How to identify birds of prey

© Josh Kubale

You see them soaring the skies in all their glory; birds of prey are always a sight to behold.

Birds of prey are fine-tuned predators, effortlessly soaring high in the skies on the lookout for prey.

We have 15 birds of prey (also known as raptors) species in the UK. Of those, six are currently breeding in Hertfordshire. All of our raptors are carnivores, although some have a particular taste such as the osprey which specialise in fish. Many of the larger birds are scavengers whereas others rely solely on live prey like voles, other rodents or small birds. 

So how do you tell the difference between birds of prey?

Buzzard in flight

Buzzard (c) Tim Hill

Buzzard (Buteo buteo)

The most widespread bird of prey in the country, buzzards can often be seen soaring high above our heads. Their broad wings, reaching up to 130cm, can make them appear larger than they are: a formidable sight nevertheless. Buzzards can vary in their colouring – from dark brown to much paler plumage - with a mottled underside and a short, rounded tail.

Where to see them: Grassland, farmland and woodland

Red Kite in flight

Red Kite (c) Tom Day

Red kite (Milvus Milvus)

Red kites are easily identified by their forked tail. Their reddish-brown and white-grey mottled plumage and long, black-tipped wings with white patches which reach up to a span of almost two metres! 

Where to see them: Woodland and farmland but also in urban areas and along A-Roads

Kestrel perched

Kestrel (c) Russell Savory

Kestrel (Falco Tinnunculus)

Compared to larger raptors, kestrels are quite small. Their plumage is beautiful, with a grey head, dark-banded tail, gingery-brown back and a creamy speckled underside. Their most distinctive feature is the unmistakable hovering – a technique more commonly used by insects and smaller birds like hummingbirds.

Where to see them: Grassland, heathland and sometimes urban areas

Peregrine falcon flying

Peregrine falcon (c) Bertie Gregory 2020VISION

Peregrine falcon (Falco Peregrinus)

The peregrine is a large and powerful falcon, its flight is swift and agile and when stooping down it can reach speeds of up to 390 km/h making it the world’s fastest animal. It is dark slate-grey on its back with black bars across its chest and belly. It has a white throat and cheeks and a strong, black distinctive moustache and mask. 

Where to see them: Mostly urban areas where they nest on tall buildings

Hobby in flight

Hobby (c) Dave Curtis

Hobby (Falco subbuteo)

The hobby is a small falcon that prefers a warmer climate – it’s a summer resident from sub-Saharan Africa. Superficially similar to the peregrine with a dark hood and a moustache as well as a slate grey upper and striped underside, the hobby also wears rusty orange “trousers” and has an orange-red undertail. 

Where to see them: Heathlands and wetlands in summer

Sparrowhawk flight

Sparrowhawk (c) John Hawkins Surrey Hills Photography

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

With its small size, rounded wings and long tail, the sparrowhawk is perfectly adapted to narrow habitats such as dense woodland where it usually nests. Males have a blue-grey back and white underparts showing reddish-orange barring. Females are much larger – about 25% bigger than their partner – with browner plumage above and grey bars below.

Where to see them: Variety of habitats, including gardens

Are birds of prey under threat?

Birds of prey are both magnificent predators and attractive animals, this has made them the target of persecution throughout Europe. As early as the 16th century, bounties have been put on most larger raptors to protect domestic stock, but persecution really took off with the rise in game shooting. Thankfully, raptor killing is illegal in the UK today and, although many birds are still hunted to the brink, some raptor species have recovered and are doing well.

How do we support birds of prey?

The Trust works with planners, developers and landowners to help make all areas of Hertfordshire and Middlesex as good for wildlife as they can be. By working together, we can create Living Landscapes: networks of habitats stretching across town and country that allow wildlife to move about freely and people to enjoy the benefits of nature.