How to Spot Birds of Prey (Raptors): A Birder’s Guide

mature female Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Photo taken by Donna L. Long
mature female Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Photo taken by Donna L. Long



Birds of Prey are hunters of the sky. They are commonly known as “birds of prey” or raptors . Their powerful sharp beaks and claws, seize prey. One of many nice things about these birds is that they hunt by day and are easily seen.

I never tire of seeing a Turkey vulture or a Red-tailed Hawk soar for a long time. The birds are usually a speck in the sky before I stopping watching. The gracefulness and elegance of seeing them ride the thermals fascinates me. perching Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk Gillfoto, Juneau, Alaska, United States, CC, via Wikimedia Commons

When to Spot Birds of Prey

As a general rule birds of prey  are more active in the early morning and early evening. Soaring eagles and hawks need the rising warm air currents (thermals) to soar and will be more active after the sun is up a few hours and the sun has warmed the ground. Thermals are rising columns of sun-heated air that rise from the ground.

Spring and fall are great times to see raptors. At these times many raptors are migrating to more abundant food sources. Many raptors use well-defined flyways to get from place to place. These are hotspots along mountains and coastlines where migrating raptors and other birds converge or fly over. Stationing yourself at one of these locations often means you can see hundreds of migrating birds of many different species in one day.

Although you can see raptors year around, another good time to see raptors is during the nesting season. The nesting season runs from mid-March through June, depending on location. From mid-May through June young birds are fledgling and learning to fly.

Red-tailed Hawk.

How to Spot Raptors

When you are outdoors, keep your eyes open. Many people will miss many birds simply because they are not looking for them.  A motionless Red-tailed Hawk sitting on the cross arm of a power pole is easy to miss. I often see hawks as I drive along back roads in and around Philadelphia.  Raptors perch in roadside trees, searching for prey in the grass and highway medians. By looking up you might see a small dark objects in the sky which might be an eagle or hawk soaring above you.

Some things that might actually be a raptor include:

  • a fence post that is extra tall
  • an extra insulator on a power or phone pole
  • a rocky outcrop with a prominent “point” at the top
  • a bird sitting on the wire between poles (possible an American Kestrel)
  • in winter, a dark object in a leafless tree
Northern Harrier ( ) Photo taken by Donna L. Long
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus). Photo taken by Donna L. Long

Identifying Birds of Prey

Many people can watch soaring birds for hours on end and marvel at the beauty and elegance of their abilities without ever worrying about exactly what type of raptor they have been admiring. Then there are those who like the challenge of identifying the birds they are seeing.

The plumages of raptors differ within a species according to age. Juveniles can look very different from adults. And adults of the same species might have slightly or very different coloration depending on what area they are from.

Raptors don’t sing. But sometimes you can hear the screeching cry of a Red-tail Hawk as it soars high over head.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on my garden fence. Photo by Donna L. Long
A Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on my garden fence. Photo by Donna L. Long

There are many field guides to Hawks and other birds of prey. I would suggest spending time looking at field guides in your local library or bookstore. Identifying Birds of Prey: Books to Help You

When you are using your field guide remember this important quote from Roger Tory Peterson: “Birds have wings and like to use them”. This means you should watch the bird for as long as possible, taking note of different features before you consult your field guide. If you instantly start looking through your guide when your first see a bird, you may narrow your choices down to three or five birds, and then when you look back through your binoculars to check specific features, the bird is gone.

So, when you are looking at an unknown bird start at the head and work your way to the tail, making note of specific features that you see. Once the bird is gone then consult your field guide.

Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus). Photo by Donna L. Long
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus). Photo by Donna L. Long

Focus on the Common Birds of Prey

I focus on the birds around me the most. Yes it’s fun to chase after the new and exotic but really knowing the birds that live around you, often all year around, is truly becoming one with the land. I’ve become rather good at identifying a Red-tailed Hawk as it whizzs across the road and over the hood of my car.

I know Red-tails because they are around all the time, and I see them all the time. Once you identify your local birds of prey, you’ll notice them all the time, too.

Bird of Prey Hot Spots

This article discusses six Fall Migration Hot Spots to spot raptors. Here’s a hint: the raptors are following their food, the songbirds as they fly south. Songbirds migrate at night and raptors migrate during the day.

Fall Raptor Migration: What You Need to Know (with video)

Wrap Up

In short, raptors are everywhere. It’s just a matter of being aware to the shapes and movements around you. And owls are raptors, too. But they fly and hunt by night. Their calls and hoots give them away.

More on Birds of Prey

Bird of Prey Facts: What Makes a Raptor, a Raptor?

What Do Raptors (Birds of Prey) Eat?

Fall Raptor Migration: What You Need to Know (with video)

Owl Prowl: Great Horned Owls

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