Abney is the only mature mixed woodland in north Hackney and is one of the finest in central London. The diversity and abundance of plants and trees combined with relatively sympathetic management means the cemetery is of great value to birdlife, hosting a wide range of breeding, wintering and migratory species.
Unlike anywhere else locally, Abney has been allowed to flourish and mature over an extended period, and it's this relative wildness that is so important for birds, especially in an otherwise unforgiving urban context. The cemetery contains a uniquely varied dynamic, from shaded canopy to woodland glade and dense understorey, all of which harbour species that specialise and rely on these diverse, inter-connecting habitats.
Abney's 'island effect' within the urban sprawl serves to attract a range of migrants, visitors and stragglers, and thus the park is a priceless pit-stop for many passers-by.
Sparrowhawk and Tawny Owl both breed annually, and can be seen throughout the year with luck and patience. There are healthy populations of Great Spotted Woodpeckers (around six pairs), Blackcaps (up to 12 pairs) and Stock Doves (up to 12 pairs), while Green Woodpecker, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest and Coal Tit are also resident / semi-resident in small numbers. Jays, unlike their countryside counterparts, are remarkable showy in Abney.
In autumn, winter and early spring, the cemetery attracts visiting thrushes and finches; of the latter, Lesser Redpoll, Brambling and Siskin are regular visitors in small numbers (with Common Redpoll also recorded, in 2009). In passage periods, expected migrants (again in small numbers) include Willow Warblers, Garden Warblers, Woodcocks and Spotted Flycatchers; rare but near-annual migrants include Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart, both Whitethroats and even Reed Warbler.
Common Buzzards are annual overhead, with several birds showing interest in putting down (with one doing so in 2008); other flyovers include Kestrels, Red Kites and (extraordinarily) Merlin, while Swifts enjoy the abundance of insect prey in the summer months. Abney attracts more than its fair share of Firecrests, tiny, rare avian jewels particularly fond of ivy-covered tree-trunks; the best times to look for them are April and October, although at least three wintering birds were present 2008/9. Unfortunately, species such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Bullfinch and Treecreeper are at best extremely rare vagrants in recent years.
Unexpected breeders include Mallard and Canada Goose, despite the lack of any water source within the cemetery, while the inexorable spread of Ring-necked Parakeets and their unmistakable calls are, for better or worse, now a permanent fixture.
All words and pictures copyright Mark James Pearson 2013 – see more of Mark's wildlife writing and photography here.