UK raptors

With their supersonic vision, effortless aerial acrobatics and ruthless hunting instincts, the UK’s birds of prey (or raptors) are the undisputed masters of the skies.

Did you know that there are three species of bird of prey that are specially adapted to wetland habitat? Although many bird of prey species can be seen in wetlands in the UK, none love our watery world as much as these three:

1. Osprey

During March and April, the osprey returns to its UK breeding grounds, having wintered in the wetlands of west Africa. This highly specialised raptor is unusual, not only for eating a diet of fish, but also for its habit of plunging into the water to catch them.

With its long, buoyant wings, a hunting osprey glides and scans the water below for food near the surface and often hovers with heavy wingbeats when it has located prey. It then tilts and dives at an angle, splashing into the water, talons first. Its talons are specially adapted with spikes and long claws to hold the slippery, struggling fish. The osprey carries large catches below its body, to a perch or nest where they can be eaten at leisure.

Osprey splashing in water

Where to see 

Ospreys hunt over large bodies of water, even marine habitats. The area around WWT Caerlaverock has been home to a breeding pair every summer since 2006; in 2020 and 2021, the regular pair nested and had 3 chicks each year; all were female and all fledged successfully.

At WWT Arundel, WWT Llanelli, WWT Martin Mere, WWT Slimbridge and WWT Welney, you’re more likely to see them passing through on autumn migration.

2. Marsh Harrier 

As big as a buzzard, but with a much longer tail and longer, more slender wings, the marsh harrier is a distinctive wetland raptor. Many are with us year-round, with some wintering birds heading off to Europe in the spring to breed.

They have a characteristic way of hunting, known as ‘quartering’; flying low and very slowly over the ground, with wings held up in a distinctive V, often along a relatively straight transect, while searching for something edible below. The technique has been compared to a golfer walking slowly, head down, looking for a lost ball.

Male marsh harrier hunting

When a harrier spots or flushes prey, such as ducklings, young moorhens and even mammals, it immediately tumbles down, often with an impressive flip over, and stretches its talons forward.

The female is heavy-bodied and dark brown, with a creamy patch on her head, breast and wings. The male is much slimmer and slightly smaller, with a neat tricoloured plumage of brown and grey, with black wing-tips. If you’re lucky, you might spot an immaculate juvenile; dark chocolate colour all over, with a highly contrasting golden crown.

Juvenile marsh harrier perched on a tree

In spring, marsh harrier males will begin to ‘sky-dance’ in a courtship display, twisting, turning and falling from the sky. They’ll also be building nests around their site, which the female will inspect and if she likes what she sees, she will join in the dance, locking talons in a mock food-pass.

Where to see 

Marsh harriers can be seen year-round hunting at WWT Welney and WWT Martin Mere (where breeding has been confirmed), with up to half a dozen in autumn. In winter, they regularly roost in the reedbeds at WWT Arundel and WWT Welney, and can be seen hunting at WWT Steart. At WWT Llanelli, watch the upper saltmarsh, and at WWT Slimbridge, scan from the Estuary Tower. Spring and summer is best at WWT Caerlaverock – try the Avenue Tower or Saltcot Observatory.

3. Hobby

The sharp-winged, slimline hobby is a hunter of summer skies. Spending the warm months between late April and September here, mainly in the southern half of the UK, their shape recalls that of another summer bird, the swift, and it has the same supreme effortless mobility in the air.

But the similarity ends there. The hobby is the only raptor that can catch swifts and swallows, as well as other open-country birds, in high-speed aerial pursuit.

A hobby in flight holding prey

You’re likely to see the hobby in midsummer, when it often sweeps low over wetlands catching its other favourite prey, dragonflies. Speeding over the marshes, they make rapid twists and turns in pursuit of the insects, snatching them in its talons, then transferring them to its bill in mid-air, not missing a beat.

The hobby breeds very late in the season, from July onwards, feeding their young mainly on just-fledged juvenile birds, which are easier to catch than experienced adults.

Where to see 

Marvel at the hobby’s agility at WWT Arundel, WWT London, WWT Welney and WWT Steart in summer, when they also reach WWT Martin Mere on the northern edge of their range. Warm days in May, August or September are best to see them hunting at WWT Slimbridge. They are also seen at WWT Llanelli until late October.