Banner image: Flying Buzzard, by Don Morris

An encounter with a raptor is one of nature’s most exhilarating experiences. You can’t fail to be awed by a buzzard gliding majestically over farmland, or a kestrel’s steely focus as it hovers mid-air at the side of a busy road.

Derived from the Latin word rapere, meaning to seize or take by force, the word raptor is used to describe a group of birds that includes falcons, buzzards, eagles and hawks. They share a number of common characteristics – keen eyesight, agile flight and strong bills and talons – qualities which combine to make them excellent hunters.

Although diet ranges from species to species, raptors are all meat eaters. As well as small mammals, such as mice and voles, these birds of prey will hunt a variety of creatures ranging from other birds to large insects, reptiles and amphibians. Many will also take carrion.

There are 15 species of raptor breeding in Britain, and many of these have been recorded in Bedfordshire. The three you’re probably most likely to see while out and about are the buzzard, kestrel and the sparrowhawk, which you’re most likely to encounter in your garden!


It’s hard to believe that as recently as the 1960s the buzzard was a scarce species, having suffered from years of persecution and pesticides. Today they’re the most common and widespread bird of prey in the UK, with an estimated breeding population of up to 79,000 pairs.

These large, impressive birds have a wingspan of up to 1.3 metres, and as you’d expect, they build a bulky nest – often over a metre in width – high up in trees. Buzzards normally mate for life and are fiercely territorial.

They are adept at hunting a wide range of animals, from mice, voles and rabbits to worms and large insects if other food is scarce. This flexibility in their diet is a key contributor in enabling them to rebuild healthy populations, with numbers quadrupling nationally since the 1970s. 

You will often hear a buzzard before you see it - listen out for their distinctive “mewing” call, and then raise your eyes to the skies to see them soaring overhead.


Unlike the buzzard, for reasons as yet unclear, this small falcon has seen its population decline over the past 50 years. Possible causes include a decline in available nesting sites and a fall in the population of voles, which account for the majority of its diet.

Most people encounter kestrels as they hunt along road verges of country lanes, main roads and even motorways. Kestrels use various methods to hunt prey but the most well-known is the stationary hover. They will hold their head perfectly still as they hover in the air, dropping down from the sky once they have spotted their next meal.

As well as the hovering technique – which is more energy-consuming - they will also perch stock still on a post or tree branch and wait for passing prey before pouncing.

Their eyesight is extremely keen, and its thought that kestrels can spot a beetle from 50 metres away!

Image: Kestrel, by Don Morris


An alarm call, a whoosh, and a few feathers tumble down to earth from where a bird once fed on the feeder. This is usually the most people ever see of sparrowhawks. Much maligned by some, it’s worth remembering that having a sparrowhawk in your garden is a good thing, because it’s a sign the local bird population is strong enough to support this fantastic predator. Consequently, the best place to see a sparrowhawk is in your garden: it’s a truly urban raptor.

Male sparrowhawks are around the size of a blackbird, while females are larger, around the size of a pigeon. They have bright yellow eyes, which can become orange in older birds. They rely on an element of surprise when hunting, perching out of sight near to a popular feeding station and then quickly swooping in to seize their prey. They are incredibly agile in flight, reaching speeds of up to 30mph.  

Image: Sparrowhawk male in the wetlands, by Don Morris

While buzzards, kestrels and sparrowhawks are amongst the most common raptor species in our county, there are several other raptors that you might be lucky enough to encounter while you’re out and about.

A little harder to find, but all recorded in Bedfordshire, are peregrines, red kites, osprey, merlin, hen harriers, marsh harriers and honey buzzard. 

If you spot any of these wonderful birds of prey while out and about – especially on one of our sites – we’d love to know about it. Your sightings will help inform our conservation work, and build up a picture of populations in our county! Email [email protected]

Image: Buzzard, by Don Morris

Help us plant and protect more woodland and habitats in the Forest

We're working hard to create habitat that benefits wildlife for now and in the future. To help us plant and maintain more woodlands in the Forest please consider joining with a small monthly donation:

Become a Friend of the Forest