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Wing Tips: Identifying our birds of prey

Laurence Whitaker

Springwatch Researcher

Learn to distinguish between our birds of prey with this Springwatch guide. 

Kestrels are most commonly seen hovering, in search of prey.

British birds of prey come in a range of different shapes, sizes and families, and telling them apart when all you have is a fleeting glimpse or a far-off silhoutette in the sky can be difficult. This Springwatch guide will look at the similarities and differences in flying raptors, to give you more chance of a sucessful identification when you're out enjoying nature. 

Kestrel - Falco Tinnunculus

Kestrels can often be seen hovering over motorway verges.

Kestrels are one of our best known falcons. They are often seen hovering over motorway verges, looking for mice and voles in the long grass. They have long, pointed wings and a long tail. Males are smaller than females, as is common in raptors. Male kestrels have a greyish blue heads and tails and light brown backs and breasts, whereas females are generally brown with mottled black feathers. 

Kestrels are famous for their ability to hover. Whilst other birds of prey are able to hover, none can do as well or for as long as the kestrel. They fan their long tails out to act as a balance, and flap their wings very quickly in order to stay airborn. if you can get close enough to see their heads, you'll notice that they remain perfectly still so their eyes can focus totally on the grass below. 

Peregrine - Falco Peregrinus 

Peregrine Falcons are the fastest animal on the planet, and can exceed speeds of 200mph.

The peregrine falcon. Famed for its speed, its power and its sheer deadly attitude, these are the fastest things in the animal kingdom. A peregrine falcon can exceed speeds of 200mph in full stoop, although they don't often do this in the wild. Hitting a pigeon at that speed wouldn't be too good for either bird... 

They are much bigger and bulkier than kestrels, and their shape and size is ideally suited to taking out birds like pigeons, ducks and even songbirds in the air. Peregrines have sucessfully adapted to city living, and use high buildings like cathedrals to nest on. Notice that their wings, whilst still pointed and long, are much broader than a kestrel's, and they have a much stubbier tail. 

If you're close enough to see markings, look for the famous black 'moustache' marking on the face, the white patch under the chin and the black bars on the breast, wings and tail. 

Hobby - Falco subbuteo

Hobbies are extremely agile, and often take dragonflies on the wing.

Hobbies are summer visitors to the UK, and time their arrivals to coincide with the migrations of swallows and martins. They are extremely agile, and their main sources of food are small birds and dragonflies whilst in the UK. 

Hobbies are about the size of a kestrel, but they have longer, narrower wings. A good way to identifiy a hobby is that it looks almost like a giant swift. They don't hover, instead they'll perch on a favoured tree or post, and scan their surroundings. When they see a potential meal they'll dash off, showing immense arial prowess in chasing down their prey. They can even eat on the wing - truly a master of the skies. Look for the orange underparts and facial moustache if you get close enough, a hobby is a great sighting for any bird-lover. 

Merlin - Falco columbarius

Our smallest bird of prey, merlins love the uplands of the British countryside.

The merlin is our smallest bird of prey in Britain. They stay mainly in the uplands, breeding on moors and hillsides. They are resident to the UK, which is on the southern edge of their range and numbers increase in the winter as more birds from Icleand and northern Europe arrive to escape the colder winters. 

Merlins have broad, pointed wings that are shorter than most falcons. Their tails are square cut, and they fly with a few rapid wing beats before gliding. Look for them keeping their wings close to their bodies in flight. Males have a rusty orange coloured neck and breast, with a slate grey back and wings. Females are mottled brown all over, with lighter underwings. 

Sparrowhawk - Accipiter nisus

Sparrowhawks have come back from the brink of extinction, and are now a common sight in gardens.

Sparrowhawks were almost extinct in the UK after centuries of persecution and pesticides which caused their eggs to break before they could hatch. After sucessful conservation efforts, these birds are thriving now, and there could be as many as 40,000 pairs breeding in Britain. 

Sparrowhawks are adapted to hunting in woodland, taking birds from blue tits to pigeons and everything in between. The females are much bigger than males, which effectively creates two different hunters in their area. Sparrowhawks have short, blunted wings with their primary feathers creating 'fingers.' These short wings allow them to fly between trees and small spaces at speed. Their tails are long and squared at the ends, giving them the skill and agility to manouvre tight corners. 

Males are known as muskets, and are about the size of a thrush, if not slightly bigger. They have a red-ish breast, with white bars, and a slate grey back. Females are about the size of a wood pigeon, and are grey and white in colour, with black bars down their breasts. Look for them in gardens and woodland, ambushing songbirds by flying low over hedges and bushes at speed. They'll often eat their prey where they catch them, and will cover up their quarry with their wings to protect it from other predators. This is known as mantling. 

Goshawk - Accipiter gentilis

Once extinct in Britain, the goshawk has recolonised our island and an estimated 400 pairs breed here.

The goshawk is a powerful, large and deadly predator. They are often called big sparrowhawks, but this does not do them justice. They were once extinct in the UK, but escaped and released falconry birds have recolonised the land. 

Whilst similar in shape to female sparrowhawks, goshawks are much bigger and generally a lot more powrefully built. They have broad, short wings and a shorter tail than a sparrowhawk, and females can reach a size comparable to that of a buzzard. They are much harder to see than a sparrowhawk, and are extremely secretive birds. Listen for the alarm calls of other birds, and look for a flash of grey as you walk through known goshawk woods. 

 Common Buzzard - Buteo buteo

Buzzards have bounced back from low numbers, and are now seen all over the UK.

Buzzards are mainly scavengers and will readily eat carrion. They will hunt small mammals like rabbits, and are even perfectly happy eating earthworms. Over the past 20 years they have bounced back from being critically endangered, and can now be seen all over the UK in towns and cities and mountainsides alike.

Notice how their tails are wedge shaped, and their wings are long and broad. This allows them to use thermal columns to gain height with minimal effort. Watch them as they soar high in the sky, often in groups of two or three, using their incredible eyesight to look for a meal on the ground. Once spotted, they will often fold their wings to fly incredibly quickly to the ground.

Whilst mainly brown, they have light patches on the underside of their wings, which can help to distinguish them from ravens or large crows at a glance. Their primary wing feathers also give the appearance of long fingers. A good way to spot buzzards is to listen for their distinctive and iconic 'mew' call.

Golden Eagle - Aquila chrysaetos

The magnificent golden eagle is confined mainly to Scotland and the Hebrides.

The Golden Eagle. There's no mistaking this bird, down to its sheer size. As a naturalist once said; 'if you're in two minds as to whether it's a buzzard or an eagle, then it's a buzzard.' You just know when you've seen an eagle. 

Most golden eagles live in the Scottish Highlands, although there are sometimes sightings of eagles in Cumbria. Their huge, powerful wings are perfectly adapted for flying high with minimal effort, and their eyes can spot a mountain hare from great heights. Quite often they will appear as a speck against the sky, but even then it's size can be appreciated. 

Closer up, you can see their massive, broad wings have long fingers to them. Their feathers are generally a dark brown, gradually building to a golden brown colour on their heads; from which they get their name. 

Other than size, they differ in the buzard by having a longer tail. They'll fly with their wings in a 'V-shape' and flight from perching, or at low altitudes can seem laboured, with long, slow wing beats until they gather momentum or hit the hot air column. 

White-tailed Eagle - Haliaeetus albicilla


White-tailed eagles are the UK's biggest bird of prey.

The white-tailed eagle, also known as the sea eagle or the 'flying barn door,' is our largest bird of prey. They're on the red-list for endangered species, and are mainly confined to the coasts of northern Scotland. 

With a diet of fish and birds, they nest on the coast and are rarely seen inland. They are similar in shape to a golden eagle, but they are bigger and have a much shorter tail. The tail is white, and the head is pale. Like the golden eagle, it's hard to mistake for another bird because of it's size. 

Red Kite - Milvus Milvus

Thanks to efforts from conservationists, red kites are thriving in the UK.

Red kites have been saved from the brink of extinction, with sucessful reintroduction projects up and down the country. They are almost unmistakable, with their deep red/orange colours and their distinctive forked tails. 

They are often communal birds, and in places will gather together in great numbers to scavenge for food. Look for them circling, with their long, broad fingered wings in a v-shape. Red kites eat mainly carrion, and will often follow farmers plowing fields to get the earth worms that are exposed. 

Marsh Harrier - Circus aeruginosus

Marsh harriers have made a striking comeback in the UK.

Our biggest harrier species, the Marsh Harrier has bounced back from near extinction to now having around 380 pairs in the UK. Look for them lazily flying over reed beds as they look for a meal underneath. 

To identify these birds, watch out for their wing shape. Long, broad, fingered wings, often held in a v-shape as they glide. Often, they will 'quarter' their hunting ground, which means they fly up and down the field in lines looking for birds and mammals. Female marsh harriers are a dark brown all over, but with a cream coloured head. Males look almost thrown together, with a mottled brown head, orange body, grey wings with black tips and a grey tail. Not often seen against the sky, these birds tend to stick to a few metres above the reeds. 

Hen Harrier - Circus cyaneus

The hen harrier is one of our most endangered raptors.

Hen harriers inhabit upland areas during the spring and summer. During the winter they retreat to lower areas such as farmland, marshland and coastal environments. 

In keeping with other harriers, they have long, broad wings, but their tails are much longer than those of marsh harriers. Males are a pale grey colour, with black wingtips. Females are mottled brown, with a barred tail that gives the appearance of rings. In the spring, look for the 'skydance,' where males perform specatluarly beautiful aerial displays by flying up high, and stooping back down low. Ordinarily they glide close to the ground, with their wings in the typical v-shape.

Related Content

RSPB Raptors

BTO Raptor ID 

All images from the BBC Springwatch Flickr groups

Let us know if this guide has helped you, and if you have been able to spot any of the our beautiful birds of prey. Use the comment section below to tell us your thoughts and feelings, and we'll do our best to answer any identification questions you may have. 

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