We have walked round the Cemetery twice at dawn (on 4 and 21 April, keeping a distance from one another!) and on occasional visits during the day. It has been a dry but cool Spring overall, good conditions for seeing and hearing birds.
As before, we open our report with three observations. Firstly, birds use the Cemetery both as a place to visit and a place to reside. Visitors may exceed residents and include birds that are migrating, are naturally nomadic, or come to the Cemetery from surrounding areas in search of food and shelter. Some are frequent visitors, others rare. Secondly, the heaviest concentration of birds is in the northern section where there is plenty of food, ground cover and opportunity to nest. For birds, the less tidy the better although a mixture of trees, dense undergrowth and open parkland is ideal. If an East-West line is drawn across the Cemetery from the war memorial, birdlife is more plentiful to its north than to its south. The area between the catacomb building and railway line has the greatest abundance and variety of singing birds. Thirdly, birds have little respect for boundaries. Our survey should really include the adjacent railway line, Pow Burn, allotments and private gardens as well as the Cemetery itself. The territories of some birds will extend even further, possibly as far as Arthur’s Seat.
Early on 4 April, a pair of Tawny Owls was heard hoo-ing and then seen flying from trees by the catacomb into an ivy-covered tree to the north of the roundel. Sometimes called Ivy Owls in the past, ivy provides excellent cover for owls during the day. While hunting across a wider area, it is quite likely that these owls are nesting in the Cemetery.
The dawn chorus opens with Blackbirds, Robins and Wood Pigeons, soon joined by Wrens, Chaffinches and Great Tits and then by our two visiting warblers, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. Wrens are probably the Cemetery’s most abundant bird (as many as ten pairs?) followed by Robins, Chaffinches, Blackbirds, Dunnocks and Pigeons. Although Tree Creepers are certainly present, they are largely silent and are less easily seen. All of these birds probably nest in the Cemetery, in numbers that are hard to assess. It is also likely that Magpies and Carrion Crows nest here (a pair each?), regrettably since they are notorious egg stealers. Although Blue Tits are certainly present, we are not yet confident that they are using the nest boxes this year. Coal and Long-Tailed Tits and Goldcrests are probably only passing visitors. Goldfinches and Bullfinches are often heard and seen. While it is possible that they nest in the Cemetery, there is no evidence so far. Greenfinches are present in Newington, albeit in small numbers, but seem to avoid the Cemetery.
A Great Spotted Woodpecker was heard drumming in trees on the other side of the allotments on 4 April. Whether it will nest in the Cemetery this year remains to be seen (it raised a brood in a Walnut tree in 2017). Unhappily, Song Thrushes are absent. House Sparrows and Jackdaws frequent buildings and gardens nearby but are less drawn to the Cemetery’s habitat. It is also unsuitable for Willow Warblers, a shame as they have the sweetest of all songs. Witherby et al write of their liking for "open woodland, bushy ground, and almost any places with tussocky grass and ground vegetation, plus a few trees". They can be heard around Duddingston Loch and on the Braid Hills golf course. This reminds us that Cemetery’s habitat is only suitable for certain species.
Overall, we have noticed little change in bird numbers and species from previous years. This is good news. Let’s hope that efforts to increase the range of plants providing berries and other food will increase the number and variety of both visitors and residents. The more biodiversity the better. Above all, we need to do everything possible to encourage insect life in the Cemetery, since insects, larvae and caterpillars provide vital food for birds and their young during Spring and Summer. It is possible that the lock-down’s reduction of air pollution will help the insect population which has been fast falling everywhere in recent years.