Identifying Eagles

Any encounter with a bird of prey is pretty special, but to witness the sheer strength and power of an apex predator like the eagle is something else altogether. Scotland is home to both of the U. K’s eagles; the white-tailed eagle (sea eagle) and the golden eagle. The thought of encountering an eagle is usually pretty high on most wildlife watchers lists and is a great reason to visit Scotland. Sightings of sea eagles are becoming more frequent on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and we have been lucky enough to witness a few eagle flybys here at the campsite. Trying to figure out which eagle you have spotted though is a challenge in itself.

One of the first noticeable differences between both eagles is the size. The white-tailed eagle is the UK’S largest bird of prey (and the fourth largest eagle in the world) with a pretty impressive 8ft wingspan. That’s not to say the golden eagle, whose wingspan is a little shorter at 7ft, is any less impressive of course. There are variations in size within each species, females typically being larger than the males, but as a rule of thumb the white-tailed eagle weighs in as the bigger of the two. Whilst we are talking about size it is worth mentioning the buzzard, who is often mistaken for an eagle because of it’s similar broad wing shape and ‘finger tips’. The buzzard, however, is much smaller, it’s wingspan is only around 4ft making for quite a sizeable difference. It’s all very well talking about the different sizes of each bird but if you don’t see them next to each other then it might not be much help so it’s a good idea to get to know some of their other distinguishing features.

The shape of both eagles is quite different and knowing which is which may be the key to a successful ID. Especially if the light conditions aren’t great or you find yourself staring towards the sun at a massive silhouette. Or if the eagle is very far away, which is probably quite likely. The golden eagle’s wings tend to be narrower especially at the body, giving a more curved effect. You could say they look more elegant in comparison to the almost rectangular, straight edged wings of the white-tailed eagle. Perhaps that’s where it got the nickname ‘the flying barn door'. Be aware that both eagles do have prominent primary feathers which look like outstretched fingers on the wing tip, and that the wing shapes can also look quite similar depending on the angle of flight. That’s not particularly helpful when you’re trying to figure out what you’re looking at but don’t worry, there are a few more options that may help.

The tail shapes are a helpful clue and good to know because you can’t always rely on sea eagles having that prominent white tail, especially if the bird you are trying to ID turns out to be a juvenile. Try and have a look at the size and shape of the tail. Is it short and wedge shaped? If yes, then that may indicate you are looking at a white-tailed eagle. If it’s longer with a more curved in appearance, then the chances are it’s a golden eagle.

Head size is also worth taking into consideration, especially if the eagle is within a good viewing distance. Again, the white-tailed sea eagle is slightly bulkier in this department, especially the beak size.  If you are lucky enough to get a clear view in good lighting then the beak can be one of the most identifiable features, the golden eagle doesn’t have a bright yellow beak like an adult sea eagle, instead it is a lot darker in colour.

Eagles, whilst big, tend to be quite shy. So, the eagle like bird you saw watching you from a telegraph pole or field fence was more than likely a buzzard. Buzzards share similar habitats to eagles and as previously mentioned have a similar wing shape to the eagles, plus female buzzards can get pretty big in size (not quite eagle big though), so it is easy to be mistaken. If you have spotted a big bird flying into view, then have a good look at it’s flight style. Buzzards look like they are trying harder than eagles. There are more wingbeats and less gliding; an eagle makes flying look effortless.

So, to sum it up; the sea eagle is larger, with a bigger head, yellow beak, straighter wings and shorter wedge-shaped tail. The golden eagle is slightly smaller, with a darker beak, narrower wings and a longer curved tail. Buzzards are a lot smaller but bolder and don’t soar quite as easily as the eagles.

If you can, then take a photo so that you can check it against different id guides; the RSPB have great id guides for the golden eagle, the white tailed eagle and the buzzard. If it’s a real struggle to ID, then just stop and relish the fact you are witnessing one of the U. K’s top predators in its stunning wild home. To behold the majesty of such an impressive creature is a memorable experience and one that will hopefully stay with you for a long time. You can always practice your ID skills on your next eagle encounters.


Thank you to Jeff Lack for the stunning Sea Eagle photo. Text by Jeni Bell