What’s that bird of prey?

Identification of raptors can be hard, especially during spring and autumn when all sorts of migrant species are just passing through.

Here, then, are some pointers for our bigger summer residents, to help sort buzzards from the harriers and eagles that breed in the P-O.  

Common buzzard

French : Buse variable
How common  Common 
When in P-O  All year 
Where in P-O  Everywhere 
Wingspan  1.13-1.28m 
Underside  Pale & dark variants. Generally: pale underside, with dark chest. Front of wings darker than back, with distinctive dark, “wrist” patch. Some barring 
Above  Fairly uniform dark brown 
Key features  Pale U-shaped “necklace” across the middle of chest 
Flight  They flap more than the other larger raptors: flap-flap-flap-glide 
Other  The most vocal of larger raptors, usually during flight. Loves to perch on fence-posts 

Booted eagle

French : Aigle botté 
How common  Uncommon 
When in P-O  April – Sept 
Where in P-O  Wooded, often more lowland areas. Vallespir, sometimes Albères 
Wingspan  1.1-1.35m. (small for an eagle) 
Underside  Pale and dark forms. Pale form easiest to identify by white body, white leading edge to wing and dark trailing edge and wingtips. 
Above  Dark brown, with whitish crescent on rump; Diagonal pale bands on wings and white “headlight” spots either side the neck 
Key features  Impossible to confuse with other species in pale form or seen from above. 
Flight  Catches prey on the ground, often after a very fast, near-vertical stoop from a great height. 
Other  Secretive. Never sits about in full view! 

Marsh harrier

French : Busard des roseaux
How common  Uncommon 
When in P-O  Some females all year (males & most immatures migrate for the winter) 
Where in P-O  Marshy areas around reservoirs and wetlands (eg. Canet) 
Wingspan  1-1.25m 

Male: Dark belly; pale tail & midwings; black wingtips 

Female: Dark brown with creamy leading edge to midwings 


Male: Dark back & shoulders; silver-grey midwings & black wingtips 

Female: Dark brown; creamy head and throat; creamy patch on shoulders 

Key features  Female’s creamy markings; male’s dark back; both long-tailed & long-winged 
Flight  Flies low across open ground 
Other  Similar size to buzzard, but tail longer & more elegant in flight 

Montagu’s harrier

French : Busard cendré
How common  Uncommon 
When in P-O  March-June 
Where in P-O  Arable farmland & garrigue (eg. around Castelnou) 
Wingspan  1-1.2m 

Male: Red-brown bars on pale underwings; pale, streaked flanks 

Female: Pale with bold streaks 


Male: Pale grey with black bar across inner wings; black wingtips 

Female: brown, with white rump; black bar across inner wings; banded tail 

Key features  Black bar across inner wings helps differentiate from Hen Harriers 
Flight  The most elegant of harriers with swept-back, tapered wingtips 
Other  Easily confused with Hen Harrier (Busard Saint-Martin), which doesn’t breed here but passes through on spring & autumn migration 

Short-toed eagle

French : Circaète Jean-le-Blanc 
How common  Common 
When in P-O  March-September 
Where in P-O  Mountains (Albères, Vallespir, Cerdagne) & Roussillon Plain. 
Wingspan  1.62-1.78m 
Underside  Variable dark “hood”. Some darker than others but generally underside appears white at distance. Seen closely: fine barring on wings, body and tail 
Above  Pale brown 
Key features  Can appear totally white underneath apart from hood. 
Flight  Wings appear long relative to body, so less square than buzzard. When hunting, sometimes hovers (legs dangling), before making a fast, long plunge, with wings almost closed. 
Other  Often mistaken for Bonelli’s Eagle (Aigle de Bonelli), but Bonelli’s are so rare (possibly only 1 bird in the whole of the P-O), you’re most likely watching a Short-toed. Also called Snake Eagle because that’s its favourite prey. 


Golden eagle

French : Aigle royal
How common  Rare 
When in P-O  All year 
Where in P-O  High mountains (mainly Canigou massif. Occasionally in Albères) 
Wingspan  1.9-2.2m 

Mature adult: uniform dark brown; head golden brown 

Immature: white patches on wings and tail (which diminish year on year) 

Above  Uniform dark brown 
Key features  Very dark & huge! It’s our biggest raptor; anything bigger will be a vulture. 
Flight  Wide, slow soaring or gliding, with long, splayed “fingertips” 
Other  Once see, never forgotten 

Below is an immature golden eagle…


In a future edition, we’ll cover the smaller birds of prey : falcons and hawks.

The Warblers

Lesley McLaren is one of “The Warblers”, a group of natural history enthusiasts based in the P-O.

For more blogs and photos, or if you’d like to contact them, visit www.mediterraneanpyrenees.com

You can also follow them on Twitter @66warblers

All photos by “The Warblers”, unless otherwise stated (hover mouse over images)

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  1. OMG! I think I just saw one exactly how you described above! I’m not a bird watcher but this bird was nothing like I have ever seen before and exactly,ike your photos. The sound it made had my attention immediately and the size… this literally just happened and spotted in carnforth, Lancashire.

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