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

Forest Bathing

Shinrin-yoku(forest bathing) – a short trip to a forest where you walk and relax while breathing in essential oils released by the trees – has long been practiced by the Japanese. Recent studies of the physiological and psychological effects of shirin-yoku have revealed that it can lower blood pressure, pulse rate and concentrations of stress hormones. There’s even a claim that it can reduce cancer tumours by raising Natural Killer cell activity, although that rings hollow in my ears as I already have incurable cancer.

Long before these studies I indulged in this practice, roaming through the woods at the bottom of my grand-dad’s garden, pretending to be a fox with purple-coloured gloves. I never did get poisoned by the foxgloves but I’ve always known a walk in the woods calms me.

As I’m too weak to go to the gym now I’ve taken to walking most days. I’m lucky enough to live a few doors down from the Parkland Walk, a disused railway running between Finsbury Park and Highgate, lording it over the rooftops and back gardens of Islington and Haringey. It’s the London equivalent of New York City’s Highline. Once you’ve negotiated recalcitrant dogs, buggies, runners and cyclists, and been terrified by the mischievous woodland-dwelling spriggan peeking out from one of the old railway arches, you emerge at Highgate Station. A five-minute walk will get you into Queen’s Wood, one of Haringey’s four ancient woodlands.

I’m not deterred by the rumours of the existence of a plague pit full of bones from victims of the 1665 Great Plague. Instead I’m rather intrigued by the Witches Coven, a ring of thirteen oaks circling a clearing, which is still used by modern-day witches. The wood has not been intensively managed, unlike its neighbour Highgate Wood, and supports a surprising diversity of flora such as Goldilocks buttercup, wood anemones, wood sorrel, yellow pimpernel and square-stemmed St John’s wort, as well as a rare colony of lady fern. The bird life is fairly diverse too. Some are quite shy birds like tree creepers; others, like the thrush and blackbird, shout loudly from the treetops. Through the summer you can hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker.

The paths are soft with oak leaves, one of the dominant species of the woodland along with hornbeam. There’s also hawthorn, hazel, rowan, holly field maple and cherry, as well as the rare wild service tree. The wood is most peaceful on a weekday when there are relatively few people; some days I encounter just one solitary dog walker. Aside from the trees I like the steepness of the walks in Queen’s Wood. It’s deeply cut by gullies from the meltwater of the Anglian ice sheet and gives me a proper work out which compensates me from the loss of my gym membership.

Whether shinrin-yoku lives up to its claims, it certainly works for me – whether it’s the peace, exercise or inhaling woody scents.

Spriggan – mischievous creature – sculpture by Marilyn Collins
Celandines on the Parkland Walk
Soft oak leaf carpet in Queen’s Wood
Wood anemones in Queen’s Wood
Great spotted woodpecker