Every birdwatcher has a group of birds they are drawn to most. Many of us will favour the smaller passerine songbirds that visit the garden, others the waterfowl on ponds and lakes. Then there are birds of prey. These predator birds are impressive hunters that live across the nation in all kinds of habitats. It is easy to take their diversity for granted if you don’t get to see them. So, let’s learn more about these birds, from the more common British species to the rarer harriers, eagles, and owls.
Common Birds Of Prey In The United Kingdom
First of all, lets’ take a look at some of the birds of prey that you may be able to see in your local area. If you are lucky, you may even have some visiting or passing over your garden. The most frequent garden visitor is the Sparrowhawk, although Red Kites are also common in some areas. Yet, it isn’t uncommon to see Peregrine Falcons close by in urban areas or Kestrels and Buzzards in more rural areas. There is also the opportunity to see owls in the right conditions. This is a group we will learn more about later.
|Weight||110-196g (male); 185-342g (female)|
The Sparrowhawk is the bird that many families will see the most because it is the most likely to visit our gardens. These agile hunters ambush songbirds, acting as a natural form of population control, and also take lots of woodpigeons. So, if you see a bird of prey with keen eyes and bands across its chest sitting on your fence, or perhaps plucking a pigeon on the lawn. It is probably a Sparrowhawk. Be aware, however, that sexual dimorphism in Sparrowhawk allows for much smaller males with brighter orange chests and blue-toned heads and backs. This size difference allows them to hunt in different areas.
Depending on where you live in the United Kingdom, you may also see Red Kites in and around your garden. These beautiful birds have striking plumage with a rusty-red tone and blue-grey head. The most distinguishable feature, however, is their flight. They are agile and can swoop into gardens and fields for food without landing. The forked tail also helps them stand out. We almost lost this bird completely through persecution, but it now thrives in Wales and beyond, with a substantial population in South-East England. If you travel through Reading by train, you are sure to see one.
You may not see a Peregrine Falcon visiting your garden, but one may fly over now and then. These birds have found themselves at home in cities where tall buildings replicate the cliffs from their typical coastal habitats. They will survey the landscape from high-rise buildings and hunt pigeons at high speed. They are the fastest bird in the world as they can reach almost 200mph when stooping for prey. Look out for remains of pigeons around tall buildings as clues to their presence and be patient for a possible sighting.
|Weight||550-1,000g (male); 700-1,300g (female)|
The Common Buzzard is a bird you will see a lot out in the United Kingdom countryside. Yet, it is often overlooked in favour of some of the “prettier” species. It is a medium-sized raptor with mottled brown plumage, broad wings, and often a V-shape on its chest. You can hear their mewing call high above fields as they circle around in updrafts. You may also see them perched on fence posts, catching rabbits, or even in the middle of fields digging up worms. It is our most common of the buzzards, but we do also see occasional Rough-legged and Honey Buzzards.
Ask many birders what their favourite bird of prey is and they are likely to say the Kestrel. There is something very charming about this “windhover” and they are a joy to watch over fields and coastlines. The name windhover refers to their unique ability to hover in place, keeping their head perfectly still as they hunt for small mammals. The female is a little plainer than the male, who has redder plumage on the back, a blue cap, and black facial markings.
Less Common Birds Of Prey In The United Kingdom
The species above all have the potential to be frequent spots if you go out birdwatching regularly and understand where to look. But, there are other interesting raptors across the country that are a little harder to spot. Some of these are more limited in number, either due to their habitat or persecution. We have two stunning types of British Harrier that fall into each category respectively. Hobbies and Merlins also reside here and you may be lucky enough to see one with some research. We also have some impressive Goshawks in forests and Osprey’s fishing in lakes and rivers.
|Weight||600-1,100g (male); 900-2,000g (female)|
The Goshawk is often called the “meanest” looking bird due to its intense stare and bright eyes. In addition, the shape and markings on the chest mean that it is often mistaken for the Sparrowhawk. But, you are unlikely to have one of these in your garden. They are instead found in dense forests where they swoop between the trees to catch birds and small mammals. Despite their larger size, they are very difficult to find because of the habitat and their lack of vocalization.
While Goshawks are hard to spot, it is increasingly easier to see Ospreys if you know where to look. Older field guides will tell you to head to the lakes and lochs of Wales and Scotland to watch these birds fish. This is because they breed here after returning from Africa. Yet, they also follow rivers towards the coasts and stop for a few days to feed and rest. So, it helps to check online sightings. Poole Harbour also has a population following a relocation project in 2017. They are unmistakable when you find one, thanks to their white markings around the head and fishing behaviour.
|Weight||300-400g (male) 400-600g (female)|
The saddest thing about our bird of prey species in the United Kingdom is that so many of them face persecution. For example, Peregrines are still shot and poisoned to protect pigeons and Hen Harriers face a similar fate on grouse moors. However, there are efforts to protect this moorland bird and it is possible to see them in more significant numbers in Scotland. The male is a beautiful grey with black wingtips and is known as the “sky dancer” for its aerobatic courtship displays.
|Weight||400-660g (male); 540-800g (female)|
Another harrier species found in the United Kingdom is the Marsh Harrier. This is one that you could be near and not see as it nests in reeds in wetlands. This is a brilliant place for them to stay hidden but also to find plenty of food. Studied harrier nests have been found to have remains of wading birds but also Grass Snakes. Find a reserve with a known population and a good bird hide. One may emerge to hunt and give you a great show.
As we saw with the Kestrel, birds of prey don’t have to be large to be successful. Some thrive on smaller prey and fill that niche in the ecosystem. The Hobby is a great example. This beautiful little bird looks like a miniature version of the Peregrine Falcon with very similar markings. If you are lucky, you could find one hunting over water. They are able to catch dragonflies and other small prey and eat them while in flight. Bolder Hobbies will also try and take Swifts and Swallows.
|Weight||125-234g (male); 164-300g (female)|
The Merlin is similar but a little smaller than the Hobby and Kestrel and lacks the same distinctive markings. This small blue-grey bird is most easily found in the open countryside. While the Kestrel will hover up high and wait for the perfect moment to strike small mammals, Merlins will chase small birds close to the ground. This helps us with identification but also means the birds aren’t in direct competition.
Eagles in the United Kingdom
It can come as a surprise to those that aren’t avid birdwatchers that there are British eagles. We are seen as such a small island with so little wilderness that it wouldn’t be possible to sustain a population of eagles. Yet, there are two key species that call the United Kingdom home. They are the Golden Eagle and the White-tailed Sea Eagle.
|Weight||2.8-4.5kg (male); 3.8-6.6kg (female)|
The Golden Eagle makes its home in the wilderness of Scotland, although there is talk of bringing them back to Wales. The golden part of the name refers to the tone of the head feathers on adult birds. It isn’t uncommon for those travelling to Scotland to over-excitedly mistake Common Buzzards for Golden Eagle due to similar plumage. However, the eagle has a much broader wingspan and prominent primary feathers in flight.
White-Tailed Sea Eagle
|White-Tailed Sea Eagle||Measurements|
|Weight||3.5-5kg (male); 4-7kg (female)|
The White-tailed Sea Eagle is an extraordinary sight due to its size compared to other United Kingdom birds of prey. Its massive 2-metre wingspan helps it soar effortlessly across the Scottish landscape and it has a formidable beak and set of talons. Many birdwatchers will travel to sites such as the Isle of Mull to spot these eagles coexisting with the Golden Eagle. However, it is now possible to see them across southern Britain. A group of juveniles were relocated to the Isle of Wight. They have since explored far and wide and one was even seen over the House of Commons.
Owls in the United Kingdom
Of course, we can’t talk about all the incredible British birds of prey without talking about the various owl species. There are five owls that reside in the United Kingdom and they are all incredibly different. This is so that they can thrive in various niches without competing with each other. Still, owls share a lot of physical characteristics. For example, they have large forward-facing eyes that aid their vision, sharp beaks and talons to eat their prey, unique adaptations to their feathers for silent hunting, and asymmetrical ears to pinpoint the position of their prey.
The Barn Owl is a beautiful ghostly hunter that hunts small mammals over open fields. They are one of the most popular because of their round, heart-shaped face and mixture of white and warm brown plumage. The name comes from the fact that they like to nest in barns and then hunt over the farmer’s fields. They aren’t as common as they once were, but some farmers put up nest boxes to help. You may be lucky enough to see them gliding over fields around dawn and dusk. During the breeding season, they are also more likely to hunt during the day to satisfy the appetites of their young.
Ask any child – or adult for that matter – what noise an owl makes and they will say “twit twoo”. This is actually a call and response between a male and female Tawny Owl. You may hear half from a tree at the bottom of the garden or in nearby woods at night. The Tawny is similar in shape to the Barn Owl but with more mottled brown feathers across the whole body. This allows for much better camouflage. But, again, you may get lucky and see them hunting at night or sleeping in a tree by day.
The Long-Eared Owl is another owl species found in some woodland areas in the United Kingdom. As the name suggests, the most distinctive feature here is the long tufts that stick up out of the head. They aren’t actually ears but give that impression. They also make the owl more easily identifiable if you happen to see one. The best time to see a Long-Eared Owl is in the short period before juveniles become independent. They leave the nest after 21 but can’t yet fly or find food. This branching behaviour makes them easier to spot during the day. Just make sure to keep your distance, so you don’t disturb them.
The Little Owl really does live up to its name. While some say it resembles a miniature Tawny Owl, it is much more speckled in appearance and barely taller than a starling. This little round owl is small but just as keen a hunter, taking small mammals and insects. It typically hunts at dawn and dusk around various habitats. They like to nest in old buildings for security, so you may find them around abandoned buildings or farmland. If you know where to look, you might get some great sightings because they aren’t afraid to come out during the day.
Finally, there is the Short-Eared Owl. This is another species that has adapted to take advantage of a different niche. It hunts during the day to take advantage of small mammals while other predators are asleep. You may get to see it hunting over moorland. It is similar in size and shape to the Barn Owl but has darker plumage, allowing for better camouflage. Another exciting thing about this bird is that it nests on the ground rather than up in trees or buildings.
What If The Birds You See Doesn’t Match The Descriptions Above?
You may be reading this and feel that the birds mentioned here and their descriptions in British field guides don’t match a recent sighting. There are a few reasons why this may be the case. First of all, you may be seeing the same bird in a different form. For example, some birds will look different in their juvenile forms from their adult ones. This is because they may not yet have developed the full markings and colouration of maturity. There are also cases where individuals are pale or dark-morph birds, which is common with the Buzzard. The difference between the pale and dark forms is striking.
The other explanation could be that you are looking at a migrant bird that has been blown off course or something that is a temporary visitor. Birds from Europe and Africa can temporarily find their way over here, often resulting in some frantic twitching. Gyr and Red-Footed Falcons can make an appearance, with the latter doing so more frequently in recent years. There was also the case of the Lammergeier on Dartmoor in 2016 that drew plenty of visitors.
Enjoy The Diversity Of United Kingdom Birds Of Prey
The United Kingdom is home to a more diverse range of bird of prey species than you might expect. This is because so many different types, from falcons and eagles to owls and harriers, have adapted to take advantage of various landscapes. We are lucky to have too many so close to home, whether that means a Sparrowhawk or Red Kite in the garden or making an effort to find Kestrels by the coast. We are even luckier if we get the chance to see a rarer species on an expedition, such as those magnificent eagles. These predators are an essential part of the ecosystem and a joy to watch. The British countryside would be a lot poorer without them.
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