Category Archives: London Birds

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.

 

 

 

Tense Times for Coldfall Wood

Sunrise in Coldfall Wood December 2020

Dear Readers, you might think that the trees that form part of an ancient woodland nature reserve would be safe from being cut down,  except when it’s essential for the management of the area. Sadly, as I have learned, you would be wrong. Trees are often felled in urban areas because they are blamed for damage to nearby housing, even when the houses are built  after the trees are fully grown, and even when such housing is extended right up to the treeline.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know how passionately I care about the few small areas of ancient woodland that remain in North London, in particular Coldfall Wood. At only 14 hectares it provides a home for 26 species of breeding birds (including the lesser spotted woodpecker and song thrush, both Red List species),  2 species of bat, 106 species of beetle (including three Nationally Notable species), 56 species of spiders and 3 species of pseudoscorpion.

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing in Coldfall Wood

Black and Yellow Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata) in Coldfall Wood

Two nuthatches – Coldfall Wood

Stock Dove (Coldfall Wood)

Treecreeper (Coldfall Wood)

One of the species recorded is the very rare Lesser Glow Worm (Phosphaenus hemipterus).

Photo One By Urs Rindlisbacher - Majka GC, MacIvor JS (2009) The European lesser glow worm, Phosphaenus hemipterus (Goeze), in North America (Coleoptera, Lampyridae). ZooKeys 29: 35–47. doi:10.3897/zookeys.29.279, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8770508

Lesser glow worm (Phosphaenus hemipterus) (Photo One)

However, being a rare ecosystem brings limited protection when insurance companies become involved. A local householder has been having subsidence problems with an extension that was built ten years ago. A number of two-hundred year-old oaks have already been destroyed without the knowledge of the local Friends group, whose role is to liaise with the council and to protect the wood. The plan was to fell a further seven trees on 1st March, even though the loss of the other trees hasn’t improved the situation. Fortunately we were able to get the felling postponed, but the trees still aren’t safe.

Coldfall Wood August 2020

Speckled Wood butterfly

Our local Council, Haringey, is under pressure from the insurance company (AXA) to fell the trees – the council can be found to be negligent if it doesn’t act, and can be forced to pay for any works deemed necessary. However, there are lots of reasons other than trees that can cause subsidence to occur, including the soil composition, the geography of the area and the adequacy of the foundations of the building,  and none of them have been explored. Our question is this: if cutting down a number of mature oak and hornbeam trees didn’t solve the subsidence problem, how will removing further trees help? Where does it end?

Water mint (Mentha aquatica) next to the seasonal pond, Coldfall Wood August 2020

There is a meeting on 5th March at the council to discuss a strategic approach to the problem, and we hope that this will at least allow for further research into the causes of the subsidence. However, we also have a petition asking for the felling to be stopped,  which has over 50,000 signatures already (link below). We are angry that trees and the habitat that they represent are considered so expendable at a time when councils, corporations and our national government all claim to be working to alleviate climate change. There is so much talk about protecting the environment, and yet greenspaces have never been under so much pressure. While we want to work constructively with the council and with the insurers, we have no intention of allowing the destruction of these trees.

The by-line for this blog has always been ‘ Because a community is more than just people’. That community includes the trees that provide much of the oxygen that we breathe, that shade us in the summer and that provide a home for hundreds of other species. If we don’t act now to give them the protection that they deserve, then when? 

The link to the petition is here. Please feel free to sign and share. I shall let you know how we get on.

Coldfall Wood 7.30 p.m. August 4th 2020

Photo Credits

Photo One By Urs Rindlisbacher – Majka GC, MacIvor JS (2009) The European lesser glow worm, Phosphaenus hemipterus (Goeze), in North America (Coleoptera, Lampyridae). ZooKeys 29: 35–47. doi:10.3897/zookeys.29.279, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8770508

All other photos by the author

Goings on in the Garden

Dear Readers, every day this week I have been woken up by the sound of cackling. Magpies rarely land in the garden – it’s a little bit too small for them to comfortably take-off, big inflexible lummoxes that they are – and so they usually settle for a quick smash and grab on the bird table.  However, I have been throwing out some live mealworms on the ground for the robins, and they often hide under the mulch (I like to give the poor things a sporting chance).

These two are adults, but quite young I think, and I suspect that they’re nesting somewhere close by. I’m not absolutely delighted by this, as I know they can take nestlings and eggs, but nature is it what it is. And they are superb birds to look at, with their iridescent tails and wings. And they are so intelligent. I’m not surprised that they’ve realised that there are easy pickings at Casa Bugwoman.

The photos were all taken through my kitchen window which hasn’t had a proper clean for a while because there are False Widow Spiders living in the window frame. Apologies for the slight fuzziness, but our eight-legged friends must come first, you know.

I also noticed the magpie giving the pond what my mother would have called ‘an old-fashioned look’ – the frogs are just getting going, and if they stray too close to the edge I suspect they’ll get exploratory stab. On the subject of which…..

Lovely Readers, I have a question for you. What could I plant around the edge of the pond that would provide some cover for frogs who are coming and going from the pond at this time of year? In a month or so it will be packed with greenery (and it’s fine for when the little frogs leave) but any amphibians arriving or leaving at this time of year have to run a pretty bare gauntlet. Ideally I’d like something that is wildlife friendly in other ways too, and which has lots of greenery by February. All suggestions eagerly considered!

Anyhow, it isn’t just the magpies who are enjoying the garden. There was a robin belting out his challenge as the sun slowly faded yesterday. I love the long shadows and the golden light at this time of year.

And here’s a great tit…

And how about the blue tits?  A pair of them checked out my sparrow nesting boxes again yesterday, but I’m sure the entrance is too large for them.

So the pace of life is really hotting up. I’m glad I’ve got suet pellets under the stairs and worms in the shed, because everything is just about to kick off. Looks like maybe, just maybe, we got through winter.

A Sunday Walk in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, as if by a miracle the temperature has gone up a tad, the mud has (probably temporarily) abated in Coldfall Wood and on Muswell Hill Playing Fields, and so it was a good day to get some air. The woods have been more heavily used this year because of lockdown, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the understorey quite so bare. The leaf cover makes it difficult for smaller plants to survive in the uncoppiced areas, but because of the need to socially distance, many new paths have been carved through the trees. Still, some plants are still popping up, like this Italian Cuckoo Pint (Arum italicum), poking out from below the holly.

We head out to the fields for the first time in ages – it was such a mud bath for a few months that we decided to give it a miss. But today it’s full of people walking their dogs and playing with their children. It’s been such a hard time for everyone, in so many different ways.

On the way round, I spot the crossbar from at least three football goals. I wonder if people swing on them and they collapse?

The pyracantha berries on the big hedge look to be well-nibbled, and I wonder if it’s the redwings.

There is a small group of black-headed gulls – the ‘black’ mark behind the ear of this one is gradually getting bigger. Soon it will have a fine chocolate-brown hood, and summer will be here, and this gull will probably be much further north. Over two million black-headed gulls overwinter in the south of the UK, so they aren’t rare, but they are elegant, and noisy!

I have a look at ‘my’ wildflower border. Not much to tell at this time of year, except for some impressive burrs and the new leaves of the lambs-ear.

Oh, and the fennel seedheads.

I almost walk past the Japanese knotweed, though I do like the mixture of browns and tans that the dead stalks make at this time of year.

But then I spot this.

I thought that it was some kind of man-made object, but when I waded through the stems to get a closer look, I was fairly convinced that it is in fact a bird’s nest. It’s attached to the stalks by a filigree of plant stems. What bird made it I’m unsure, let me know if you have any thoughts. I did wonder about long-tailed tits, but then they tend to be mossy rather than grassy. At any rate, it proves that Japanese knotweed is at least good for something – I doubt that anything could have reached the nestlings while the plant was in full leaf. And what fun to find a nest! Considering how many birds nest every year, they do a fine job of keeping the locations pretty secret.

 

Storm Darcy Arrives in East Finchley

Dear Readers, well I’m not having to shovel my way out of the front door, but we do have snow this morning, and so it’s on with the walking boots and woolly hat, and out into the garden to make sure there’s food and water for the birds. A blackbird was pecking over the bird table before it was even light, so the critters are definitely hungry. Sure enough, the robin was down pecking at the mealworms before I’d even left the garden. And then the starlings arrived.

 

And the chaffinches.

I’ve noticed before how more tolerant birds are of one another in the winter, but even I was surprised when this little gathering on the bird table didn’t end up with ‘pistols at dawn’.

It doesn’t take much to spook them though.

And it turns out that one of the starlings has ‘cracked’ the nut butter feeder. I’ve seen coal tits feeding on the other one (which is hidden away next to the bittersweet) so at least somebody likes them.

But the height of the excitement was spotting a female blackcap working over the bittersweet. At least I’m thinking that it’s a female – juveniles look similar. Some folk have found that these birds are aggressive at the bird table, but this one couldn’t be more reclusive. I love that she’s eating the berries – at one point she hung upside down on a twig to get one. I hung a roosting pouch in the hedge so I wonder if she’s using it?

And it’s still snowing, though just wispy little flakes. The temperature isn’t expected to get above 30 degrees Fahrenheit for the rest of the week, so I’m glad that I stocked up on birdfood. And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and see a fox like we did last time.

Big Garden Birdwatch 2021

Dear Readers, during the last weekend in January people up and down the UK sit at their windows for an hour and collect data on the birds they see. Some years all the birds turn up as if on order (the year I saw a great spotted woodpecker, a blackcap and a sparrowhawk was particularly gratifying), but on other years tumbleweeds float past. A dear friend of mine has a theory that, on Saturday and Sunday, everyone puts out masses of food and so everyone sees less, and she may well be right. So, as the Big Garden Birdwatch actually starts on a Friday I thought I’d try a weekday this year.

I think it was a middling year. It didn’t start off too well, with this distinctly non-avian critter dominating the seed feeder, but s/he soon moved off, allowing the usual suspects to turn up. I saw 5 goldfinches…

and 5 chaffinches….

and sixteen starlings (of course), one of whom has white tail feathers, and I shall have to see if I can get a photo of him/her for you all.

It’s funny how things ebb and flow, even over the space of an hour. The starlings mob the place for five minutes and then all disappear as if hearing a distant summons, before reappearing in a great swirl of squawks. Then the chaffinches reappear, hovering mothily around the feeders. Next door have put up some nyjer and suet ball feeders, which is great because I don’t have those, and so it provides greater variety.

I have invested in some Flutter Butter. For those of you who don’t know, this is peanut butter but without the salt and palm oil that make the human variety so unhealthy for birds and so claggy (though I never knew a fox who’d turn down a peanut butter sandwich). I’ve put one feeder in amongst the honeysuckle and bittersweet, where I hope the little birds will be brave enough to try it. Does anyone think that there’s been a bit of peckery going on on this one, or is it my hopeful imagination? Has anyone tried this stuff? How did you get on?

The one in the lilac bush is absolutely pristine, so obviously nobody’s dared have a go yet. I shall keep you posted.

When it’s quiet, it gives me a chance to admire my hazel catkins (as you do). I was supposed to have a ‘native hedge’ but sadly some of the ‘hedge’ has become saplings instead. I shall have quite a forest by the time I leave the house, but who could resist the chance of hazel nuts? Not to mention the second hawthorn tree that I have popping up, and the spindle.

There’s a brief flurry of excitement, and a pair of great tits turn up. Will they be attracted to the Flutter Butter? Er, no. I do find it interesting that both the blue and great tits will take either sunflower hearts or suet – I always think of these birds as insectivorous, but maybe they aren’t so fussy out of breeding season. The finches, of course, only ever take the sunflower seeds.

I love the way that the tits fly in at speed, take a single seed or suet pellet, and then sit on a branch, holding the food between their feet while they peck away at it. I’d also never noticed the pattern on the head of a great tit before. It looks a bit like a giant bee.

Spring is in the air as far as the woodpigeons (2 recorded) and the collared doves (3 recorded) are concerned. At the start of the hour, two collared doves were sitting next to one another perfectly peacefully.

Then, with a toot like a child’s trumpet, a third collared dove flew into the tree and, without so much as a by-your-leave, tried to accost what I assume was the lady pigeon, who flew off at great speed, pursued by her ‘suitor’. The other collared dove seemed to think about flying off as well, but evidently decided it was too much like hard work. At the end of the hour he was sitting unconcerned next to the woodpigeon.

I amused myself for a while by watching the chaffinches. These are the most elegant of the finches that I see for sure: they seem to hover at the feeders like our answer to hummingbirds. The males are also very handsome in their blush-pink feathers.

And then there’s the machine-gun cackle of a magpie, and everything flies off. None of the birds have much tolerance for magpies (except the collared doves and woodpigeons, who seem most unperturbed). It’s easy to see the intelligence of these birds. The one that I recorded was joined by his mate, and then the two of them headed off to the TV aerial to survey their kingdom. If someone drops a Kentucky Fried Chicken container or a pigeon gets run over within half a mile, they’ll know.

And so, after an hour, my tally was:

16 starlings

5 goldfinches

5 chaffinches

3 collared doves

2 blue tits

2 great tits

2 woodpigeons

1 magpie

1 robin.

Nothing exciting, but a nice variety of garden birds, plus one fat squirrel. It looks as if the garden is doing its job, and I can’t wait until spring to see what happens once the breeding season starts.

 

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.