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 Harry Fuller Birding Tours

This London morning began long before dawn.  A shrill car alarm went off, likely caused when a drunken driver ran his little car into a brick garden wall two blocks away.  That alarm set the Musgrove Road foxes to fussing and arguing over what was the matter.  At least three fox voices could be heard directly behind our house—shrill, irritated, gabbing and shrieking.  It was like audio tapes being played too fast and stretched at the same time.  This in turn made our often lethargic dog Bridget into a quivering attack monster.  She paced and raced around, up and down the stairs, looking out one window, then another, checking the doors into the back garden.  An occasional low guttural growl was uttered.  She was flustered and frustrated by her inability to get at those noisy foxes.  After many long minutes of the fox fussing, silence returned and Bridget's panting fury subsided.  When all was quiet once again Bridget concluded there wouldn't be an all-out assault on our house by a battalion of red-coated foxes.  Some more sleep. 

After our morning truly began, Kate checked the back garden.  Each morning she finds the newspaper which held the fox dinner she's left out the night before.  Some mornings the fox has left a signature pile of feces on the newspaper.  Other mornings the pile will be on the brick patio near the newspaper.  The food's always gone: grapes from our gigantic vine that hugs one side of the house, some dog food, perhaps bread or table scraps.  I wonder if the location of the morning fecal deposit is any kind of message.  Does a particularly favored mix of treats get a crap on the paper, while lesser dinners rate only a dump on the dirt?  How discerning is a fox anyway?  Is there a foxy concept for consistency or comparison?  Certainly if foxes are as smart as domestic dogs they register approval and disappointment.  It is not too far-fetched to suppose there's a message in the nightly night soil from the fed fox.  I imagine it's the same individual each night.  A fox can be quite territorial even in simple night rounds.  Perhaps that's all the message we are to take from the nightly eating and defecation, "I am fox, and I am this fox and this is my garden as you can smell from my marker." Surely no fox could imagine the paltry olfactory capability of a human creature.  I hope to a fox we seem quite interesting, and even helpful, hope he can forgive our being slow and clumsy. 

After breakfast Bridget and I walked up to Telegraph Hill Park.  At the hillcrest, looking west toward much of low-lying London, I see the steeple of St. Giles Camberwell.  It's a soft suede color, not the usual gray of London church steeples.  The current St. Giles was built in 1844, a new structure compared to the parish's age.  The Domesday Book says there was a parish church at St. Giles back in the 11th Century.  London's historical library at the Guildhall has baptism records from St. Giles starting in January, 1558.  That was a portentous year.  Queen Mary died in 1558 and with her an attempt to return all of England to Catholicism.  Next on the throne was Elizabeth I.  Her reign encouraged the spread of various Protestant religions across the realm.  Perhaps there were older records, and somebody destroyed them to cover any trace of Catholic baptisms?  Fortunately, the London fire of 1666 did not cross to the south side of the Thames so these records from St. Giles remain. 

On Telegraph Hill hawthorn bushes, rowan trees, pyracantha hedges, various shrubs and vines are now loaded with berries and seed pods.  In autumn Jays are abroad in daylight, carrying acorns to secret hiding places.  To get the acorns they must compete with the really assiduous American Gray Squirrels that abound in London.  From the large oafish Wood Pigeon down to the tiny Blue Tits, birds are eating with gluttony, putting on weight and fat for the coming winter.  Standing on Telegraph Hill in daylight I can always see one or two Wood Pigeons in flight.  Their rotund bodies and slow-flapping wings seem implausible.  The bird flies at the lowest velocity needed to keep its bulk airborne.  I watch, certain the mildest headwind could send the Wood Pigeon spiralling into a crash-dive.  Along one dense hedge bordering the park there's a flock of fidgety gleaning birds.  I give them a hearty American "Pish, pish, pish."  At the sound Long-tailed Tits check me out.  One, two.  They lean off tree limbs to eyeball the source of the strange fizzy sound.  "Pish, pish." Four, six, eight of the little gray-and-black puffballs appear, their tails making two-thirds of their total length which is about five inches.  They're nervous, jumping about, picking at the bark and leaves with beaks the size of a bee-bee.  The Great and Blue Tits stay further back in the foliage, though they show some curiosity and certainly share the nervous energy of this morning feeding frenzy. 

Bridget urges me onward.  This is her walk and she's impatient with my staring into the trees.  Thus we move on toward Nunhead Cemetery, another five blocks away.  On the way we pass the large, grassy lawns of the Haberdashers' Aske private school playgrounds.  A Lesser Black-backed Gull loafs on the grass.  Crows and Magpies stroll about like gouty retirees, looking down at the grass hoping to find a dropped coin or bracelet.  A Jay courses out and lands, then almost immediately becomes invisible in a shaded edge of the lawn.  Two Mistle Thrush cautiously work one sunny section not far from a sheltering hedge.  They're looking mostly for earthworms.  At the far end of the playing fields a score of Wood Pigeons waddle about finding plenty to eat, putting on more fat to lard those bodies, making the next flight even more of a miracle than the last. 

We walk along past bricks houses from the 1880s when this area was the edge of south London.  The sky is its usual gray but brighter than most London days.  That means an occasional patch of blue above.  Nunhead Cemetery was dedicated in 1840 and all but abandoned 130 years later.  Now volunteers are slowly reclaiming its paths and monuments, one small patch at a time.  They're trying to stop the work of vandals and slow the inexorable encroachment of nature.  Some of the trees are already eighty feet tall.  Newer growth pushes and shoves against gravestones, vines and the corrosive wet air of grimy London gradually deface and reclaim hand-worked stone. 

The sandstone and limestone markers were once quite elegant with Victorian Gothic arches and long memorial messages.  Now many are nearly or completely illegible. 

Yet granite markers and crypts stand almost pristine, showing wear only when some human has attacked them with stone or metal.  Such are the laws of geology and time. 

Today these fifty-three acres are more forest than cemetery though a small number of burials are being done at Nunhead.  Ninety years ago a boat load of boy scouts drowned near the mouth of the Thames.  The memorial to that event which saddened a nation was destroyed by vandals.  A new monument has been erected and the site re- dedicated.  The largest monument in Nunhead is a memorial to Scottish Martyrs, men deported for political rebellion against England around 1830.  One whole section of the cemetery is filled with men and women politely called dissenters, those who refused to worship at the Church of England. 

In the jungly tangle that is now Nunhead cemetery are maples, oaks, yew, plane, birch, hawthorn, ash, elderberry and rampant ivy.  This season some leaves are already turned to brown or yellow, reds are beginning to tinge some foliage, and little mounds of blown leaves crowd the low spots in the trail.  The bird chatter is soft but incessant.  Looking through the dense underbrush the human catches flashes of motion, but mostly it is the soft floating motion of another leaf on its way to join the mulch of previous leaves and prior autumns' molt.  A Robin chucks and scolds, then perches boldly on a branch at waist level, staring at the black dog and the upright creature in his territory.  The male Robins do not migrate for winter, but each stakes a claim for a winter feeding territory that he then proceeds to defend with voice and song.  Thus even the coldest winter day will have the warm warbles and whistles of this rusty-chested little hunter.  Meanwhile, clever female Robins enjoy their winter holidays in southern France and Spain. 

Bridget and I follow a narrow side trail.  It seemingly goes nowhere.  Near its end there's a short marble post with the simple inscription: "F. Newman, Nunhead." This post marks one corner of a rectangular plot, the rest including the main gravestone is lost behind bush and ivy.  F. Newman would likely have walked this cemetery before he came here the final time.  Some of the people buried here would have been his friends or neighbors, perhaps even family members.  A quick check of a book on the cemetery shows several Newman graves scattered about Nunhead.  Today the birds chatter, a bee makes some of its final fall forays, pulling nectar from late blossoms on a vine winding into the trees.  Blackberries ripen near the grave, food for thrush and fox. 

We return to the main trail and come to a small area of more open woods. 

Here several rows of gravestones show in ivy-covered outline, like overgrown garden fences, row after row.  There is a flock of tits here, chattering, flitting about. 

My pishing this time attracts the larger Great Tits.  Scolding, looking with all the menace they can muster in a two ounce body.  The lemon bellies and the bold black

Keel stripes show the Great Tits have molted into their new, heavy winter plumage.  The colors will be worn and faded long before spring returns.  A slender, coppery bird moves behind leaves, just out of clear view.  I find the right angle and wait for the form to reach an open spot.  Finally the lone bird works up a branch and reaches an open area.  It's the Goldcrest, cousin of the North American kinglets.  One dip of its little crown and the bright yellow head stripe flashes even in the subdued forest light.  The blue of the many whispering little Blue Tits could that of a freshly uniformed Union soldier.  One sits now on a grave that dates to the time of that U.S. Civil War over one hundred and fifty years ago.  Williams is the name. 

I look at other names: Sydney Cazaly.  From whence came his ancestors?  Most names in this old section are staunchly English: Pierson, Watson, Redgrave, though the stone is resolutely gray.  Clark.  Smith.  Marsh.  Saltmarsh.  Ravenscroft.  Is this the environmental section of Nunhead?  Ah, Molyneux, perhaps descendant from one of William the Conqueror's Norman knights.  Then there are those to whom we Fullers must feel akin: Potter, Taylor, Chandler, Carpenter, Carter.  Worthy mediaeval trades.  Having visited former fulling mills in Hampshire and The Cotswold, I can have only admiration for my long distant namesakes.  It was the fullers who worked the lanolin out and with tenterhooks stretched the wool, making it suitable for the spinner, weaver and dyer.  This is an urban cemetery.  No Shepherds, no Hunters. 

I round a corner and find the recent grave of the Papachristoupolous family.

And over in the newer non-Anglican section there are more Greek names and dozens of Irish.  Occasionally there's a Polish last name.  Up on a quiet hilltop looking down on the shell of the old Anglican memorial chapel, there is a modern section with Muslim graves.  This morning Bridget and I have encountered dozens of people in Nunhead.  Only two are still upright.  Both were joggers, moving quickly, happy about the day ahead. 

A Magpie overhead spies Bridget and starts to cluck a warning.  Three Crows swoop in to watch the intruder.  Somewhere a Winter Wren sings once and is silent.  A Great Spotted Woodpecker gives his high-pitched single-note "Peek" call five times with a few seconds of silence between each sharp note.  The season is moving toward the colder, darker days of winter.  Dead leaves drift slowly from the taller trees, some alighting on the trail, others add their flimsy weight to the litter already covering the carved stones or the earth itself.  A Robin sings much like the one who sang when A. Newman came here to look around the first time.  Another Robin sang when friends and family brought A. Newman here for the final time.  Today a Robin sings on his territory and it's Bridget and I who listen.  And we all—the Robin, the Magpie, the joggers, the dog and I—are grateful for the day ahead.


TOWHEE.NET:  Harry Fuller, 820 NW 19th Street, McMinnville, OR 97128