Identifying flying birds of prey – Whistling kite

As a birdwatcher and an amateur photographer, I often have trouble identifying flying birds of prey. They are mostly far away, high in the sky or silhouetted against shiny grey clouds.

So how do I identify a flying Whistling Kite when it looks like this?

First of all, the Whistling Kite is a medium-sized bird of prey. It measures 50-55 cm from the head to the tip of the tail. It is found in Australia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. It is mostly seen flying over farmlands and woodlands near dams, swamps and rivers.


The wings are long and quite broad.  The primary feathers (the large flight feathers of the outer wings) are often held apart so they look like fingers.

The underwings (the undersides of the wings that are only visible when the bird is flying or stretching its wings) are dark brown with a distinctive paler ‘M’ shape on them. The legs of the ‘M’ don’t go to the ends of the wings: the farthest primary feathers from the body are dark brown. The leading edge (front edge) of the wing is mostly pale brown with streaking. The trailing edge (back edge) of the wing is mostly dark brown.

The upperwings are brown with a paler section on them. Younger birds have pale spots. The leading edge of the wing is mostly pale brown with streaking. The trailing edge of the wing is mostly dark brown.


The tail is long. It is a pale grey-brown colour. When the tail feathers are held together the tail forms a rounded shape.

When the tail feathers are spread out the tail forms a fan shape.

Head and body

The head is fairly small and the body is slender but rounded. The head, breast and belly are pale brown with streaks.

Legs and feet

The legs and feet are white-grey and do not have feathers on them. The Whistling Kite lowers its legs when it drops down to pick up prey.

Wing Rhythm

When the Whistling Kite is close to the ground, it flaps with slow wing-beats or glides holding its wings horizontally. The wings are bowed downwards at the tips.

When it is high in the sky it soars in slow circles. It doesn’t hover.


The Whistling Kite sometimes calls while flying. Its call is a long whistle, followed by four to six short notes.


The Whistling Kite flies in different ways at different times. When it is hunting, it circles close to the ground.

When it is courting, it may carry out spectacular aerial manoeuvres. The female may turn upside down in the air and present her talons to the male.

When it is nesting it carries sticks in its beak …

or talons.

Flock size

The Whistling Kite can be seen alone, or in pairs at breeding time. The female is the larger bird.

Whistling Kites gather in small groups if food is plentiful.

Whistling Kites are often chased by other birds, such as Australian Ravens.

I hope you feel inspired to look up and identify your own bird of prey. Good luck!

Australian daytime birds of prey

birds of prey