Birds of Prey on the Dunes

Emma Waldron

Birds of prey play an important role in our ecosystems and are key characters in many of our typical countryside scenes - from tawny owls twit-twooing deep in a woodland to buzzards soaring over sunny fields. But have you ever thought of birds of prey being a part of our sand dunes?

Thanks to the diverse range of habitats found in and around our dunes, many of the UK’s bird of prey species can be found all along our coastlines. Here’s our handy guide to help identify them.

A large brown bird of prey flies with wings outstretched against the blue sky

Common buzzard

Buteo buteo

Buzzards are our most common bird of prey and can often be seen soaring high in the skies. They’re medium-sized with broad, rounded wings, a short tail and are mainly brown in colour.

Buzzards will often be seen with their wings held in a slight v-shape and their tails fanned wide, circling on an invisible thermal. You can see them all year round, but particularly during the breeding season in late spring and early summer – listen out for their mewing call!

Widespread in the UK

All year round, day time

A small brown bird of prey hovers over a grassy field


Falco tinnunculus

Kestrels belong to the falcon family and can be identified by their pointed wings and long tail. Unlike most of the UK’s birds of prey, males and females can be distinguished by their markings. Females (pictured) are chestnut brown all over with mottled chests, whilst males have blue-grey tails and heads.

They hunt by hovering over grassland, scanning the ground below for signs of rodents. You can see kestrels all year round but particularly on dry days in areas with grass and scrubland.

Widespread in the UK

All year round, day time

A pale owl hovers over a grassy field looking at the ground

Barn owl

Tyto alba

With their heart shaped faces and pale feathers, barn owls are one of the most recognizable owl species. They’re often seen quartering farmland looking for prey but will hunt in most grassland areas.

They’re best spotted at dawn and dusk but can be seen during the day, particularly during the winter months. Look out for them flying silently above the long grass or sat surveying the area from a fence post.

Widespread, South Walney, Cumbria

All year round, dawn and dusk

A black and cream bird sits on a rock, looking at the camera

Peregrine falcon

Falco peregrinus

Peregrines are the fastest animal on the planet, clocking speeds of up to 240mph in a stoop. They nest on rocky outcrops of cliffs and can be seen flying over sand dunes on their way to hunt.

Keep an eye on the skies for their sharp silhouette – long, broad pointed wings and a relatively short tail. They have cream and black barred chests, black heads and cheeks and steely-blue/black wings and back.

All year round, day time

A brown owl in flight with a grey sky and sea in the background

Short-eared owl

Asio flammeus

Short-eared owls are one of the UK’s more elusive owl species. They’re mainly found in northern England and Scotland but can been seen throughout the south of England during winter as European birds migrate for the colder months.

Short-eared owls have large, round faces and yellow eyes, rimmed with black markings. Their bodies are buff brown with streaked chests and mottled backs. Like barn owls, they can be seen flying low over grasslands, moorlands and salt marshes looking for small rodents. Look out for them at dawn or dusk, or during the day in the winter months.

Winter, dawn and dusk

A brown and cream bird stands on a rock with a green plant in the foreground


Accipiter nisus

Sparrowhawks are found throughout the UK and Ireland, except for the highlands of Scotland. They’re often painted as the ‘bully of the bird feeder’ as they hunt small birds in gardens and urban settings – but they can still be found on our dunes, especially ones with woodland close by.

Sparrowhawks are another species that vary in colour by sex - the females are mainly brown and cream with bared chests and tails (pictured), whereas the males are slate-grey with orange cheeks and chests.

Widespread, The Towans, Cornwall

All year round, day time

A small black and cream bird sits in the foreground with grass in the background
Image credit: Emma Waldron


Falco subbuteo

Hobbies are a migratory falcon species and can be seen throughout England and parts of Wales in the summer months. They’re similar in size to a kestrel but look almost like a very large swift when flying.  They have grey-black heads, backs and wings, dark mottled chests and red ‘trousers’.

Hobbies mainly hunt large insects and small birds with a darting flight style. They can be found over heathland and grassland and other areas that attract large insects, such as dragonflies over small ponds and dune slack pools.

A large reddish bird of prey with wings outstretched against a blue sky

Red kite

Milvus milvus

The red kite has started to flourish after being reintroduced and can now be found in central and southern England, most of Wales and parts of Scotland. It’s a large bird of prey with a wingspan of 1.5m (5 foot) and a famously forked tail. They have reddish brown feathers with darker streaks, a pale head and dark finger-like feathers at the tips of their wings. They can often be seen circling on thermals, high above grasslands, like buzzards.

All year round, day time

A large brown bird of prey flying with wings outstretched. There are trees and blue sky in the background
A male marsh harrier

These are some of the most common birds of prey you can find on our dunes but depending on where you visit, there’s lots of other species to see. If you’re visiting Lincolnshire, keep a look out for little owls and hen harriers at Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe; merlins can be seen in Cornwall at The Towans; and marsh harriers and long-eared owls can be seen in Oxwich in Gower.

Comms officer Emma Waldron sits smiling on a rock by the coast

About the Author

Emma Waldron
Communications Officer, Dynamic Dunescapes

After studying wildlife ecology and conservation at university, I joined the world of communications via zoos and spent a few years working in bird of prey conservation, before joining the Dynamic Dunescapes project. I'm passionate about connecting people with stories and knowledge that'll empower them to make a difference and learn more about our natural world.