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Golden Eagle or Buzzard?

How to tell a Golden Eagle from a Buzzard
 
Photographer: Carl Reavey Photographer: Graham Wallace

Both are exciting and impressive in flight and soaring at a distance they can be confused. One way of telling them apart is size. The Golden Eagle with its wing span of six to seven feet is a huge bird of prey. The smaller Buzzard has a wing span of around four feet. If you see a distant bird of prey being mobbed by other birds like crows, ravens, and gulls and, in size, that bird absolutely dwarfs these birds then it is likely to be a Golden Eagle. In contrast the Buzzard is a more similar size to these species.

In addition, the Golden Eagle with its long broad wings and longish tail has a different outline to the smaller Buzzard which has rounded wings and a short neck and tail. (See illustrations) The Buzzard often perches on exposed telegraph poles and in trees. Its plumage can be very variable from pale to dark brown. Close up views are impressive.

 

Or this article from Walk Highlands website

Eagle or buzzard?

Locals who live in Scotlandís eagle hotspots sometimes refer to buzzards as Ďtourist eaglesí. Itís understandable, because of all the identification mix-ups in the natural world the buzzard/eagle confusion is a classic. Personally I attribute it to a combination of three things:

1. Some buzzards really are quite large.

2. People donít realise just how enormous eagles are.

3. People REALLY want to see an eagle.

Itís hard to gauge size when youíre staring up at something but eagles really are ENORMOUS. So enormous that their size makes you stop and stare as though youíve seen a pterodactyl flying overhead. The golden eagle has a huge 7ft wingspan, the white-tailed eagle has an insane 8ft wingspan, but the buzzard comes in at a mere 4ft. If in doubt just ask yourself, ďis that bird as wide as Darth Vader is tall?Ē

Another helpful feature is that both of the eagles have very long and obvious Ďfingersí (primary feathers) at the end of their enormous wings. Buzzards have Ďfingersí too but theyíre much shorter and, more often than not, are so close together that theyíre hidden from view.

Itís often said that if you have to stand and ponder whether or not a bird is an eagle, it probably isnít.

Golden or White-tailed?

After youíve successfully confirmed itís an eagle and not a buzzard your troubles are only just beginning Iím afraid, because telling Scotlandís two species of eagle apart can be frustratingly difficult.

montage

Youíd think the names might get you started but sadly not. Golden eagles arenít necessarily golden, white-tailed eagles donít necessarily have white tails, and Ďsea eaglesí are sometimes seen in the mountains.

Add to that the plumage differences between adults and juveniles and the fact that some golden eagles are coastal birds, and youíve got something of a challenge on your hands. Donít despair, though, because they are different in appearance.

The sightings most of us are likely to get are those either from afar or from below. Silhouettes and profiles rather than close-ups in full colour. In those circumstances the size and outline of the wings and tail are the best things to go by.

White-tailed eagles are sometimes called Ďflying barn doorsí because of their starkly rectangular shape. Golden eagles ≠have a similarly impressive silhouette but it doesnít look so plank-like. Itís got more curves to it and the wings arenít as broad.

Golden eagles have small heads relative to their longer tails, while white-tailed eagles have large heads relative to their shorter, usually diamond-shaped tails.


whitetailed

Another reliable thing to look for is the angle the wings are held at when the birds are soaring. White-tailed eagles hold their wings flat in an almost straight line whereas golden eagles soar with their wings raised into a slight V-shape.

Bear in mind that these are only very general guidelines, as an eagleís appearance and outline can change depending on what itís doing. There are plenty of other things to look for, and this handy and brief picture guide from the RSPB neatly sums up the differences between eagles and buzzards.

If after a sighting youíre still unsure about what you saw, thereís no shame in falling back on the opinions of people more proficient or experienced than you. I certainly donít hesitate to do so, as eagles arenít things I see every day! Becoming proficient at any wildlife identification requires regular practice, and thatís not something most of us can expect to get with creatures as relatively scarce as eagles.

Many thanks to wildlife artist Karen Hartnell for her valuable insights about eagle identification.

 

 

 

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