Monthly Archives: January 2013

Big Garden Birdwatch 2013

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) organises an amazing survey every year in the UK where half a million people spend an hour noting down the birds seen in their garden during one specific weekend in January. That weekend is this weekend, and I have just submitted my results.

I live in an apartment in Zone 1 in London. I am very lucky that, despite my central and highly urban location, I share a reasonable sized garden with the owners of the other three flats in my block. I spent an hour with my binoculars, a notepad and pen, and my camera looking out of my sitting room window and noting down what I saw. An important rule of the survey is that you only note down the number of birds you can see at any one time to avoid the possibility of double-counting. Here is what I spotted:

Blackbird (Turdus merula) – 2


This fat, young female (above) was one of two Blackbirds I saw in the hour. It is ranked as the fourth most common garden bird in the UK and last year’s survey showed that people saw an average of 2.6 of them per garden recorded.

Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) – 2

Blue Tit

Despite the rather poor photo above, I saw at least two Blue tits flitting regularly between the trees during the hour. Blue tits are recorded as the third most common garden bird with last year’s results showing that there were, on average, nearly three of them per garden. Indeed the increase in bird feeders in garden is probably a major factor which explains the 20% population increase in Blue tits recorded over the last 30+ years of the RSPB survey.

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) – 2


The bird above is a female Common Chaffinch. From last year’s survey, it is ranked as the fifth most common garden bird and the fact that I saw two of these birds fits neatly as that was the average record returned last year.

Feral pigeon (Columba livia) – 4

Feral pigeon

Although only ranked as the 15th most common garden bird from last year’s survey, if you take the results for Greater London, it is the fifth most common bird. Given my central urban location, it was no real surprise that I saw more of these feral birds than any other.

Great tit (Parus major) – 1

Great Tit

The eighth most common bird in the RSPB survey and at least one was repeatedly present in my garden during the hour.

Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) – 2

Long-tailed Tit

Only recently included in the top 15, this cute bird (above) is now 13th in the list. It mainly feeds and flies in family flocks of 5-15 birds, but I only spotted two in my garden during the hour.

Magpie (Pica pica) – 2

I wasn’t quite dexterous or quick enough to capture the magpies in my garden with my camera, but I spotted two of them, which places me above average. The Magpie is the 12th most common garden bird.

Robin (Erithacus Rubecula) – 1


One reason why the gardener’s friend is only 9th most common garden bird is surely that they are so territorial that you are unlikely to see more than one in your garden at any time. However, the RSPB data over the years shows that Robin has undergone a worrying 32% decline in the UK.

Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) – 1


Whilst pleased to see one Starling, I was surprised it was on its own as Starlings are normally highly social. The Starling is the second most common bird in the survey, but this belies the fact that since 1979 it has suffered a horrendous 80% decline in numbers – one of the worst population falls of any bird in the UK.

Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) – 3

Wood Pigeon

In stark contrast to the Starling, the Wood Pigeon (above) which is the sixth most common garden bird, has increased in number by a staggering 800% in the last 30 years!

So those were the ten birds I saw in one hour from my central London window, which goes to show that you do not have to travel far to experience wildlife. However, at four counted, the Feral Pigeon was not the most common vertebrate seen from my window. As I am lucky enough not to be overlooked, it wasn’t humans either. The most common animal I counted in my garden during the hour was the Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) (called the Eastern Gray Squirrel in its native North America)…

Grey Squirrel

One factor which may have reduced the number of birds I saw in the hour was that a domestic cat (Felis catus) was out trying to hunt them and also chasing the squirrels.


And, to complete the picture, like something from a Tom & Jerry cartoon, the neighbour’s dog (Canis lupus familiaris) was out chasing the cat, the squirrels and barking at anything that moved.


Secret London: Part VIII – In memoriam nival

Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington is most definitely not a secret place (it is rightly famous as one of the ‘magnificent seven’ great Victorian cemeteries of London), but it contains many, many secrets within its walls. It is a stunningly wild place at any time of year, but the lovingly overgrown (if that is not oxymoronic) labyrinth seems particularly charmed under a coating of snow.

Abney Park Cemetary

The giant Victorian cemetery seemingly has a thousand long and winding paths, each which twist around old and decaying trees and incalculable numbers of grave stones almost overwhelmed with brambles which appear to be re-claiming the rock from the stone mason back to the wild.

Abney park nature
The cemetery can appear wonderfully wild and unplanned, but as one might expect from such a place of faith, there is both intelligent design in its layout and management. Originally landscaped by a man called George Loddiges in 1843, Abney Park is rare in that it is both cemetery and arboretum. Inevitably, mid-winter is not the best time to view trees at their best, but it is patently clear that the trees form a central role in the eco-system that has grown up in the 32 acres of land.

Whilst still very much alive as a tree, you can see from the holes in the deadwood of this Common Ash’s crown that Great Spotted Woodpeckers use it as a home and feeding station…

Woodpecker holes

London parkland wouldn’t be what we know and love without the ubiquitous and largely tame Grey Squirrel…

Grey Squirrel

Or the equally bold Robin fearlessly guarding its territory…


The Carrion Crows flapped and hopped like feathered onyx automatons in the sheet of white snow…

Carrion Crow

Some residents, which were certainly not present when the dead were first laid to rest here, are the squawking Ring-necked Parakeets which appear strange and incongruously exotic for a Victorian London cemetery (Parakeets are the feral descendants of escaped captive birds from the 1960s that are colonising much of London and the South East)…

Ring-necked Parakeet

A grave story
A thousand grave stones tell a thousand stories, and mainly stories of loss (in fact there are around 200,000 internments in Abney Park; a town of death one might muse). It would be almost inhuman not to feel the pathos reach back across the generations, often carved into real and sentimental expression:“In loving memory of our dear little Stanley who passed away Jan 29th 1925 aged 7 1/2”

Little grave

Sometimes short passages from the Bible or Lord’s Prayer are etched into the stone expressing the futility of human struggle against the inexorability of fate/death/heavenly plan…

Thy will be done

Sometimes, a grieving family might use poetry to express their loss, but also their resilience through faith…

“A light is from our household gone,
A voice we loved is stilled:
A place is vacant in our home,
Which never can be filled.
To live in hearts we leave behind,
Is not to die


A general complaint I have with grave stone design is the focus on how people died rather than how they lived. I must have read a hundred times how someone “fell asleep” or “passed peacefully”, but other than the fact that they were a beloved father/mother/husband/wife/son/daughter, we learn nothing about the person whose remains lie six feet below our feet. I did find, however, some simple but notable exceptions…

Such as the 40 year old tax man from Kirkcaldy (the constituency of our dour former Prime Minister, Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP)…

"Yeaahh I'm the tax man"

…or Betsi the “faithful” nurse, whose grave stone looks suspiciously modern for a lady who passed away over 150 years ago (which along with the snow-coated daffodil posie at the base of the stone hint at the sure fact that Betsi is not forgotten)…


There is clearly a tragic story behind the military grave stone of Private C.R. Haughton who died the day after World War I ended (presumably from his wounds sustained earlier in the trenches)…

12 Nov

A modest modern memorial stone stands in front of the much older tomb of Rev. James Sherman…


As the stone simply notes, Sherman was an ‘abolitionist’ (one of many buried at Abney Park, but the only one I found in my wanderings in the freezing cold). Sherman wrote books about, and financially aided, the cause of the abolition of slavery in North America right up until his death two years into the American Civil war. Sherman financially assisted the stay of escaped slave, and abolitionist minister, Samuel Ringgold Ward, who wrote a book based on the speeches he gave in London to raise money for the cause in North America, Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: his anti-slavery labours in the United States, Canada and England. Which made me realise how the stories of 200,000 people often also overlap with the stories of countless others.

So much could, and perhaps should, be written about the many brave and wonderful things done by those whose remains lie in the frozen earth of East London, but I shall end this post with an image of the lion of the Bostock family crypt who appears to be sleeping peacefully under a blanket of snow…


A wild land? A photo-story from the South of France

Deep in the languedoc region of Southern France, in the mediterranean foothills of the Pyrenees, there lies a hidden valley…

Blanes valley

Whilst in the region of the vines of the Corbieres, the valley, and its surrounds, is wild and largely uncultivated…

Serre du Blanes

This is the land of wild boar. They leave their tracks…

wild boar tracks

…and markings everywhere…

boar markings

But wisely, these creatures are elusive, for this is also the land of hunters. Though many hours have been spent stepping carefully through the valley, I have only glimpsed flashes of the beasts. Only once, too, have I captured a distant shot of a roe deer…

Roe deer

In winter and summer, the fauna of the valley is shy and wild. Common birds that we know as garden friends, such as the Blackbird, are plentiful but almost as elusive as the boar. The merest tread of a foot sends theses birds diving deeper into thickets for cover squawking their alarm as they go. In half a decade of visits to the valley, this twig-obscured shot of a feasting female (taken this winter) is the best I have done…

Female Blackbird

In the winter, the Blackbird is joined by its migratory cousins from the frozen North, the Redwing…


… and Fieldfare…


The stony and often dry land is populated by a range of pines…

Pine cones

… and the evergreen Holm (or Holly) Oak, Quercus ilex, which has been used to build the classical ships and wagons of Homer and Hesiod for thousands of years and has fed wild boar from its acorns and root-protected truffles for millions of years…

Quercus ilex

What is wild?

At first glance, the valley seems wild, but it has not always been so. Amidst the natural outcrops of rock (pushed up by the Pyrenees) stand well camouflaged rocks laid out as walls by the hands of long-dead men…


…and even in relatively recent decades, this land was used productively…

olive tree and contraption

The urge for man to reclaim the land is strong and I helped an inhabitant of the valley clear a small plot of brambles to make way for an olive grove. However, the valley is now largely in the ‘hands’ of the wild things.

Comparing the seasons

This winter, I walked past Old man’s beard…

Clematis vitalba

… and erupting Puff-ball fungi…

puff balls

… but in the Spring, flowers, not fungi, dominate including thousands of stalks of Asphodel…


… caterpillars emerge and turn to butterflies…


… and weird creatures appear in the grasses, like this mantis…


I scoured the dwindling pools (it has been a dry winter so far) and found only Water boatman…

Water boatman

… whilst in warmer months past, I have watched newts, such as this Palmate…

Palmate newt

The birds that hide in thickets during the cold and scorching months, and those that migrate away from the chill, return during the spring to sing, such as this Serin…


… this resident warbler, the Blackcap…


…And at the right time of year, the valley chimes through day and much of the night with the song of the Nightingale…


Beyond the valley

If you climb the steep slopes of the valley, you reach the summit rocks where ravens and birds of prey feed. Looking down south from the pass, you see yet another similar valley…

the view

Lifting your eyes up out of this valley and staring south, the blue of the distance only partially hides the mighty peaks of the Pyrenees, such as Mount Canigou…