Nature Notes: Jono Forgham on why church graveyards and cemeteries are perfect sites for birdwatching
Jono Forgham embarks upon a wildlife-spotting wander with a difference as he visits five churches and cemeteries to see what he can discover in the sites that are perfect for a bit of birdwatching...
I normally select a walk offering a variety of habitats that gives me the opportunity to encounter a wide range of natural history, but for this article I thought I would come from the opposite end of the spectrum. I thought about similar habitats in different areas and struck on the idea of graveyards and cemeteries. Consequently, last week I visited Great St Mary's in Sawbridgeworth, St James the Great in Thorley, Bishop's Stortford cemetery in Cemetery Road, St Michael's on Windhill and completed the odyssey at St John's in Stansted.
All venues had much in common – a selection of coniferous trees, deciduous species along with open grass areas and dark overgrown hedgerows – so I presumed that I would be coming across similar species – but, as I discovered, each habitat had its own residents.
I began in Sawbridgeworth, parked in the car park and parted with the miserly sum of 50p for a two-hour stay. As I wandered down Church Street I could already hear a nuthatch in good voice from high up in a conifer. I took a wander around, checking also the children's park area that is adjacent to the churchyard. A really pleasing mix of bird species. Siskins mixed with goldfinches high up, but the grey, foggy light meant photos were unusable. A chaffinch broke into song before I heard the wheezing call of a greenfinch. I checked the deeply-vegetated conifers for specialist birds that use these trees, but only heard a goldcrest from within and a fly-by one as it moved from one tree to another.
Blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits flitted to and fro, whilst blackbirds probed the grass for worms and assorted early spring insects. A whistling call attracted my attention which I couldn't place until I looked up. High upon the weather vane were several starlings all clacking and rattling away, their superb oily purple and blue-speckled plumage watered down by the poor light.
The most common bird for all the habitats was the ubiquitous woodpigeon. They loafed around in trees and wobbled their way around the grassless areas underneath yew trees. To the far end of the churchyard is an open, relatively unkempt area, a perfect site for wrens. It wasn't long before one burst into its raucous call and disappeared under a log pile, as is their want.
Before I left, I stumbled across an interesting gravestone belonging to John Strange, fifth Earl of Roden and a veteran from the Crimean War. A quick check on Wikipedia gave me more details of his English/Irish descent and his time in the Scots Guards. Present at all the main battles of this horrendous war, he must have witnessed much that haunted him for the rest of his life.
I was unaware that this would transpire to be the best site for bird species as I returned to the car and headed to the town cemetery in Stortford – a place always worth a nature wander.
Upon wandering in, the grandeur of the huge larch and cedars was immediately apparent. Stunning trees. From these, magpies clacked and a jay screeched as endless numbers of woodpigeons took flight. Another goldcrest showed for a split second and a carrion crow basically disagreed with my presence. Grey squirrels chased each other around tree trunks. Such a peaceful place to be.
I clocked the silhouette of a large bird perched upon a branch, so quietly made my way to where the glimmer of sunlight was behind me. Superb – a magnificently-plumaged male sparrowhawk showing a dark grey back and amazingly bright rufous chest. Bird of the day! I fired off numerous shots in the disappointing light before he flew off towards the Tesco Express. Wonderful to come across and probably explained why there were not too many other birds in this part of the cemetery.
I got chatting to a really enthusiastic lady called Gillian who wanted to show me several gravestones. An avid reader of this column, apparently, so I was only too pleased to help in her search of two memorials. The first was to two chaps aged 18 and 23 who drowned in the River Stort. The publicans of the town banded together to pay the costs of their funeral and burial. Also, tragically, a small obelisk marks the burial ground of three children who drowned when falling through thin ice on a river in Edmonton. Amongst these gravestones were several from those that died of wounds from both the First and Second World Wars. Thanks to Gillian for showing me these interesting pieces of local social history.
I headed down Apton Road to St Michael's. Grey squirrels everywhere, more woodpigeons, singing robins and a squadron of herring gulls overhead. Behind the New Apton Centre several house sparrows called from a thick hedge – another new bird to my tour list. A few famous Stortford names in the graveyard, notably several Gilbeys and Sir George Duckett, formerly George Jackson. It was Jackson who sponsored Captain Cook's ventures to the southern hemisphere in 1768, and both Point Jackson in New Zealand and Port Jackson (now Sydney harbour) in Australia are named after Cook's benefactor. More locally, his name is used for the shopping centre and Wetherspoon's pub in town.
I did another circuit of the churchyard, clocking a pied wagtail trotting along the roof before it headed off towards the police station, and I then set off to St John's.
This churchyard was certainly different to the previous ones, much more open and fewer trees yet still showing a few yews and conifers. Benches gave me the chance to sit down and enjoy my picnic. The day was still murky grey, but the ornate concrete work atop the red brick church tower was worthy of study. A lone woodpigeon sat on the top, surveying most of Stansted from there, I suspect.
As at all the sites, spring flowers were in bloom. Predominantly daffodils and primulas, but I had also noted a new garden plant for me at Sawbridgeworth. A stand of Lucile's glory-of-the-snow, a stunning five-petalled blue flower. Other species noted were ground ivy and white dead nettle whilst herb robert and other umbellifers were in good leaf but not yet flowering.
Several long-tailed tits wended their way along the hedgerow and a pair of blackbirds enjoyed the grasslands, but not too much else. As I left, another pied wagtail called as it flew over.
Off to my final destination of St James the Great in Thorley. Always a worthwhile nature site with more magnificent larch trees as well as towering beech and a particularly wide-spreading London plane.
Another pair of greenfinches called from a recently-fallen, ivy-clad tree, and blue tits and great tits rattled off alarm calls. Yet again goldcrests wisped unseen from pine needles and a male chaffinch burst into song from the far corner. The inevitable woodpigeons put in a guest appearance just to make sure they were represented at each site I visited.
A dunnock exploded into full song near the footpath leading over towards Mattham's Wood before I returned to the car and home to process over 240 rather grey images. It had been a really worthwhile exploration of places I rarely visit, apart from St James the Great churchyard. Habitats such as these are vital for local wildlife and I would wager that foxes and owls are to be found in these after dusk, and in hard winters the berries offer sustenance to several finch species as well as smaller rodents. Certainly plenty of evidence of rabbits at the town cemetery. These sites are basically urban nature reserves.
If readers have youngsters who are keen on nature or are themselves beginners in birdwatching, I highly recommend these sites as really good starting points where much can be observed and heard. The openness offers good viewing prospects whilst the fact that footpaths are regularly used by locals means the wildlife becomes more familiar with human movement and this makes it easier to view. A perfect place for an early-morning dawn chorus listen and watch later this month.
In all, 27 species of birds were recorded, almost all being residents. Church towers lend themselves to breeding birds such as peregrines and swifts, with the latter being a common site screaming around both St Michael's and Great St Mary's towers.
Finally, it was pleasing to see nest boxes placed at certain sites. A visit back to these places later in the year will not only give an even wider range of bird species but also a good selection of moth species and bats. I'll pencil a return date into the diary.