Birds of prey have impressive aerial skills and a hunting instinct which make them the lords of the skies, but do you know the difference between the raptors found across Britain? These birds have much better vision than ours; powerful talons to catch and kill prey, and a hooked beak perfect for tearing the flesh of their victims and eating. Raptors are remarkable predators, and their numbers are once again on the rise.
Fur Feather & Fin suggested spotting birds of prey as one of the things to try this spring and summer, and this guide to the 15 species of birds of prey found in Britain will help you spot one in the skies. When heading out on a bird-watching expedition, remember to wrap up in country clothing and bring some birdwatching binoculars.
There are 15 species of diurnal, breeding raptors in Britain, split into three groups: Eagles (the largest), Hawks (the next largest with broad wings) and Falcons (curved wings).
The golden eagle is an iconic bird thanks to its bold features, physical strength and wingspan which reaches 7ft; when you see a golden eagle, you will know. For a large bird, they are incredibly agile, capable of 120 mph speeds when flying down to grab prey. They can live up to 30 years and also mate for life. The best places for seeing golden eagles are in the Scottish Highlands.
Also known as a sea eagle, the white-tailed eagle is the largest on this list, with an 8ft wingspan, finger-like feathers on the wing and distinctive white tail tips when they reach adulthood. Mating displays start in March and include locking talons and cartwheeling through the air. White-tailed eagles were introduced to Scotland’s west coast, and their conservation has been a success.
It is an impressive sight to see an osprey high above the water, its white body held between 6ft flapping wings. The stoop is even more spectacular as it crashes into the water talons first and emerges with a wriggling fish seconds later. They are migratory birds, and you can see them in various places across England, Wales and Scotland, Scotland being the best. Ospreys mate for life and return to the same eyrie each year.
Buzzards have had a great comeback in recent years and can be seen soaring on thermals in every county – and heard with their cat-like mewing. The medium-sized hawk has a wingspan just over 4ft and varies in colour from nearly white to dark brown. Buzzards scavenge and prey on anything from rabbits to worms. When paired, buzzards are very territorial birds and are quick movers, good at hovering and flying low and fast to surprise prey.
Honey buzzards are highly specialised, but it doesn’t actually eat honey, simply the grubs found in a wasps or bees nest. It is easy to miss honey buzzards as they are secretive, only seen in the summer and similar in size to the common buzzard. From a distance, the pigeon-like head is its best identification trait.
The grey goshawk has an intimidating stare, powerful short wings, strong talons, and nothing is off limits regarding prey. The goshawk is a favourite of falconers who were also the drive behind the birds growing population in the UK. Found predominantly in woodland, the goshawk builds large nests high in the trees, and their flight can be identified by rapid flapping followed by a short glide.
The smallest of the hawk family, the female looks similar to the goshawk but the male, with its blue back, is tiny in comparison. Both the genders have barring on the chest but the males can be identified by a rusty-red tinge. A frequenter of woodlands, the sparrowhawk, is known for terrorising garden birds, with around 120 species in its diet. The mating ritual around spring is noisy, as are the calls of nestlings.
The red kite is a popular bird of prey and not shy of humans. It can be seen throughout Britain, and these magnificent birds are easy to identify due to their reddish-brown plumage, forked tail and 5-and-a-half foot wingspan. Red kites rely mainly on carrion, but will also take small birds and mammals. They are also known for being cheeky and have been known to steal clothes from a washing line for their nests!
The male and female marsh harriers look rather different: the larger female hen is dark brown with a gold crown, while the male cock is paler, with cream coloured plumage. They are best seen in marshland, reedbeds and arable crops. Marsh harriers roost communally and will eat other bird’s eggs.
Nicknamed ‘the ghost’, the male hen harrier is a pale grey, unlike the females which are pale brown. When flying, they can be recognised by the ‘V’ shape made by their wings. They nest on the ground, in open areas with low vegetation, and unlike other raptors, fly low to the ground when on the hunt for prey.
The smallest and rarest harrier, named after the naturalist George Montagu, it’s found only in the south of England, where is returns from Africa to breed. Their colouring is similar to the hen harrier, but they are slimmer in frame. The Montagu harrier hunts the same prey as other harriers, ambushing on, or near, the ground with quick speed and agility.
The fastest bird in the world, the peregrine is built for speed, with curved wings 3ft in length and a stocky body. It can reach speeds of 200mph stooping down, wings folded, descending from hundreds of feet above its prey, snatching it up out of the sky. The peregrine falcon has made a fantastic comeback and now ranges throughout Britain from cities to craggy upland.
The hobby falcon looks like a small peregrine falcon with red trousers, and also possess the same level of agility, which is used to pluck insects or small birds from the air. Their numbers are on the rise and will nest in old crow’s nests when breeding.
The kestrel is in decline, though was once the most common raptor in Britain. The chestnut-coloured raptor is easy to recognise, and the kestrel is known for hanging relatively still in the air when hunting. The wings and tail work to keep it stationary before it plummets down to catch small mammals such as voles.
The smallest raptor found in Britain, the merlin is still very intimidating. It will attack other birds such as ravens and buzzards with an incessant chattering. Like other raptors, the merlin follows their prey to continue having a decent food source. Merlins nest on the ground like hen harriers and their small size means they are targets for foxes.
Do you enjoy watching these beautiful birds of prey and would consider yourself a bit of an expert? If so, why not test your knowledge with our Britain's birds of prey quiz? Alternatively, if you're new to birdwatching, check out our beginner's guide to this fascinating hobby here!