With the launch of the Hen Harrier Hotline and our harriers once again taking to the skies, community engagement officer, Roisin Beck Taylor, takes us through some of the birds that can be commonly mistaken for hen harriers and how to identify them.

Hen Harrier – Circus cyaneus

The hen harrier has many nicknames – one of the most common is ‘ghost of the moor’ and it is easy to see why. The male hen harrier’s grey plumage cuts a fine figure across the moorland landscape. Keep your eyes to the skies for their trademark skydancing acrobatics as we move into May and June.

Skydancing is a way for the male to attract a mate. He will fly high into the sky before plummeting to the ground and at the very last moment returning to flight in a gravity defying display.

Whilst our males are quite distinctive looking birds, you might also see a juvenile bird behaving in a similar way. The juvenile males look very similar to the female hen harrier, with checkerboard underwings, and brown and beige plumage. It is not until the juvenile male’s second or third summer that is gets its distinctive grey plumage.

Buzzard – Buteo buteo

This medium-sized bird of prey, with rounded wing tips is another raptor you might spot in the upland skies this spring. The broad wings are held in a shallow ‘V’ shape as it soars through the sky hunting. The buzzard can be found in a range of habitats, not just the uplands but also farmlands and woodland landscapes. The wide-ranging variation in the plumage colouring means that it can easily be mistaken for a hen harrier. However, the rounded wing tips and lack of distinctive barring on the underwings are helpful ways of differentiating from the hen harrier. It also has a tendency to hover on the moor unlike a hen harrier.

Lapwing – Vanellus vanellus

Often referred to as the peewit due to its distinctive display calls, lapwings are found on farmland across the UK, particularly in lowland areas of northern England, the Borders and eastern Scotland. When it is in flight, the lapwing has a deep elastic wing beat, but like the hen harrier it is a fast flyer with acrobatic displays. The smaller size of the lapwing in comparison to the hen harrier, as well as the dark upper side of the angular wings make it easy to differentiate between a male hen harrier and agile lapwing.

Short eared owl – Asio flammeus

The short-eared owl is unusual for its species, as it likes to hunt and fly about in the daytime. They tend to fly low over the upland landscape, as well as grasslands and saltmarshes. They are a similar size to a barn owl but with stiffer wings and nest on the ground in hollows lined with grass and feathers.

The distinctive yellow eyes are similar to the hen harrier, and the dark wing tips could easily be mistaken for the male harrier. The dark mascara around the eyes, and the mottled sandy-buff on top helps to identify the short-eared owl. 


If you think you might have seen a hen harrier, please make a note of the date, time and location. If you can note down a six-figure grid reference and a description of what the bird was doing that would help us monitor the bird. Sightings can be reported to henharriers@rspb.org.uk or you can call us on 0845 460 0121.

Please help us keep our birds safe this summer.