Dawn Chorus in Coldfall Wood


Cheeky robin

I crept out of the house at 4.30 am on Sunday to get to Coldfall Wood, one of Haringey’s ancient woodlands, for a Dawn Chorus Walk led by birdman David Darrell-Lambert for the Friends of Coldfall Wood. I’ve been on quite a few of these walks over the years – local ones as well as one at Minsmere in Suffolk – but this was quite the best.  It was as if David were conducting a choir.  ‘There’s a blackbird over here and one answering there. A wren on that bush. And a robin just above us.’ He could hear each bird in the chorus and taught us to focus on screening out the birds we knew so that we could concentrate on learning a new song. Below the fluting of the blackbird and trill of the wren I learned to identify the chiffchaff – an example of onomatopoeia if ever there was one. We heard a great spotted woodpecker drumming and as it became lighter we saw one of the old nesting holes pecked in a tree.

There’s a sequence to the dawn chorus, with the blackbirds, robins and wrens amongst the first to sing, and the song thrush usually coming in slightly later. By 6 am we could hear the tiniest of British birds – the goldcrest, along with the chiffchaff, nuthatch and blue, great and coal tits. Blackcaps sing a bit later. They are a type of warbler and I’ve seen them in my own garden, but I was really impressed when David identified a willow warbler whose habitat is mixed or deciduous woodland. We heard both stock doves and wood pigeons. Nothing remarkable about those but their song reminded me of a ditty taught by a friend: ‘My feet hurt Betty,’ calls the wood pigeon. ‘My feet hurt,’ says the collared dove. Whereas the stock dove just shouts ‘My feet! My feet!’ Just as we were leaving the woods at about 7 am we heard a chaffinch sing. I know the song of the chaffinch, which can be likened to a cricket bowler running up to the crease and letting go of the ball.

Birds sing in the spring to proclaim their territory and/or to find a mate. At this time, most birds are already breeding but some lonely ones will still be looking for a mate. By late June the birds are quieter and the chorus reduced.

David not only identified the songs but also gave us snippets of interesting information. I can’t remember hearing a dunnock on this walk but David told us that it’s just been discovered that it’s the female that sings, rather the male, which I think might be quite unusual amongst birds. We talked about migration. Even wood pigeons, the most common bird in my garden, are known to migrate – possibly short distance within the UK or maybe to France. There’s not been a tracking device attached to a woodie as far as I know. I love stories of bird migration. The longest migration recorded is of the bar-tailed godwit flying nonstop from its summer breeding ground in Alaska to New Zealand, a distance of over 7000 miles, in nine days.

David is leading two more local Dawn Chorus Walks in Queens Wood on Sunday 30th April at 5 am and 9 am. You can book here.

The wonderful bird photos are by my photographer friend Mike Reid.

Dawn just breaking at 5 am
Coldfall Wood at 7 am
Blackbird – one of the first to sing in the Dawn Chorus
Woodie: my feet hurt, Betty!
Great spotted woodpecker
Great tit
Blue tit
Male chaffinch
Female chaffinch – she has no need to sing

Parkland Walk Wildlife Trail

Silver-washed fritillary butterfly

I used to work with the Conservation Volunteers in my student days in Scotland. Many are the rhododendron ponticum shrubs I’ve dug up to make way for native Scottish plants, and once I spent an idyllic two weeks camping on the beach at St Cyrus near Montrose, building a cliff path. So I was pleased when I met a group of Conservation Volunteers constructing a Wildlife Trail at the Highgate end of the Parkland Walk.

I chatted with Simon Olley, who chairs the Friends of the Parkland Walk: “The idea for the Wildlife Trail came out of a conversation I had with Ian Holt, the conservation officer at Haringey Council, about 18 months ago,” he said. “The idea came to fruition when we were successful with the Tesco Bags of Help grant which gave us £10,000 to spend on fencing and materials.”

The Trail area consists of about 3000 square metres of gently sloping land just off the main path. The idea is to create pockets of interest and a variety of habitats around a meandering path. Information boards, mainly aimed at young children, will help identify the flora and fauna. The lower section will be completely accessible to those with mobility issues and work is being done to improve access to the sloping area so that they can use the whole site with some assistance.

The Trail is really shaping up with mixed hedging of hawthorn, blackthorn, guelder rose, field maple and dogwood forming the boundaries. As well as forming a habitat of its own, the hedging will also act as protection for neighbouring houses. The path is already set out but is awaiting a covering of woodchip which can be sourced from the sycamores that are due to be felled. “There’s a bit of a controversy about the felling,” Simon explained. “Some people think nature conservation is about conserving the status quo and find it hard to understand why a woodland has to be managed. But a healthy woodland has a much lower density of mature trees. The current woodland area is crowded which means the trees compete for light and grow up towards it becoming unbalanced. Originally in Haringey’s wild woods there would have been wild boar and deer keeping the saplings at bay and creating open glades where wildflowers could thrive. We must explain this to local people so they come on board with us.” Simon also told me that sycamore is a non-native tree and only hosts about six varieties of native insect, whereas oak can host 200-400 different varieties.

There were about ten volunteers working when I arrived. I met Sarah who was looking for trees marked with orange dots. She would cut back about a third of the ivy on these trees to reduce the weight of ivy so they would prosper. “I come out with the Conservation Volunteers most weeks,” Sarah told me. “It’s addictive and I’ve worked at sites all over Haringey.” Other volunteers were clearing a patch of ground ready to plant the wildflower seeds donated by Kew Gardens under its Grow Wild initiative, a campaign bringing people together to transform local spaces by growing native pollinator-friendly wildflowers and grasses. This mixture should attract a wide variety of insects and butterflies such as common blues, silver-washed fritillaries and small tortoiseshells.

I asked Simon what made him become interested in the Parkland Walk. “I think, like a lot of people living in densely populated towns, I’ve got more and more interested in green spaces. I’ve always been interested in gardening and I walk my dogs regularly in the Muswell Hill section of the Parkland Walk. It gives me the opportunity to stop and listen to birdsong and take in all the colours of the plants and the activity of the wildlife. I wanted to put back something I’ve gained so I contacted the Friends. I’ve been on the Committee now for six years and what I bring to being the Chair is my encouragement to get more people involved.”

That’s certainly true, as Simon has now signed me up to become a litter picker on the section of the Parkland Walk near to me!

Lunchtime with the Conservation Volunteers
Ivy arch
New hedging
Ivy-clad tree
Grow Wild seeds

Easter Baking

A groaning table

It’s Easter so it must be baking time.  I’m a member of Stroud Green Women’s Institute and we’ve formed a Cake Club where we meet every six weeks or so to bring, bake and, of course, eat cakes. Last week we baked a variety of Easter cakes from all over Europe.

First up was La Mona de Pascua from Catalan. It’s a Genoese sponge with an apricot jam filling and a rich custard topping with no fewer than 15 egg yolks mixed with icing sugar. Traditionally the cake is made with hard-boiled eggs embedded in the centre, but the modern recipe is somewhat plainer!

Putting the finishing touches to La Mona de Pascua
A slice of delicious Catalan cake

We tried Russian Paska, a tower of cream, ricotta cheese and cream cheese mixed with nuts, glace cherries and crystallized ginger. Unfortunately it didn’t come out quite like the one demonstrated on Mary Berry’s Easter show last week, but it tasted delicious.

Russian Paska

Of course we sampled Simnel cake, a fruit cake layered with marzipan and topped by twelve eggs representing the twelve apostles.

Simnel cake with its 12 apostles

One member made a fertility cake, Fruchtbärkeit torte, using a recipe from her Austrian aunt.  The sponge is mixed with copious amounts of poppy seeds, a traditional symbol of fertility. It reminded me of the poppy seed cake my mother used to bring home from a Polish deli when we lived in Birmingham in the 60s. This fertility cake was filled with a custard flavoured with a generous amount of Tia Maria and was topped with chocolate and flaked almonds.

Fertility cake
Poppy seeds: a symbol of fertility

Lastly there were chocolate truffle scotch eggs with a creme egg filling.

Scotch eggs with creme egg centres

Good job I didn’t have any dinner beforehand.

Graffiti Art on the Parkland Walk

Anyone familiar with the Parkland Walk will know about the brick railway arches that make ideal canvasses for graffiti artists. I used to think that spray cans were wielded by local young people who use the Cape Play and Youth Project, but I now realise the arches attract graffiti artists from across London who want to make their mark one way or another.

Walking underneath the arches last week I met Nil, from Marseille, who moved to London a year ago to work in advertising. I talked to him about his art: “I’ve been interesting in painting all my life and became obsessed by graffiti when a friend introduced me to it when I was 18.”

Nil was taking some paintings to a friend who works as a framer in Crouch End when she told him about the graffiti wall.

Talking to Nil about his art: Photo credit – Michele Monticello
Underneath the arches: Photo credit – Michele Monticello

I asked him what the graffiti meant and he said that he always paints in light blue and pink: “I love these colours and last year I chose them to mark my work. It should be more recognisable now.” Who is Ben, I wanted to know. “He’s a friend of mine. I’ve also signed this with my own name and the date,” he said, indicating his signature.

Nil painting underneath the arches: Photo credit – Michele Monticello
Nil’s graffiti

“This is a new place for me. I usually paint at the wall surrounding the Trellick Tower in North West London near my home.” The Trellick Tower wall is one of the three legal graffiti sites in London, the other two being Stockwell Hall of Fame and the Leake Street tunnel at Waterloo.

Trellick Tower Graffiti Wall

Further along I examined a menacing masked figure clad in black and red armour with the hashtag #do1cancer. I’m intrigued so when I’m back home I do a bit of searching to enlighten me, finding that do1cancer is a group of graffiti artists who organise events to raise money for cancer charities.


Concern about graffiti along the Parkland Walk has been raised by users. However, most complaints are about the ‘tagging’ or non-artistic variety rather than the artistic graffiti underneath the bridges. So it’s a controversial issue, but the graffiti is tolerated because probably most people would agree that the wall paintings brighten up the dark arches.

Thanks to michele@michaelmorris.co.uk who shared his photos with me.

Blossom in Stroud Green

Amelanchier Lamarckii

It was my birthday on April 1st (no joke!) and as it was a sunny day I took myself off to snap photos of the lovely blossom around Stroud Green. The first tree I snapped was the one above.  The Amelanchier is also known as Snowy Mespilus because of its delicate snow-white blossom.  There are a group of them on the space in front of Vagabond Cafe on Stroud Green Road. Blooming only for  a week, they always burst forth on my birthday. Another name for this beautiful tree is the Juneberry tree because of the small blue-black berries which fruit in June.  They are edible and apparently taste rather like blueberries although I’ve never tried them. I have one in my garden and I can time the ripening of the berries as enthusiastic wood pigeons rustle and flap among the branches as they munch their dinner. The tree has all year round beauty – in autumn the leaves turn a rich dark red colour.

My blossom tour included Stapleton Hall Road and Mount View Road.  Walking up Stapleton Hall Road a woman stopped me to complement me on my bright pink fleece.  Arriving on Mount View Road two Portuguese women getting into their car stopped to chat and we got into a conversation about Easter traditions in Portugal where they scatter blossoms on the doorsteps.  I continued on my way and as their car passed me the driver rolled down her window and gave me a medallion of the Virgin Mary which she had blessed for me.  Hmm! But still, both encounters show how friendly people are round here.

Flowering cherry
Damson blossom along the Gospel Oak-Barking railway at the bottom of my garden. Mmm damson jam in autumn!
Photinia hedge – known as Red Robin because of its glossy red leaves in spring. Blossom is fairly insignificant but it’s a popular hedge in Stroud Green.
Camellia shrub in bud – the colour of my fleece!
A beauty of a camellia against a corner wall
Chaenomeles or ornamental quince – grown for its flowers rather than its fruit
Spring flowering clematis
Virburnum tinus – early flowering virburnum
A very neatly pruned forsythia – mostly they tend to straggle
Magnificent magnolia
And lastly my own fluorescent rhodie – rather early this year