Birds of Osterley Park
Osterley Park and Gardens are an oasis for wildlife in an urban area. Here, ranger Ben explains why Osterley is so important for birdlife, and which species have made it their home.
What makes Osterley such a good place for birds?
There are three stand-out reasons that make Osterley attractive to bird species. Firstly, we have a nice mix of habitats: woodland, grassland, open water and a little bit of scrub, all of which benefit different types of birds.
Secondly, we don’t use chemicals, pesticide, fertiliser etc on the parts of the park under our direct control. This means we should have good mix of insect and plant species, which has a positive impact on the numbers of animals higher up the foodchain, such as birds.
Thirdly, whilst West London has a plethora of green spaces Osterley is surrounded by built up urban areas which means birds that like, say, woodland or open parkland have fewer areas to feed and nest in.
What can visitors expect to see when they come to Osterley?
They probably won’t see anything spectacularly rare, (although anything’s possible, many bird species are highly mobile and can turn up in the most unusual of places), but what they will see is a good variety of the commoner and more widespread species.
A wide range of owl and bird of prey species have been recorded at Osterley. Red kite and buzzard are often seen circling overhead, kestrel and sparrowhawk are resident, peregrine are less commonly seen but do turn up in the park sometimes, whilst hobbies turn up in the summer months on occasion. Three species of owl could potentially be seen at Osterley. Little owl are the easiest to see: look for them in the trees lining the main drive as it gets dark. Tawny owl are also present at Osterley but are more often heard than seen. Listen out for their characteristic tuwhitowoo call. Barn owl are only sporadically seen at Osterley. We had a spate of barn owl sightings five or so years ago but none recently.
For sparrowhawk head into the Tudor walled garden and go to the large five bar gate in the hedge. You can’t get public access beyond this point but just stand by the gate for a while and wait. Beyond the gate are several bird feeders which attract many small bird species such as blue tit, great tit and nuthatch. These in turn attract a male sparrow hawk. He’s been visiting these feeders several times a day.
Another popular bird to watch out for is the kingfisher. Watch out for them on either of our two lakes.
What might bird-lovers see here if they’re very lucky?
The best times of year for unusual species is probably spring and autumn. At these times of year lots of birds are on the move either migrating into or out of the UK.
Although most of them won’t spend much time at Osterley they use the park as a refueling spot to rest and feed up. A few years ago we had reports of a nightingale singing from a tree halfway down the main drive, we’ve had an unconfirmed report of a ring ouzel in the park and several years ago an osprey was seen flying north over Osterley tube station which presumably passed over the park.
The other time of year when unusual birds turn up at Osterley is during prolonged cold snaps. Birds from outside of London move into the city, which is a few degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. During a particularly harsh winter eight years ago flocks of Lapwing turned on some of Osterley’s outlying fields.
What’s your favourite bird to see in the estate (and why is it your favourite?)
I’m not sure I have a favourite as such but I do like swifts. These summer migrants are the masters of the air. Everything about them looks like it’s been designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. Their bodies are long and thin, their beaks and feet are tiny, (to reduce drag in the air), their wings are long and swept back for maximum speed, and their tails are forked for maximum agility. The combination of long wings and tiny legs means that if swifts ever land on the ground they sometimes struggle to take off again.
They can feed, drink sleep and mate on the wing and only need to land to nest and raise their young.
They often nest in old buildings so it’s a surprise they don’t nest at Osterley but they do feed here and can often be seen hunting insects on warm summer days in the skies above Osterley.
What does the ranger team do to protect the habitats needed by birds?
Old veteran trees are retained wherever possible, and any tree work which takes place often focuses on retaining the tree for as long as possible without compromising visitor safety. Old trees are rich in insects which are food for many bird species. Old trees also often have holes in them which are perfect nesting places for birds such as blue tits, great tits, kestrels, jackdaws, little owls, woodpeckers and stock doves.
The areas of grassland are managed to balance scrubby areas (the perfect nesting place for species such as blackcap and whitethroat), with open grassy areas good for species such as kestrel and green woodpecker. This is done by a combination of cattle grazing and mechanical mowing. The cattle graze and trample some of the more vigorous grasses and vegetation which might otherwise dominate the grassland but cattle tend to avoid tough spiky plants like bramble so these areas get cut in the winter. Whenever any of our areas of grassland are cut we are careful to retain some areas of bramble patches.
One of our ongoing projects is to increase the diversity of one of our woodland areas by removing all of the laurel. Laurel is a species introduced to the UK from South East Europe. It is very vigorous and can easily dominate areas of woodland. It is also not particularly good for wildlife. Once we’ve taken out all the laurel from the woodland we will replant with native tree species which many species including birds will prefer.