British Birds Of Prey

Birds of prey, otherwise known as raptors, by definition catch their food using their feet instead of their mouths like most other birds. They also have acute vision and hearing and powerful talons and beaks.

Birds of prey can be divided into a number of families including buzzards and hawks, falcons, vultures, kites, harriers, eagles, owls and osprey, and in the UK you can find examples from all of these groups except for vultures.

Most birds of prey are diurnal meaning they hunt during the day although some owls are nocturnal and hunt solely after dark. British birds of prey tend to  feed on small mammals, reptiles, insects, fish, birds and molluscs while Old and New world vultures prefer to eat carrion.

Sparrowhaks will sometimes visit gardens, and peregrine falcons can be spotted in towns and cities, whereas it is more difficult to see owls who rarely conduct their activities during the day. Birds of prey can be difficult to tell apart, particularly when you can only catch a fleeting glimpse of them or see a distant silhouette in the sky.

British Birds Of Prey Identification Guides

Find out more about some of the most common British birds of prey including identifying features, nesting and feeding habits and take a listen to their calls.

Montagu's Harrier

01

Montagu’s harrier

Circus pygargus

Rare bird of prey with a long tail and long pointed wings with black tips. Males are grey, females are brown. Underparts are buff with black streaks. Dark cheek patches and small white eye crescents. Summer visitor that migrates to Africa for the winter and can be found on marshes and grassland in eastern England. Feeds on small birds, rabbits, voles, and shrews. Glides with tapered wingtips swept back.

Long-Eared Owl

02

Long-eared owl

Asio otus

Medium-sized, round-headed, upright owl with long ear-tufts which are raised when it is alarmed. Buff-brown with darker streaks and bars below. Wide facial disk with white V between the orange eyes, that becomes narrower when alert. Nocturnal and secretive and only likely to be seen during migration. Short, moaning hoot. Slow, wavering action in flight. Found in coniferous forests and willow thickets.

Rough-Legged Buzzard

03

Rough-legged buzzard

Buteo lagopus

One of the UK’s less familiar birds of prey. Distinguished from the common buzzard by its heavily feathered legs and longer wings. Pale head and breast, dark belly, and brown upperparts darker towards the rump. Dark morph is mostly black with white streaks on the head. Hovers in the air over one spot for some time while looking for prey. Winter visitor found in coastal and open areas, moors, and farmland.

Barn Owl

04

Barn owl

Tyto alba

A distinctive countryside bird with a heart-shaped face. Black eyes and dark V over the bill. Narrow body is pale golden above and white below. Slightly jerky wingbeats and comes to a near hover before diving to catch small mammals. Shrill, shriek as well as hisses and squeals. Best to see them at dusk in open country on grassland, farmland, and marshes.

Sparrowhawk

05

Eurasian sparrowhawk

Accipiter nidus

The bird of prey you’re most likely to see in your garden. Males are blue-grey above and pale below with reddish stripes. Females are browner with underparts striped grey. Adapted for hunting birds in confined spaces with short, fast chase, and slanting dive. Does not hover. Preys mainly on small birds. Females can catch birds up to the size of pigeons. Found in woodland, forests, parks, fields, moors, and marshes.

Buzzard

06

Common buzzard

Buteo buteo

The most widespread bird of prey in the UK. Broad, rounded wings, with a short neck and tail. Dark brown to creamy white but usually mottled brown. Barred belly and pale necklace on the breast. Quick stiff wingbeats. Glides with wings hunched and soars with wing in a V. Displays with deep dives. Found all year round over wooded hillsides, heaths, and moors, or perched on roadside fences and posts. Sometimes sits in fields.

Golden Eagle

07

Golden eagle

Aquila chrysaetos

Large bird of prey that uses its wings to soar on air currents while looking for prey. Will occasionally chase other birds in flight. Dark brown plumage with golden-brown nape and buff band across the upperwing. The strong bill is blueish-grey with a yellow base, and the yellow legs and feet are heavily feathered. Heavy flight with deep wingbeats and short glides. Found in Scotland in mountains, moors, forests, and coastal cliffs.

European Honey Buzzard

08

European honey-buzzard

Pernis apivorus

Large bird of prey with broad wings and a long tail. Plumage is variable but adults are generally grey-brown with white underparts, and dark bands on the wings and tail. The eyes are yellow, and the bill has a black tip. Flies with elastic wingbeats, which are slightly raised when soaring and dropped when gliding. Found across the UK in forests, woodland, farmland, and parks. Nest sites are kept secret to protect them from egg collectors and disturbance.

Kestrel

09

Common kestrel

Falco tinnunculus

Small upright falcon with pointed wings and long tail. Male has rufous upperparts and buff underparts with grey head and tail, and weak moustache. Female is ginger-brown with bars above and streaks below. A familiar sight hovering by roads. In flight tail opens to a fan and wingbeats are quick with high upstroke. Soars on flat, broad wings. Hunts by sight hovering before attacking from above. Found across the UK in open areas, farmland, heaths, and waste areas. Has adapted well to city centres.

Hen Harrier

10

Hen harrier

Circus cyaneus

The most persecuted bird in the UK, due to its impact on grouse moors. Small-head and long wings and tail. Males are pale grey with white belly and black wingtips, while females and juveniles are brown with a white rump, and long-barred tail. Glides low with deep wingbeats in search of food which includes meadow pipits and voles. Spring display includes acrobatic tumbling and deep undulations. Found on heather moorland, open grassland, and marshes. More widespread during winter when joined by migrants from Northern Europe.

Tawny Owl

11

Tawny owl

Strix aluco

Small, nocturnal owl with reddish-brown barred plumage, a large round head, and dark feathers around its face. Row of white spots across its shoulder. Northern birds are greyer. Quick wingbeats in flight with broad wingtips. Can be heard calling at night but seen rarely during the day. Look out for owl pellets near its roosting spots or smaller birds mobbing nearby. Found in woodland, parks, and gardens.

Hobby

12

Hobby

Falco subbuteo

Small, aerial falcon with squat head, narrow wings and long tail. Dark grey above and white below, with rusty red thigh and vent. The head is white with a dark crown and moustache, and white neck patch. Elegant in flight, it accelerates with deep wingbeats into an upward stall as it catches insects. Scarce summer migrant found in southern and eastern England over open ground, heaths, farmland, and moors, around lakes and marshes.

Little Owl

13

Little owl

Athene noctua

Small, stocky, barrel-shaped owl with large broad head, and low rounded crown, and short legs, wings, and tail. Dark brown with white mottles above and pale with brown streaks below. Large yellow eyes with white eyebrows set in black rings. Often seen perched during the day on a branch, stump, or rock. Hunts mainly at ducks. Seen in old trees, parkland, farmland, and rocky areas.

Osprey

14

Osprey

Pandion haliaetus

Very large, long-winged bird of prey, that perches upright. Dark brown above and white below with darker breast band. White head with black band behind the eye. Strong, steady flight with relaxed wingbeats. Glides on angled wings. Swoops and dives onto water to catch fish. Seen near lakes, rivers, estuaries, and nearby forests. Rare summer visitor to Scotland and some areas of England and Wales.

Merlin

15

Merlin

Falco columbarius

Small falcon with chunky, square-shaped head. Male is slate-grey with orange below and white streaks, and grey tail with black band. White streak above the eye and weak moustache. Females are larger and browner with more spots on the upperwing. Flies with fast, low wingbeats and few glides. Approaches prey with fast, twisting chase. Seen on moors and bushy hillsides, and wetlands and coasts in winter.

White-Tailed Eagle

16

White-tailed eagle

Haliaeetus albicilla

The UK’s largest bird of prey, that lacks the poise of a golden eagle. Brown body with conspicuously pale head. White tail feathers and massive fingered wings. Feathered thighs and bare, yellow legs. Deep, powerful wingbeats with glides in between. Eats mostly fish, but also mammals, small birds, and carrion. Found mainly in Scotland on coastal cliffs and large lakes.

Goshawk

17

Northern goshawk

Accipiter gentiles

Large hunting hawk, with rounded tail and long wings, sometimes confused with sparrowhawk. Grey above, white below with dark bars, and white vent. Dark head with white stripe above the eye. Females are larger with browner underparts. Slow flight with headlong plunges. Deep, undulating display. Small numbers but increasing in woodland and nearby open areas.

Red Kite

18

Red kite

Milvus milvus

Graceful bird of prey with a reddish-brown body, angled wings, and forked tail. Pale blue-grey head with yellow eyes. Saved from extinction by a successful reintroduction programme. Elegant flight with deep, flexible beats on curved wings, Soars on flat wings to great heights. Can be seen all year round in flocks over villages, wooded countryside, and forests, or feeding on the ground.

Western Marsh Harrier

19

Western marsh harrier

Circus aeruginosus

Buzzard sized harrier, that glides low with wings held in a V. Male is brown with pale head and pale grey wing and tail. Rump is robust. Female is dark brown with pale streaks on the breast, and cream-coloured head. Supple flaps between glides on raised wings, and soars up high. Striking display flight with food passes. Rare resident and migrant seen over marshes and coastal wetlands.

Peregrine Falcon

20

Peregrine falcon

Falco peregrines

Heavy, broad-shouldered falcon. Males are blue-grey above and pinkish-white below with dark spots on the breast and barred flanks. Grey head with black moustache and white neck. Females are larger and duller grey and white with blunter wings. Direct, flight with deep wingbeats and few glides. Fast pursuit of prey, sometimes swooping from beneath. Found in coastal areas and inland including towns and cities.

Short-Eared Owl

21

Short-eared owl

Asio flammeus

Large, round-headed owl. Upright when perching, more sloping stance on the ground. Colour ranges from yellow to rufous and marbled above with pale belly. White facial disc with fan around the bill. Pale yellow eyes set in black. Ear tufts are rarely obvious. Often flies by day, lover over the ground with frequent glides. Found on moors, meadow, and grassland.

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8 Responses

  1. Very handy guide thank you and lovely pictures too.

    We have lots of red kites where I live (Bucks). Shame some of the neighbours aren’t that happy with them :(. But I love to see them circling over head. Would like to see a golden eagle but still not travelling for the time being so that will have to wait.

  2. Yesterday I saw a large bird sitting on a fence post. He had a white breast black tail brown back. He was to far away to see properly but I’d love to know what he was. He sat for a long time then swooped down. Not much to go on. Any ideas what he is would be gratefully received.

  3. I keep seeing a falcon fly over my back garden and I really don’t know what it is. Its roughly the same size as a female peregrine but does not look the same. It has a light grey underbelly with a dark long tail and no barring that I can see. I live in a built up urban area. We do have peregrines, owls, kestrels and a sparrow hawk that are sighted quite often but this bird is so different to anything I’ve ever seen. Ive tried to look at different species but nothing looks like it. It flies quite low and easy to see its a falcon of some description. It doesn’t have dark wing tips either. Has anyone got any ideas?

  4. I saw a large bird of prey in Hogwood, West Sussex. It was brown all over with a yellow beak. No v in the tail. Assuming some kind of buzzard but your pictures don’t match?

    Thank you

  5. We have two unidentified raptors in the field across the way from us, they have white breasts with a brownish mottled collar around the neck, white cheeks and slate greyish backs. Largish and swoop down from the tree branches on to its prey.
    Maybe you could help to identify them from the description.

    1. I have a black bird of prey with very white rump . It flies low and constantly attack by jackdoors

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