Migratory raptors - look out for some mighty visitors

Look up! The big birds are back in town. Discover the migratory birds of prey that fly to the UK each spring to nest and raise their chicks.

Posted 5 min read
Osprey swooping down with wings outstretched and talons poised to catch prey just below the smooth water's surface
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Look out for some mighty visitors

Look up! The big birds are back in town. Discover the migratory birds of prey that fly to the UK each spring to nest and raise their chicks.

When we think about migrating birds, most of us will likely consider such classic long-distance travellers as Swallows and Cuckoos, or perhaps Arctic Terns. The arrival of spring elicits annual joy for many of us, with nature enthusiasts across the land taking note of their first returning warblers, flycatchers, swifts or even departing north-bound geese. 

But there is another group of birds which habitually crosses continents to spend the long summer days with us that may be easily overlooked. Indeed, the very fact that these hardy aerial wayfarers arrive on our shores from far afield may well come as a total surprise in itself.

We’re talking raptors. Birds of prey. While our eagles, peregrines, sparrowhawks, kestrels and buzzards mostly remain with us throughout the year, there are a number of species that make epic journeys to nest here each spring. From far-flung falcons to ocean-crossing ospreys we have our fair share of roving raptors to keep an eye out for.  

Osprey migration

The vast majority of our breeding Ospreys spend their winters in West Africa, though small numbers may go no further than Spain and Portugal. These large fish-eating birds became extinct in the UK in the early 20th century thanks to years of persecution. However, they returned to nest in Scotland in the 1950s and have continued to recolonise ever since and there are as many as 400 pairs now nesting across the UK annually. 

Dicover more Osprey facts.

Osprey identification tips

  • Large size (Great Black-backed Gull / Grey Heron).
  • Brown above, pale below with white body.
  • Often hover before plunging into the water to catch fish. 

Marsh Harrier migration

Another bird with a grim past, this impressive hunter of wetland landscapes was also once extremely rare. In fact, they were down to just one single pair in Suffolk in 1971. Thankfully, through dedicated conservation efforts these dynamic harriers have returned and the UK breeding population now stands at around 700 pairs. Although traditionally a summer migrant, more marsh harriers are staying here year-round, likely due to milder winters.  

Discover more Marsh Harrier facts.

Marsh Harrier identification tips:

  • Medium / large size (Herring Gull).
  • Female is dark brown above and below with cream / yellow crown, forewing and sometimes on breast. Male has grey tail and wings with black tips, brown back and pale yellowy head and underparts.  
  • Soars on shallow V-shaped wings.

Montagu’s Harrier migration

Sadly, this attractive raptor is having a very hard time clinging on in modern Britain. A rather delicate harrier, these birds travel to Europe from Africa to nest on farmland, plains and bogs. Although never a particularly common bird here, Montagu’s Harriers are today extremely rare nesters, mainly in southern and eastern England.

Discover more Montagu's Harrier facts.

Montagu's Harrier identification tips

  • Medium size (Common Gull sized)
  • Male is pale grey above with extensive black wing tips, black stripe along wing and a white rump, pale below with blue grey head. Female heavily barred brown above with white rump, underparts paler and barred / streaked.  
  • Delicate, tern-like buoyant flight.

Honey Buzzard migration

Although quite common on the continent, Honey Buzzards remain scarce in the UK. However, they are widespread and easily overlooked, especially once nesting in their favoured mature woodlands. Despite their name, they do not eat honey but in fact raid bee and wasp nests in search of the grubs inside. These birds spend the winter in tropical Africa and often form huge flocks on autumn migration, especially prior to making sea-crossings across the Mediterranean.   

Discover more Honey Buzzard facts.

Honey Buzzard identification tips

  • Large size (Common Buzzard)
  • Variable plumage but small protruding head and long tail often distinctive. 
  • Wings downcurved when gliding, held flat when soaring. Loose, slowish wingbeats.  

Hobby migration

These dashing falcons have become a familiar sight in many parts of the UK in recent years. Once restricted to southern English counties these dragonfly-hunting hawkers are spreading northwards, along with their favourite insect prey. They are also skilled at catching swallows and martins in mid-air.   

Discover more Hobby facts.

Hobby identification tips

  • Small /medium (Kestrel sized)
  • Dark slate grey above, darkish below with striking white cheeks and throat and when seen well, red ‘trouser’ feathering around the legs and under tail.   
  • Rapid, very purposeful flight when hunting at low levels yet more relaxed with regular twists and turns when catching insects at height.

Where to see our migratory raptors

These wandering hunters may turn up just about anywhere across the UK. Here are a few RSPB reserves where you might stand a good chance of seeing at least one of our super summer raptors.   


Ham Wall, Somerset

Langford Lowfields, Nottinghamshire

Capel Fleet, Kent

Fen Drayton Lakes, Cambridgeshire

Leighton Moss, Lancashire

Blacktoft Sands, East Yorkshire

Otmoor, Oxfordshire


Cors Ddyga, Anglesey

Newport Wetlands, Gwent 

Tay Reedbeds, Perthshire

Loch Garten, Abernethy

Tollie Red Kites, Highlands

Loch Lomond, West Dunbartonshire 

The view of the lake at Loch Lomond with views of mountains in the back and autumnal trees to the side.
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