Friday, 2 May 2014

Grave concerns

If you imagine any large, urban area, you may find public parks that date from the Victorian era, but these can be very formal, dull places for exercising the dog or kicking a ball around. In my childhood I preferred the buddleia-sprouting dereliction of post-war bombsites.

Cemeteries, on the other hand, can be the nearest thing to wilderness in the city; lovely places to sit and hear birdsong away from the city traffic. You may even see a hawk, or an owl, or foxes. In Berlin there are goshawks in the cemeteries and in Portland, Maine, I have seen snapping turtles, bull-frogs, woodpeckers, flycatchers, nuthatches and bluebirds around the gravestones and ponds.We all know that cemeteries can be great places for wildlife, especially if they are old and not too tidy. They provide a refuge for the living and the dead and for a strange, often incongruous, assortment of weeds and wildlife.

In fact, graveyards have been deliberately used as places to grow particular plants. In the Medieval period, yew trees had to be grown to provide wood for long-bows but the wood and leaves (not the fruit) are poisonous so they had to be grown where livestock could not chew on them.

That's why they grow in graveyards today. Those yews always attract small birds such as goldcrests (kinglets) that nest in them and the berries are really popular with thrushes and blackbirds in the autumn and with migrant birds such as waxwings, redwings and fieldfares in winter.

In the USA, American native wildflowers have all but disappeared from the landscape to be supplanted by alien weeds from Europe and Asia.  The seeds of many native flowers, especially tall-grass prairie plants, survived in old settlers' graveyards from where conservationists have been able to rescue them.

This week we found a graveyard in Cambridge that really celebrates it's wildlife. It has its own web-site. Mill Road Cemetery no longer has a church, so no steeple or tower gives away the location. Instead there is a lodge that is covered in round flints that have been split to reveal their black, shiny insides.

We discovered a maze of pathways, tumble-down graves, wildflowers and tangled vines, all tucked away between Mill Road and Norfolk Street. A blackcap sang continuously, almost  furiously, but received no answer.

I got the camera out and started clicking.

Click! Blackbirds everywhere. One has all-white primaries, making him look like a magpie-robin.  Most of them are sunbathing on gravestones, in a trance with their feathers fluffed up and their beaks agape.

Click! Oxford ragwort is a southern European weed of dry places that has made its way round the country along the railway lines after escaping from the botanical gardens on Oxford. The bright yellow flowers contrast with the pink of herb robert and the rich blue of alkanet; both hedgerow and woodland plants that don't appreciate bright light.

Click! Ladybirds mating in the brambles. Hold on; these are invasive harlequins. We "spot" them in several colour forms.

Click! This stone has my friend's name on it! Chris Harbard is an old colleague from the RSPB and the author of a hod-load of books. I know he isn't dead because I heard from him on Facebook only the day before. (He told me that he had no idea about the stones with his name on.)

The stone turned out to be a work of art, featuring the words "SONG THRUSH," a poem and Chris's attempt to capture the bird's song in words. We found several others and they all featured birds that you could see and hear in the cemetery.  Robert Frost's robin would have been a good find in Cambridge because he wrote it in New Hampshire where robins are nothing like ours.