Birds of Prey: How to Find and Photograph Raptors
Birds of prey are found in a wide range of habitats, from coasts to mountain tops, and some species are also commonly found in and around urban areas. As their name suggests, they are hunters and prey on other birds, mammals, reptiles, and even large insects. Like all predators, their distribution is linked to the availability of prey, so wherever there is a plentiful supply of food for them and their off-spring, you’ll likely find these specialist birds.
Whilst the distribution of birds of prey may be widespread, their numbers are far lower than with other bird species. This is largely determined by the abundance of prey, but also by the available nesting sites, as well as factors of disturbance from people and human activities. Therefore, to find and photograph raptors you need to understand the animals in question.
Birds of prey that you can photograph
In the UK, our most abundant bird of prey is the Common Buzzard, which can be found right across the country. They are highly visible birds, often seen perched on posts by the roadside or soaring over woodland and open grassland searching for prey.
By contrast, the White-tailed Eagle is one of our most rare species and is restricted mainly to coastal sites in northern Scotland, with just over 100 pairs now breeding after a successful re-introduction programme that began in the 1970s. Despite their rarity, they are a huge bird and so photographing them is not as difficult as with species that are more secretive such as the Goshawk.
Other species found in the UK that you might encounter include:
- Kestrels – often seen hovering over roadside verges.
- Sparrowhawks – a woodland predator but also a regular garden visitor on the look-out for an easy meal around the bird table.
- Red Kites – now quite common in some parts of the country as a result of re-introductions and very visible, spending a lot of their time soaring over open ground.
- Osprey – a fish-eating migrant found mainly in Scotland.
- Marsh Harrier – nests in reedbeds including those on several RSPB reserves such as Titchwell and Minsmere.
- Peregrine – now regularly breeding in town and cities.
- Golden Eagle – only found in remote parts of Scotland, but with patience and luck can be photographed in flight at locations such as the Isle of Mull.
Then there are the owl species and whilst some of these are nocturnal, others are diurnal meaning that they are active in daylight (most often in the early morning or evening). Barn Owl, Little Owl and Short-eared Owl are all species that hunt by day and all can be photographed with some knowledge of their preferred habitats.
Read more: How to Photograph Short-eared Owls
As with most species, doing your homework first to find out where and when to find the bird of prey in question will pay dividends in the long run. There is loads of information on the internet, as well as through organisations such as the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Raptor Study Groups.
How to find birds of prey for photography
There are a number of ways to photograph birds of prey. Some will require a very specific approach, perhaps involving a long-term baiting project, whilst for others an opportunistic approach can be taken.
Always having a camera and long lens combination set-up ready to shoot, whilst out walking or driving through the countryside, is a good idea. Personally, I tend to be more pro-active and typically target one species with a specific approach to increase my chances of success.
1. Setting up feeding stations for wildlife photography
One approach is to set up a feeding station. For example, for buzzards, by putting out food regularly at a specific spot over a period of time it is possible to attract them to an area. This is easy to do so long as you have access and permission from the land-owner.
Read more: How to Build a Photography Hide
Autumn through to early spring is a good time for this as it can be a more difficult time for birds of prey to find food, especially in frosty or snowy weather. They are also less territorial outside of the breeding season, so you have a better chance of attracting more birds to your site.
The bait you put out will also last longer in cooler weather. I use road-kill – rabbits and pheasants mostly – that I find locally and bag up and freeze so that I have a ready supply when needed. You may want to invest in a second-hand freezer though, to keep them separate from the frozen peas!
Essential Reading: The Ethical Guide to Wildlife Photography
Choose a site where there is a good population of buzzards and possibly other scavengers such as Red Kites. You’ll need somewhere that isn’t going to get disturbed, and a site where you can set up a hide. This ideally needs to be left in position for weeks, if not months, at a time so that visiting birds become accustomed to its presence.
A semi-permanent wooden hide works well for this if you plan to leave it for a long period. Alternatively there are commercially available portable hides that can be staked securely in place that would work just as well.
You’ll also need to consider the background to your shots, which should be as uncluttered as possible. It’s usually best to avoid the sky, although this can work well if its blue but is not so great on grey days. Together with the backdrop to your images, the lighting is equally as important and so you’ll need to think about how the site will be lit at different times for the day, and whether any surrounding trees might cast annoying shadows across the site (especially in winter when the sun is much lower in the sky). Also consider whether you want to shoot conventionally with front-lighting, or to try a more creative approach using back-lighting.
Think about “props,” too. Perches placed near the bait will often be used before or after the bird comes into feed, and these can offer some great opportunities for shots of birds landing and taking off, as well as preening after a feed.
2. Using public sites
If this kind of long-term project isn’t for you, then consider visiting nature reserves. Many RSPB and Wildlife Trusts reserves will have visiting birds of prey, and many have public hides which you can visit for free if you are a member or for a small charge if not.
It’s certainly worth checking out local reserves and spending some time in the hides to see what’s around, as well as chatting to other birdwatchers and photographers to find out what they’ve seen. Often a particular hide may be more productive than others, and also the time of year may be critical, so arm yourself with as much information as possible.
Other locations may be regularly used by birds of prey too. These include favoured hunting grounds for species such as Barn and Short-eared Owl, or they may be a stop-over for migratory birds like Osprey and Hobby. Again, local knowledge is key, but it’s possible to sign up for updates on bird sightings in your area as well as checking birding websites.
3. Commercial wildlife photography hides
Whilst public sites can be more hit and miss, there are now a number of sites that have been set-up specifically to photograph birds of prey. These range from just £20-£30, to £200 or more for the more difficult species such as golden eagle.
One of the first and best value that has been attracting photographers for several decades is Gigrin Farm in Wales. Here there is a suite of hides overlooking a field where red kites and buzzards are fed daily, attracting sometimes over 500 birds. It is a phenomenal site and provides some brilliant opportunities for flight shots. You can just turn up on the day or book in advance if you want a space in one of the dedicated photo hides.
More hides: Osprey photography in the Cairngorms, Scotland
Other species that can be photographed at commercial sites include Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Little owl, Osprey, and even Golden Eagle. There are also a couple of operators now offering boats trips to photograph White-tailed Eagle on the isles of Mull and Skye. These are very successful, with the eagles coming within close range of the boat as they dive down to grab fish provided for them.
The benefit of these commercial sites and operators is that they are specifically set-up for photography and have been established over a period of time. There are never any guarantees of course, but the majority are run by experienced photographers who know their subject and where you stand a very good chance of success.
Some of these can be expensive, but with the work and time that goes into setting these sites up it is fully justified in most cases. Check out Nature TTL’s Photo Travel Hub to discover workshops around the UK (and the rest of the world).
4. Photographing birds of prey at nest sites
Photographing any bird at the nest usually requires a specialist approach, and should only be conducted if you are experienced and are confident that you won’t be causing any disturbance. In order to photograph most birds of prey in the UK, it is a legal requirement to obtain a Schedule 1 photography licence from Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales, or Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
More information: Understanding Schedule 1 Licenses for Bird Photography
If you do undertake this kind of photography, then its typical practice to wait until the chicks are of a suitable size before starting. Due to the sensitive nature of most species, it is often necessary to use a hide (this would be a condition of a Schedule 1 licence) which is introduced at an appropriate distance from the nest (50m – 100m at first) and gradually moved closer over a period of days.
This should be done in warm, dry weather so that the chicks don’t get cold whilst the parent is away. It is also a requirement to work in pairs when visiting the hide for photography. A process often referred to as “seeing in and out,” whereby two people approach the hide with one entering and the other walking away. Most birds can’t count (corvids are an exception), so when they see someone walking away they believe the hide is empty.
This needs to be repeated when leaving the hide, since suddenly emerging will spook most birds and they may become very suspicious of the hide and nervous to return to the nest.
5. Urban nesters
One exception to this approach are situations where birds are nesting in urban areas, and the most obvious species that does this is the peregrine falcon. These specialist aerial predators have, in some cases, swapped their traditional cliff nest sites for an urban one, using ledges on tall buildings to raise their chicks on a ready supply of prey – notably pigeons.
Here you can simply find yourself a good viewpoint and wait for the birds to swoop past as they fly to and from their nest. The action increases once the juveniles are on the wing, flying towards their parents and taking food from them in mid-air.
6. Being the opportunist
Chances are you’ll have seen some birds of prey either in or around your own garden, or within the local area. This is likely to be the more abundant species such as Buzzards, Kestrels and Sparrowhawks. Both buzzards and kestrels are commonly seen hunting or perched up near roads and, whilst it’s not advisable to pull over on the hard shoulder of the motorway to take pictures, it is possible to utilise lay-bys and other safe parking spots on minor roads where you may be able to photograph using your vehicle as a mobile hide.
Birds of prey are species of habit, so find out where they like to hunt or perch and park up in anticipation of them showing up. Early and late in the day, when it is quieter, can be the best options. Kestrels will also hunt in a systematic fashion, moving gradually along a verge and hovering to spy out small mammals. Position yourself ahead of the bird and wait for it to work its way towards you. Stay in the car though, otherwise the bird will clock you and change direction.
Sparrowhawks are regular garden visitors, swooping over hedges and fences in the hope of surprising an unsuspecting bird. If you have bird feeders, chances are you’ll also attract sparrowhawks.
They often just fly through, but will sometimes perch and occasionally they’ll catch something; it pays to keep your camera close at hand so you can capitalise on the opportunity. A sparrowhawk with prey may be reluctant to fly off with it, especially if it’s a large bird like a dove or pigeon.
In such a situation it will choose to pluck and eat it in situ if undisturbed. The trick here is to keep noise and movement to a minimum as you get into position. You may be able to creep around the other side of the house, or use suitable cover to keep yourself concealed. Staying low and, ideally, laying down is recommended – this helps you get onto the eye-level of your subject.
If possible you could open a window or door (shooting through double glazing is okay but the results will be a little soft), but keep your head down and don’t make any sudden movements. Restricting the camera’s drive mode to single shot or short bursts, as well as selecting quiet mode (if you have it) will also help.
There are many other ways of photographing birds of prey that include at pools – to see them drinking and bathing – as well as on migration routes, but hopefully this provides an insight into some of the ways that you can tackle this impressive and photogenic group of birds.