British birds of prey guide: how to identify raptors and where to see

Here is our expert guide to British birds of prey, also known as raptors, and best places to see them in the UK. Learn how to identify them from their wing shape, colour and flight patterns.

Bird in flight with sunset
Published: January 20th, 2021 at 7:30 am
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Birds of prey are birds that feed on animal flesh. They are raptors, defined by their talons and a hooked bill, and reside in almost every part of the UK, from the lowlands of Southern England and the coasts of Wales, to the great ridges, mountains and islands of the Scottish Highlands.

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If you go for a walk in the countryside, the chances are you'll see a bird of prey either hovering up in the sky or perched within a tree canopy, but it can often be difficult to determine which species you're looking at.

In our ID guide, we take a closer look at some of Britain's most iconic birds of prey, offering information on how to identify them, what they eat, when they are most active and and best places to spot them.

If you're interested in birds, you may also like to check out our guides to bird migration, how to identify owls and seabirds to look out for on Britain's coasts.

An osprey catching a trout.
Osprey swoop to snatch fish from the water/Credit: Getty

Why do birds of prey hover?

Some birds of prey hover in the air above their hunting grounds to spot prey. Kestrels are perhaps the best-known for hovering and can remain almost motionless in the air, with the slight tweak of a wing or tail to maintain their position. They use oncoming wind to provide them with uplift, meaning they don't have to beat their wings.

Bird of prey hovering
Kestrels hover above fields and scrub to spot their prey/Credit: Lakes4life, Getty

How to identify birds of prey

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

Bigger than a buzzard, the osprey has pale underparts, long wingtip feathers and dark patches where the wings bend. It can be mistaken for a gull. In September, this raptor migrates to West Africa for the winter. Mostly eats fish.

Osprey
Ospreys have a wingspan of 1.3m-1.8m/Credit: Gary Cook, Alamy

Red Kite, Milvus milvus

This elegant bird of prey has a uniquely forked tail and angular wings that give it a rakish silhouette. It has a buoyant flight style, constantly altering its wing and tail pitch to execute sudden changes of direction. Eats carrion, invertebrates and scraps.

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Red kite
Red kites weigh about 1kg – relatively light for a bird of its size/Credit: Equilibrium99, Getty

Marsh harrier, Circus aeruginosus

A buzzard-sized bird of prey with a long tail. The marsh harrier flies with its wings lifted up in an obvious ‘V’ shape, though this can be hard to see from below. Patrolling low over reedbeds, it keeps its head down to scan for prey. Eats small mammals and birds.

Marsh harrier
Visit the east and south-east of England for your best chance of spotting a marsh harrier/Credit: Alamy

Buzzard, Buteo buteo

Britain’s commonest bird of prey, the buzzard is the species most often seen soaring. It wheels about in the air on broad wings, with its tail fanned out and wingtip feathers widely splayed. Eats birds, mammals and carrion.

Buzzard
Buzzards are the commonest and most widespread birds of prey in the UK/Credit: Mike Lane, Getty

Peregrine, Falco peregrinus

This powerful, chunky falcon, resembling a large kestrel but with a shorter tail, has stiff, rapid wing beats. It frequently soars with wings spread, but when hunting makes dramatic dives after prey. Eats medium-sized birds.

Peregrine
Peregrines can reach speeds of 242 mph/Credit: Lauren Tucker, Getty

Hobby, Falco subbuteo

Looking like a giant swift, the hobby has very pointed, narrow, swept-back wings, heavily streaked underparts and red ‘trousers’. It seldom soars. Eats dragonflies, swallows and martins.

Hobby
Hobbys eat insects and small birds/Credit: Gary Chalker, Getty

Sparrowhawk, Accipiter nisus

The sparrowhawk has an extremely long tail and broad wings with long feathered wingtips like ‘fingers’. It hunts mainly at hedge-height, but also circles high in the sky. Female is much larger than male. Eats small birds.

Bird in flight
Sparrowhawks breed between May and July/Credit: Siebe Wiersma, Getty

Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus

With the classic falcon silhouette, the kestrel has very long pointed wings and a long tail. It adopts a variety of flight styles, including fast pursuit, soaring in circles and hovering. Has a diets of voles and mice.

Kestrel
Female kestrels are larger than males/Credit: MyLoupe/UIG, Getty

Merlin, Falco columbarius

Not much larger than a thrush, this ‘pocket rocket’ flies swift and low, skimming the ground with frequent glides between bursts of flapping. Has a diet of small birds.

Merlin
The merlin is the UK's smallest bird of prey/Credit: Markus Varesvuo, naturepl.com
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Want more? Our guide to the best books on bird identification could help.

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