about these was that they paid us no attention at all, but simply grazed away naturally.

It wasn’t just the Canada geese either. We’d already seen several Greylag goose families by the entrance to the other part of the Wetlands.

At first I took this plant for viper’s bugloss, but it could also be phacelia. It was absolutely covered in bees. What do you think?

There’s a family of shelducks with tiny spotted ducklings too, but way off in the distance.

And, as we loop around and head back to the entrance, we spot this heron, no doubt keeping an eye open for tasty frogs and sticklebacks.

What is great about Walthamstow Wetlands is that although it’s still a working reservoir, it has, in the past three years, become one of London’s most important sites for biodiversity. Last year it even attracted a pair of passing spoonbills, a most unlikely visitor to East London! But even with the Canada geese, a common bird by anyone’s standards, there can be moments of magic, which are all the lovelier for being shared with a good friend. It’s so easy to take established relationships for granted, but if this last eighteen months has taught us anything, it’s that we should treasure those that we share our history with.

Magpie Wars

Dear Readers, ever since I’ve been putting live mealworms in the garden I’ve been ‘adopted’ by a pair of magpies. Goodness, what pirates they are! They terrorise the collared doves by swooping into the tree in a most menacing way, though I’ve never seen them actually attack one. I do suspect that they sometimes take an unsuspecting tadpole, and so far the starling fledglings have gone unmolested.

Then yesterday there was a ridiculous amount of noise coming from the front of the house. I strolled out to the front door (almost locking myself out in the process) and saw two pairs of magpies facing off on the roof opposite. I remembered that when magpies are in a tree, the most dominant one (often the one with the longest tail) sits at the top, and I wondered if this was the case here too, with one pair claiming the ‘roof line’.

However, as I watched I came to the conclusion that the roof line was maybe the boundary between the territories – ‘my’ magpies seemed much happier once the other pair had departed back the way they’d come. After all the cackling and chuckling there was a return to calm, with ‘my’ magpies popping back into the garden to check out the mealworms again.

I’ve been reading a bit about magpie territorial behaviour, and it seems that a pair in residence will be ‘tested’ by non-breeding males on a regular basis. Often, as soon as battle is commenced a great flock of other magpies will turn up to watch the fun; it’s thought that this gives them an opportunity to review the strength of the combatants without putting themselves at risk, though by the level of excitement on such occasions I suspect the non-participants are having as much fun as primary school children when a ‘rammy’ breaks out. If a male fancies his chances, he’ll be back later to ‘have a go’. This makes me wonder if what I was seeing was not a fight between two pairs, but between a pair and two males, one fighting, one watching.

There’s a very interesting article about all this stuff online, by David Holyoak. Most of his observations were of rural birds (the data relates to the 1960s) but clearly, magpies were ever bit as rambunctious and noisy then as they are now. Holyoak wonders if the wide range of vocalisations (compared with crows) might indicate that, like jays, magpies were once birds of dense woodland, who needed auditory rather than visual signals to communicate. Certainly if there’s a magpie about, you know it.

Another study looked at the quality of territories. Generally, in towns territories tend to be smaller, because there’s more availability of food, especially for an omnivore like a magpie who eats everything from tadpoles and mealworms to chips and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I suspect that my garden has the advantage of availability of food, and the disadvantage of lots of cats and people, though as you’ll remember, one of the magpies thought nothing of challenging a sparrowhawk so I suspect a mere cat would be as nothing. What it doesn’t have is any very large trees (though the whitebeam is starting to get a bit unruly), but then there’s Coldfall Wood across the way for nesting purposes. A study of territories by Anders Pape Møller graded territories as High Quality to Low Quality, and found that birds in a High Quality territory could be there for 8-10 years. Looks like the magpies and I will have lots of time to find out about one another.

A Mid May Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

 

 

 

Dear Readers, this tumbled headstone, complete with its own pond and fine growth of algae, just about sums up this week. It is heading towards being the wettest May on record. What people generally don’t appreciate is that climate change creates weather chaos, not just a gradual rise in temperatures. For the birds who have started breeding the lack of insects will probably increase the rate of nest failure, and for insects trying to complete their reproductive cycles it will lessen the amount of time that they have available. At least we haven’t had snow in London, though it has fallen further north this month.

It’s also been very windy, so the dandelion clocks, so abundant last week, have more or less disappeared, to be replaced by a carpet of daisies and buttercups.

Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

There are several species of buttercup in the cemetery: there’s the typical creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens), with its three-lobed leaves, the poor old Goldilocks buttercup, (Ranunculus auricomus) where the flowers are always missing their petals and it looks as if it’s been nibbled even when it’s pristine, and the delicate meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), with its finely-cut leaves. Once you’ve got your eye in for identifying these plants, you notice that the flowers on the meadow buttercup seem to have more separated petals, and the whole plant is a bit taller than the creeping buttercup. My Dad taught me that where there are buttercups of any kind it’s an indicator that the soil is wet, so it’s best to avoid standing near them if you don’t have your Wellington boots on.

Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)

I am pleased to report that ‘my’ swamp cypress is finally getting a coat of green, rather later than I expected. Look at it standing ankle-deep in cow parsley!

I noticed how the flowers on the horse chestnut turn pink when they’re pollinated – you can see the mixture of yellow and pink blossom on this flowerhead. I have seen bumblebees about in the midst of the storms this week, determinedly heading for the dusky cranesbill which is in full flower in the garden. I am a recent convert to species geraniums – some varieties are shade-tolerant, and the bees love them. I imagine that a tree like a horse chestnut must be a powerful bee magnet. So many flowers! So much nectar and pollen!

There is some sorrel just starting to appear too – I horrified my husband by eating a leaf just to make sure. It looks rather like a grass, but it’s actually a member of the knotweed family. The leaves have a delicious lemony tang to them, and if you look at the stem you can see how similar it is to plants like bistort and redshank.

Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

When we reach the main path that leads to the North Circular Road entrance, what should we see but a blooming little egret flying past! I apologise for not getting a better photo for you, readers. I promise that the white blob just right of centre towards the top of the photo is actually an egret, not a stray handkerchief whooshing past in the high wind. I wonder where s/he was going?

On we go. I am delighted with the way that the sycamore flowers are already turning into the little ‘helicopters’ as we used to call them.

A rather magnificent crow surveyed the scene from the top of a tree. We’d just watched a crow pick up half a sandwich that someone had dropped, dunk it in a puddle to moisten it and then fly off, presumably back to a nestful of little dinosaurs waiting for their lunch.

And there’s an area completely covered in shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum). Even allowing for the damp weather, just look how shiny the foliage is! And look at all those fallen horse-chestnut flowers, probably ripped untimely from the tree in this week’s wind, rain and hail.

Shining cranesbill (Geranium lucidum)

Storm damage

 

 

More branches down

My friend A told me that there were some whole trees down in other parts of the cemetery. It’s such a large area that they can lay around for quite some time if they haven’t fallen onto a recent grave, and if they aren’t blocking a well-used road.

And, as usual in the cemetery, I notice something that I’ve walked past a hundred times without really seeing it.

The broken column symbolises a life cut short, and was often used to signify the death of a child, as indeed is the case with this memorial. Little John Arthur Winter died at the age of 18 months, and is buried here with who I imagine are his grandparents, judging by the ages.

John Arthur was born in Shoreditch,  to Charles Richard and Amy Jane Winter, and was baptised in St John the Baptist church in Shoreditch. In 1881, 5 years after John Arthur had died, Charles Richard and Amy were living at 164 Southgate Road in Hackney. They had two children, Charles aged 12 and George aged 4, and their 4 year-old niece Alice was visiting them on the day of the census. Charles Richard lists his occupation as ‘clerk/surveyor’, but the section for Amy’s employment is blank. By 1891 the family have moved to Hever in Kent, and it seems as if Charles Richard has gone up in the world, with his occupation now listed as ‘Architect/Surveyor’. The older boy, Charles, is now 22 years old and a stonemason, and the younger, George, is a draughtsman and architect, so it looks as if both children followed in their father’s footsteps. Their niece, Alice, seems to be living with them, and they now have a general servant. In the 1901 census Charles Richard and Amy are still living in Hever, but all the young people have left and they no longer have a servant. The couple are only 55 years old  but by 11th November 1901, Charles Richard is dead, and is buried in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, though not in the same grave as his infant son. Amy Jane follows him in 1920, and it seems from the burial records that she might have spent her last days in Brighton. Maybe one of her sons lived there?

It is extraordinary what you can find out on the internet these days, but the bare bones of a life give no idea of the really important things – was a person kind? Did they have a sense of humour? What infuriated them, and what got their pulses racing? Did they love their job, or hate it? Did the sons get on with their father? How come the niece was living with them? All these things vanish when the last person who remembers someone, or has heard about them, dies themselves. Nonetheless, I think we often don’t realise what a huge difference we can make to the people around us, for good and for ill, and how those things ripple out into the wider world. My grandmother remembered her two dead sons until her own dying day: one died at eighteen months of scarlet fever, and the other at two years old from diptheria. But the stories that she told me about them live on in me, and so in a way they still live on, though their lives were so short, and so long ago. Let’s never forget to pass on those stories.

A Damp Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, we didn’t walk in the cemetery last week because there the rain was blowing horizontally across the garden, but I couldn’t wait to get there this week. A fortnight is a long time when it’s spring, and already most of the dandelions are shedding their seeds. Those ‘dandelion clocks’ really are entrancing, especially if you look closely. I love the way that the seeds detach one at a time and head off to find somewhere to put down their roots…

When all the seeds are gone, I love the spirals of little holes where they were once attached. And I’d never noticed how the ‘parachutes’ of the seeds are angled backwards, maybe so that the plant can produce more seeds per seedhead?

But it was to be a day of floral and avian wonders. A magpie decided to have a bath in a muddy puddle, as one does.

There were germander speedwells….

An ocean of cow parsley…..

Lots of red campion….

Cowslips…..

English bluebells…

And the buttercups have taken over from the lesser celandine in the yellow flower competition.

The flowers on the horse chestnut are pretty much full grown now and how enticing they look!

Even the grasses have gone berserk. That combination of lots of rain and longer day length has really kicked everything off.

We walk along the narrow path that connects two parts of the cemetery, and the cow parsley has sprung up to waist high.

But then there’s one of those moments that make the cemetery so special. I hear a familiar yaffling call, and there, posing on a headstone, is a green woodpecker.

These birds always remind me a bit of tiny dragons. There is a close-mown area nearby where they often search for ants, pounding away into the earth with their beaks. Unlike the great-spotted woodpecker, they don’t drum on dead trees to establish territory. This one was exceptionally obliging. This one is a female – the ‘moustache’ at the side of the face is all black in females, but has a red stripe in males. I found this description a bit confusing as I associate a moustache as being in the middle of the face, but for ornithologists it’s more of the ‘muttonchop’ variety.

 

 

Anyhow, this was a real delight, and well worth getting damp for. I normally hear the green woodpeckers, but they rarely stand still long enough for a photo. The wet weather has kept most of the visitors away, which makes the birds bolder.

Next, it was a wander along the road which is right next to the North Circular. The traffic noise is so loud here that it’s hard to make yourself heard, but the flowers are worth it. The ragwort is in full flower…

Last year’s salsify is in flower again….

And how about this lovely tangle of vetch? Some of my favourite plants are in the pea family.

One of the pleasures of a walk like this is seeing familiar plants, but noticing something new about them. Last year I was crunching through acorns as I passed these trees, but today I saw that they were in flower. I’d never even thought about oak trees having flowers (doh). The catkins are the male flowers, and there are tiny female flowers that look like buds amongst the leaves.

The comfrey is in flower, and the bumblebees are delighted. Along by the stream there is creeping comfrey and the larger common comfrey.

Common comfrey

 

And for some reason, in the middle of all this wildness there is a Japanese acer, just about holding its own.

There is bugle and great stitchwort….

Bugle

Greater stitchwort

Cuckoo flower and shining cranesbill…

Cuckoo flower

And a great big patch of three-cornered garlic, with its triangular stem. I can’t resist having a little nibble as we march on through the woody bits of the cemetery. Overhead a buzzard is mewing and suddenly appears above us, pursued by a huge flock of crows – I count at least thirty, and more are joining from all directions. A sparrowhawk flies over, fast and low, and goes unmolested. The crows take such glee in the mobbing that you’d almost think they enjoyed it. I wonder if it’s one of those visceral reactions to anything that looks like a bird of prey? I always wonder this, and I still have no answers. And neither does the lovely Scotsman statue, standing in the spring woods with the bluebells dying back and the greenery rising all around him.

 

 

 

First Fledglings…

Dear Readers, I had my second vaccination yesterday (Astra Zeneca, bit of a sore arm but so far none of the flu symptoms that sent me to bed last time). As I walked back to the house, I heard a familiar wheezing sound and there, on the handrail, was the first of this year’s starlings. What a fluffy little dude s/he is! And how completely lacking in any sense of danger. As I’ve noted before, the starlings that survive are the ones that pretty quickly pick up on the alarm calls and the behaviour of the birds around them (and not just their own species either – I’m pretty sure that the alarm calls of robins and blue tits put them on high alert too).

The adult starlings seem to be able to identify whose chick is whose, but the chicks will beg from any passing adult. Who could resist them? They couldn’t be any more plaintive. Anyone would think that they hadn’t eaten for weeks. Just as well I’m well stocked up with live mealworms and suet pellets.

By the time they’ve finished I’ll have to take the wire wool to the hand rails again – the fledglings love to perch here, and to run along it like some toddler on a low wall, and to basically crap everywhere. It won’t take them long to begin pecking at things themselves – last year I was astonished at how quickly they learned to get the pellets out of the suet feeder, which requires a fair measure of dexterity.

 

This will be the tenth generation of starlings that I’ve fed in the garden. The Breeding Bird Survey shows a decline of 63% in London from 1995-2018, and places where they used to gather in their thousands (such as Leicester Square and St James’s Park) seem to be bereft of them these days. I remember watching a murmuration in St James’s Park with Mum back in the ’80s, when great flocks of the birds reeled and turned over the islands in the middle of the lake, before settling down to roost. You can still see birds in the low thousands at places like Rainham Marshes, Walthamstow Wetlands and Beddington Farmlands, but ‘proper’ murmurations seem to be rarer and rarer. And so, every noisy, messy youngster is precious, especially as they are taken in huge numbers by cats and corvids, and as they are forever getting tangled in things and drowning themselves.

This spring has been cold compared to last year, so I suspect the amount of insect prey is lower – no self-respecting caterpillar is going to hatch while there is still frost on the ground. What will happen to our bird life as the seasons, so delicately tuned, start to become more unpredictable? In towns and cities, feeding softens the blow, and because these places are warmer than the surrounding countryside the effect might not be felt quite so severely. And soon there will be hawthorn berries, and it looks like a good year for the fruit on the rowan and the whitebeam. There are things that we can do to help our besieged wildlife, and the sight of the fledglings always gives me hope.

 

A May Walk in Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood

Sunlight through hornbeam leaves

Dear Readers, sometimes when I walk through one of North London’s ancient woodlands, I am reminded of how much I have learned through writing the blog over this last 7 years. Although there is still so much to find out, it makes me happy that I can look at the muscular trunk of a hornbeam and identify it, and that I can imagine it as a younger sapling, a mass of twigs that were probably cut back once or twice when the tree was a baby, before coppicing was abandoned and the tree was left to grow.

The tree above has five distinct trunks growing from the same ‘stool’ – they interweave with one another in a kind of slow-motion dance as they reach towards the light. I love the silvery bark of hornbeam, and the way that it is covered in a web of ‘veins’ and ‘sinews’ like a weight-lifter’s arms.

There is so much to notice, and yet so often we don’t, absorbed in our thoughts or in our phones.

And here’s a horse-chestnut seedling, optimistically growing in a patch of sunlight.

Last time we walked in these woods it was Boxing Day, we were ankle-deep in mud, and there were hundreds if not thousands of people on the paths. But today it’s a weekday, the children are back at school, most folk are at work and it feels as if the woods are breathing again.

There is a new dead-hedge around the little pond, though whether this will keep an enthusiastic golden retriever out of the water remains to be seen.

A pair of great tits have made their nest in this dead tree stump, a great advert for leaving dead wood where it is.

The coppiced areas in the middle of the wood really show off the oaks as they reach for the sky.

But hang on, who is that on the path? My keen-eyed husband spots a creature just past the ‘cross walk’ in the picture.

There are rats in all of the woodlands that I’ve visited this year. There are always a few around, but with more people also in the woods they’ve been noticed a bit more. In Cherry Tree the council have put down poison, so there are now dead rats. Let’s hope that they don’t become food for foxes, dogs, cats, crows, buzzards, magpies, owls etc etc.

Rat populations (like pigeon populations) are almost entirely governed by availability of food. There has been a huge increase in littering in wild places and parks all over the country, with people seeming incapable of taking their rubbish home. Lots of creatures have taken advantage. Plus there is a kind of hysteria about rats. We have become so detached from wildlife that some people seem to feel that if their toddler sees a rat they will keel over with Weil’s disease. I understand that you wouldn’t necessarily want to share your house with wild rats, but in a woodland?

Someone recently posted a short film on our local community Facebook page of an elderly rat being harassed by crows, so let’s not forget that in the natural world these rodents are way down the food chain. However, this crow was rather more interested in something in the stream.

I wonder if the crow is looking for invertebrates in the mud at the bottom of the rivulet? They are such intelligent animals generally, but all members of the crow family seem to be super-attuned to possible food. You can almost see them working out what’s what.

There is a little drift of wood anemones here too, an indicator of ancient woodland because they don’t travel very far over the generations. They are partially protected by the fence, which is probably why they’ve survived the huge growth in footfall in the woods during the lockdown.

And then, there is a patch of hybrid bluebells in the sun, close to where the boundary of the wood meets the local housing. Sometimes people throw their garden rubbish over the fence in these situations, which is why there is often such diverse non-native flora in these places. The evidence seems to show that in a ‘real’ bluebell wood, hybrids can’t outcompete the native bluebells, though they may still make incursions at the edge where there is normally more light. At any rate, these are pretty and have some value to pollinators clearly. In an urban wood such as this I suspect any increase in biodiversity isn’t to be sniffed at.

Nest Box Blues

My sparrow nest box from the RSPB

Dear Readers, when we had the external decorations done last year, I persuaded one of the chaps to climb up a ladder and put up the sparrow nest box that I’d been lovingly hoarding for several years. At this point, several sparrows were visiting every day, and I hoped to persuade them to linger – after all, they are a red list species and so any help that I can give them is a pleasure. I had noted, however, that the local sparrows (and the ones in Mum and Dad’s old garden) seemed to prefer thick beech hedges and holly trees to anywhere else. Communal breeders that they are, I suspect that they also need to have a big enough flock to feel safe. Nevertheless I persisted. We put the nest box in among the branches of the climbing hydrangea – by spring there should be cover. We positioned it pointing west so the babies wouldn’t overheat.

And then nothing happened for a whole year. Furthermore, I haven’t seem a house sparrow in the whole of lockdown.

However, several other birds have been to visit. A pair of coal tits popped in and found this des res unappealing. Some blue tits did the same, and then returned to their old nest box, under the eaves of the house next door. Apologies for the photo, it was taken after two cups of coffee and via a dusty pane of glass.

Now, I believe that birds prefer nest boxes where the holes are a snug fit, so this was never going to be a good choice for the smaller tits. However, in the past few days a pair of great tits have been showing much more interest, popping in and out and calling to one another. I have no idea if they will stay, but they’ve made me drop my croissant on several occasions.

So, readers, what are your experiences with nest boxes? I suspect that birds will always prefer a cozy nook in a tree or in a dense tangle of brambles, but if you’ve had any success with birds nesting in your garden, do let me know. I need all the encouragement I can get.

Celandine Time in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

Dear Readers, I think we’ve reached the height of Lesser Celandine season here in the cemetery – every path is ankle-deep in those shiny yellow flowers with their heart-shaped leaves. I love the polished look of the petals, so different from the waxy petals of the daffodils.

It seems difficult to imagine that in a few weeks they’ll be gone, the leaves dying back until next year. I note from my Harrap’s Wild Flowers that there are two sub-species of Lesser Celandine, one which is fertile (Ficaria verna ssp fertilis) and has petals that are 10-20mm long, and one which reproduces from bulbils (Ficaria verna ssp verna) which has flowers 6-11mm long. I shall have to take my ruler next time I visit, but my hunch would be that these are the latter – plants that reproduce by bulbils are often seen as indicators of ancient woodland because they can’t travel quickly from one place to another. The cemetery has only been around since 1854, but previously the land belonged to Finchley Common, so the area has a long history. At any rate, it’s difficult not to feel the spirits lift at the sight of all these little golden flowers.

Lesser celandine is not the only plant that’s in flower at the moment, though – the violets are just starting to emerge. I found this lovely patch of sweet violet close to a fence – the flowers are very pale and I didn’t get any scent, but the rounded sepals (the ‘covers’ for the bud) give the game away.

Sweet violet (Viola odorata)

I was very struck by the red flowers on the Lawson cypress as well – I had never noticed them before, but this year they are very bright, almost like drops of blood, or like some stripy beetle.

The ground ivy is in flower, too – a member of the deadnettle family, the flowers always remind me of little dolls.

The blossom is going over, particularly on my favourite cherry plum where the coppery leaves are just coming through.

Lots of daffodils are still out, and although as you know I have mixed feelings about them, they are very striking when backlit by the sun.

And here are the sticky buds of the horse chestnut getting ready to burst. Soon there will be the candelabras of creamy, sweet-scented flowers, but for now it’s the first intimation of spring.

As we walk through the cemetery I hear the mewing of a buzzard, and for once it isn’t being mobbed by crows. We watch it catching a thermal (no mean feat on this blustery, chilly day), and it continues to call until another buzzard appears. They can travel a long, long way at speed just by riding the wind. Are they nesting somewhere in the cemetery? It wouldn’t surprise me, but I haven’t found the site yet. If they are, I’m sure it will be hidden away in one of the most difficult-to-access parts of the forest, but how exciting it would be!

And finally, here is another little patch of violets. These are a ‘proper’ violet colour, but it’s difficult to make out the sepals. However, those perfect heart-shaped leaves make me think it’s dog violet (Viola riviniana), so-called because it doesn’t have any scent, and ‘dog’ is often used as an epithet for something commonplace and uninteresting. Try telling that to any dog (or dog owner) though.

 

An Early Spring Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, it really feels as if spring is gathering apace this week. From a few tentative flowers opening gently on the crab apples and cherry trees, there is now an abundance of fluffy blossom.

The chapel looks spick and span after its long renovation, although these days it only houses the (much-appreciated) toilets rather than holding any services.

The tree on the corner of the woodland burial area is looking very fine as well.

The primroses are emerging under the cedars of Lebanon.

And the daffodils are everywhere. I feel a bit of a Scrooge for saying it, but I am generally not a great fan of those big butter-coloured daffodils, though they are cheerful enough, I suppose. I like the paler, creamier ones that look more like the vanishingly-rare wild daffodils of Wales, and I have a fondness for the little miniature ones as well. And I’m fond of what I think of as ‘proper’ narcissi, like the pheasant’s eye ones with a small, red-rimmed trumpet. Paperwhites have their place, though Mum used to find their scent overpowering in a small space, and I must admit that they can make me feel slightly nauseous too. I’m becoming so fussy! Or is it just that I’m noticing my preferences more?

Little daffodils (Tete-a-tete I think?)

On a few of the sunnier graves there is a cheery outburst of red deadnettle.

And of course there are always daisies. I think you could find some in flower in the cemetery on every single day of the year. They always seem so modest and so hard-working to me.

There are some unexpected visitors resting next to the stream. I love the way that ducks appear to be asleep but always have one eye open to make sure that you aren’t up to any mischief.

A lady stopped her car to say she’d been seeing the ‘birds’ for a few days, but wasn’t sure what they were. Unfortunately she asked my husband, who, momentarily flustered,  could only say that they were ‘ducks’. I have more work to do, clearly, though if she’d asked me she’d probably still be sitting in her car listening to me pronouncing forth on the wildfowl of London, so she had a lucky escape.

More spring flowers are emerging: there are the first grape hyacinths

and some Loddon lilies, which seem to be a cemetery speciality. I’m sure all of them are planted rather than wild, but they are naturalising in some areas. At first glance you might think that they are just giant snowdrops, but the shape of the flowers is quite distinct.

A rose-ringed parakeet posed very nicely for the camera, unlike the two that were briefly on the suet feeder in the garden this morning. Whenever I see them I think of the one that visited the garden the day after Dad died. It’s funny how superstitious death can make a person: I almost believed that Dad had popped back to cheer me up, and with the two this morning I automatically thought of Mum and Dad together again. Of course, I don’t really believe that they have somehow been reincarnated as parakeets, but part of me wishes it were true. What complicated beings we are as we wrestle with the big, unsolvable questions of life. Or maybe it’s just me.

And as we head into my very favourite part of the cemetery, the overgrown, unpeopled area around Kew Road and Withington Road, I am struck yet again by the beauty of a blossom tree.

The early crocuses are almost over now, how glad I am that I caught them in their full glory! They rather look as if an elephant has trodden on them now.

On the other hand, the Dutch crocuses are just coming out.

And while the snowdrops in the sunny areas emerged first and are now dying back…

…the ones in the shady areas are still in full flower.

And, let me share a little story with you that made me gasp. One of the Facebook groups that I belong to is about plant identification. A person posted that they had been reading about sorrel (the lemony-leaved member of the dock family), and so when they saw the plant below they decided to forage some and eat it.

And of course, it’s cuckoo-pint/lords and ladies, and is poisonous. How you could mistake one for the other astounds me, but then it’s often difficult to judge scale and size from a photo, and I suppose that the leaves are a similar shape if you squint. Fortunately, the poison in cuckoo-pint expresses itself by making the lips tingle and the tongue swell up, plus it tastes extremely unpleasant, so you aren’t likely to eat a lot of it. But even so, this was a close escape. I guess it’s exactly how our ancestors learned, and the ones who didn’t learn ended up deaded, as my Dad would have said.

Cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)

I heard the buzzard but didn’t see it. It’s very frustrating – I have a feeling that there’s a nest in the cemetery somewhere, and it must be pretty big, but I can’t find it. Anyhow, instead I saw a pair of crows harassing the kestrel, poor thing. It’s very difficult to make out from my most excellent photo (ahem) but it’s the bird in the middle. Kestrels don’t take nestlings or eggs, but I guess the crows aren’t taking any chances.

I saw one of the feral cats looking very sleek and well-fed – the lady who used to travel all the way from Camden to feed them and the foxes and the birds every day manages to get in at the weekend now when she can get a lift, but I suspect that other people are doing their bit to make sure that the animals don’t go hungry. I caught a quick glimpse of a fox too, but not for long enough to see if it was the poor vixen who’d had an accident that I saw last time.

And in other news,  I had my first Covid vaccination on Wednesday (the Astra Zeneca one), and although I felt pretty rubbish for about 24 hours it really does feel now as if there is a glimmer of  hope for some return to a new ‘normal’. I am so grateful to the NHS and all the people who are volunteering to help with the programme, and to the scientists who have managed to perform this miracle. I just hope now that we find a way to distribute the vaccine more equitably than we currently are, because in this situation it really is true that none of us are safe until we’re all safe. As I have done right through lockdown I am counting my blessings fervently and hoping for a decent pay rise for NHS staff (rather than the derisory 1% currently on offer), for more recognition for our care home staff, for a complete review of the care system, for support and recognition for our teachers and for all the workers who continued to staff our essential shops and transport systems, who collected our waste and delivered our post. If nothing else, this last year should have taught us who really is essential, and who really does deserve to be rewarded.