Wildlife in the Cemetery
The Cemetery is a haven for wildlife in the middle of Berkhamsted, with many species of wild birds, mammal and insects. Here are some you may see, depending on the time of year.
The common blackbird (Turdus merula) is easily recognised by its striking bright orange-yellow beak and eye-ring. Its varied song is one of the most beautiful birdsongs in British gardens. Confusingly, female blackbirds are actually brown, often with spots and streaks on their breasts.
In the cemetery we have a very musical blackbird who sings the same notes every spring:
Another easily identifiable bird is the blue tit, with its bright blue and yellow plumage. The blue tit looks similar to a great tit, but it is smaller and has a blue cap on its head.
The male chaffinch is a distinctive pink and grey with a blue-grey cap and rust-red underparts and black and white wings. The female has similar markings but is much duller. In spring and early summer, the male chaffinch’s song is one of the most enchanting and easily recognisable birdsongs in Britain, with repeating bursts of rapid twittering.
Listen to a recording of a make chaffinch in the cemetery – he always leaves exactly the same number of seconds between each burst of song:
The common chiffchaff is a small off-white bird with green/brown/green upper feathers. It looks similar to other warblers, but is easily recognised by its distinctive song, a simple, repetitive “chiff-chaff chiff-chaff…” Its name is onomatopoeic, which means that the word sounds like the bird’s song. The chiffchaff has similar names in other European languages: tjiftjaf in Dutch, Zilpzalp in German, or siff-saff in Welsh.
Even smaller than blue tits, coal tits are mostly coloured black around the head, with beige lower plumage and blue-grey wings.
The Dawn Chorus
The Dawn chorus is the phenomenon heard at sunrise when birds wake up and all begin to sing loudly at the same time. Here in Britain this is most noticeable in spring when the birds are either defending a breeding territory, trying to attract a mate, or calling in the flock. It has been called “nature’s greatest symphony”. In this early-morning recording made in Rectory Lane Cemetery, a wren is clearly trying to steal the show!
With their blue and white plumage, great tits are slightly larger than their cousins, the blue tit, but they can be recognised by the black cap on their heads.
This large, magnificent bird of prey can be recognised by its distinctive forked tail, black and white angled wings and red plumage underneath. With a wingspan of nearly 2 metres, this is one of Britain’s largest birds.
Kites were extinct in England but were re-introduced in 1989 the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council. You can often spot a red kite hovering high over Rectory Lane Cemetery, probably hunting a tasty field mouse! Listen for their whistling call as hunting pairs communicate with one another in the sky.
A staple character of Christmas cards and unmistakable with its bright red breast, the European robin (Erithacus rubecula) has been voted Britain’s favourite bird. Many robins make their home in the cemetery.
Robins can be seen all year round. Their melodic spring song starts in December. Nocturnal robins can be heard singing in the middle of the night as roosting robins are often disturbed by street lighting. When alarmed, robins also make a distinctive “tik-tik-tik” call to ward off other birds. Despite their cute appearance, robins are very aggressive to other birds that invade their territory. However, they can be quite tame around humans and will readily come near people who offer food!
Rectory Lane Cemetery is an welcoming habitat for beetles and field mice, providing a rich food source for tawny owls, who feed on insects and small rodents.
If you’re around the cemetery at night, you may hear the call of the female tawny owl, a shrill, “kew-wick” sound. The hooting owl song is the male tawny, a haunting “hoo-hooooo” sound, usually in response to the female call.
The popular “too-whit-too-whoo” description actually refers to the sound of this female-male duet; it originates in Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost:
“Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit; Tu-who, a merry note, While greasy Joan doth keel the pot” (Act 5, Scene 2)
The hawfinch is Britain’s largest finch. It is a shy bird, and only rarely seen as its numbers have declined in recent years, although they have been spotted recently in Rectory Lane Cemetery. Hawfinches have similar grey-pink plumage to a chaffinch but are much bigger. If you are lucky enough to see one, you can recognise it by its large, powerful bill.
The song thrush (Turdus philomelos) is a brown speckled bird. Like its close relative, the blackbird, the thrush is known for its distinctive, melodic song.
Now a protected species, UK thrush numbers have declined by 54% since 1970. It is thought that increased use of pesticides have reduced the availability of snails and earthworms, the thrush’s favourite food. Because we avoid the use of pesticides in the cemetery, we are attracting more thrushes and you may hear their beautiful song here in the summer.
This song thrush was recorded on Easter morning in the cemetery:
This little round, brown bird with its short cocked tail is more easily heard than seen. It is amazing that such a tiny creature can produce such a loud, clear song, a gushing burst of sweet music. But the wren is shy and is hardly seen as it flits quickly through hedges as it forages for insects. Some people think that the wren is Britain’s smallest bird but this is incorrect — the firecrest and the goldcrest are in fact our smallest birds.
Foxes are intelligent, social animals, related to domestic dogs and wolves. Males are called tods or dogs, females are called vixens, and young cubs are known as kits. We usually have a family of red foxes in or near Rectory Lane Cemetery. They can make quite a noise and are often heard at night barking or making a strange “wow wow wow” sound, which is often confused with the territorial calls of tawny owls.
There is a thriving grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) population in the cemetery. They can be seen foraging for food among the graves. When they are stressed by predators, they can be heard “barking” in the trees, a warning signal to others in their colony.
Grey squirrels are actually native to North America. They were introduced to Britain in the 1870s by landowners as fashionable additions to country estates. Since then, they have spread and are now considered an invasive species. The red squirrel, a native British species, has been almost entirely displaced by the greys. This may be because produce more young and can store more fat to survive winters. Grey squirrels also carry the squirrelpox virus, to which red squirrels have no immunity.
Unfortunately, several trees in the cemetery have been damaged by squirrels, shortening their lifespan by many years.
Listen to squirrels barking:
The European hedgehog is one of Britain’s best-loved wild animals, known for its cute features and spiky body. They mostly feed on earthworms, snails, slugs and beetles. Sadly hedgehog numbers are declining severely and they are nearly extinct in Great Britain, mostly due to the dangers of motor cars and loss of habitat. Rectory Lane Cemetery provides a vital haven for wildlife, and hedgehog footprints have been recorded in our wildlife monitoring.
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