A response from the CRC to queries raised by Nick Rossiter in relation to the findings of a review of Northumberland Honey Buzzard records 1984-2003


Given the difficult and potentially controversial nature of the Honey Buzzard review it was the CRC’s original intention to provide the NTBC committee with a written account of the rationale for and methods used in that review. As Nick Rossiter (hereafter BNR) has tabled an item on the review for a forthcoming NTBC committee meeting, has requested answers to several specific points and made available to the committee our private communication with him on the methods used and conclusions drawn we hope that the following answers to his queries will serve to fulfil our intention of keeping the NTBC committee informed.

Our responses to BNR’s specific queries are given below and are followed by appendices in which additional relevant information, including correspondence referred to in the queries, is presented.

1. What technical criteria were adopted for judging records?

Claims of Honey Buzzards were accepted when convincing written or photographic evidence was presented that the salient features of the species had been seen, i.e. structural features combined with plumage characters such as tail pattern. Contrary to some written statements by BNR we do not consider plumage features to be difficult to see in the field in the typical viewing conditions found in Britain as we have independently confirmed their visibility in field studies of this species (and Oriental Honey Buzzard) in heavily wooded contexts and varying light conditions in Europe, Africa and Asia, both prior to and during the course of the review. We place less faith in claims which are solely reliant on subjective assessments of shape, flight action or behaviour and, based upon our own experience of the species, would expect most reasonable field views of this species to reveal salient plumage features. We are naturally cautious when multiple claims are made in which no salient plumage features are noted or when photographic support provided appears to show a different species to the one claimed.

Honey Buzzard is a rare species in Northumberland, requiring full notes to be submitted, and we therefore apply the same rigour to its assessment as we would when assessing claims of any rare species.

2. What was the percentage acceptance of records previously a) accepted and b) rejected?

Percentage of previously accepted records now remaining accepted = 35.8%

Percentage of previously rejected records now accepted = 0%

(see appendix 4 for a more thorough summary of the review findings)

3. What pattern can be associated with these percentages?

Most, but not all, inland records (including all breeding records) are now felt to be insufficiently well documented to be acceptable; most, but not all, coastal/near coastal records remain accepted. No previously rejected records are now considered acceptable

4. Who were the four ex-CRC members involved in the review?

A. Curry, M. S. Hodgson, S. T. Holliday, S. Sexton.

The four members of the ‘tier 2’ assessment process were not involved with any records of birds in breeding habitat and were only asked to assess claims when we were unable to reach a unanimous (4:0) decision during an initial CRC assessment. A total of eight records were passed on to ‘tier 2’ and when these were returned to the CRC, with their votes attached, a further vote of the CRC was taken and the majority view (i.e. out of eight votes in total) was followed. In all eight cases the claims were found to be not proven and this view was supported by a clear majority in both tiers of assessment.

5. Did any members of CRC who might be said to have an interest in the outcome of the review have a voice in the review?

Yes. By definition all members of the CRC had an interest in the outcome of the review. The purpose of serving on the CRC is to ensure that the recording of scarce and rare birds in the county is rigorously undertaken in order to ensure that patterns of occurrence are accurately reflected in the published record. This is particularly true in the case of Honey Buzzards as these are potentially rare breeding birds of national importance and therefore also have conservation significance. If by this question it is being suggested that any members of the CRC had some sort of vested interest in the outcome of the review then the answer is categorically no.

Of those members of the CRC who have previously submitted and had accepted records of Honey Buzzard in the past (three individuals), all have had at least one record rejected during the review, all agreed that the descriptions submitted were not sufficiently well documented for the records to remain accepted. One member of the CRC had previously had a Honey Buzzard claim rejected and on review this claim was still regarded as not proven.

6. Was any attempt made to contact international experts (say Bijlsma, Forsman)?

No, at least not by the CRC.

For the sake of completeness we present here summary details of both solicited and unsolicited correspondence relating to the identification and breeding of Honey Buzzards in Northumberland and the reasons why a review was felt to be necessary.

The opinions of respected British Honey Buzzard workers (one from Wales & two from Scotland) were sought by the CRC, primarily in relation to the evidence presented that breeding had occurred and the typical behaviour of birds in breeding territories. Another Honey Buzzard worker in Kent supplied details of the typical behaviour of breeding birds throughout the breeding season. A bird sound analyst was contacted for comments on the Honey Buzzard sound files on BNR’s website. It should be stated though, that the latter referred to data that had not been formally submitted to the CRC, and that while the comments received were interesting (and the CRC were made aware of them), they did not play any part in the review which was close to completion before these comments were received. The comments received about the sound files gave us no cause to believe that our overall conclusions required any adjustment.

The views of acknowledged international experts were sought by others and these views were made known to the CRC. The opinion of Dick Forsman was sought independently by Andrew Rowlands (hereafter AR) regarding the identification of the birds presented on BNR’s website and these views were reported on the Birdforum discussion group. Steve Holliday independently sought the opinion of Clive Finlayson on Gibraltar regarding the identity of the birds presented on the website and these opinions were passed onto the CRC with his permission. Copies of the relevant international correspondence are presented in appendix 1.

Unsolicited opinions were presented to us directly by a number of British observers who had viewed the images on BNR’s website (and were concerned about the identification of the birds shown there) and indirectly, via Birdforum, where both British and overseas contributions to the debate were aired.

The review was initiated in response to the presentation of images to the CRC of birds claimed to be Honey Buzzards in breeding situations which we felt did not conform to the expected appearance of the species based upon our own experience with Honey Buzzards in life and in numerous (100+) reference photographs. The decision to undertake a review was therefore made prior to any outside comments being received, or the onset of the debates on Birdforum. We could have confined the review to just the disputed breeding birds but felt that because we were unsure about how widespread the problems of misidentification might be, or how much consistency existed in the past assessment of records, it was better to review them all.

With regard to identification, although we felt that all of the informed comments received were of great interest, and closely reflected our own independently formulated views, they did not influence our objective decisions which were based on all of the available submitted evidence rather than the potentially incomplete evidence on which others may have based their judgements. Many of the comments made about images on BNR’s website concerned individuals that were photographed after the review period – only about one third of the birds currently presented there actually fall within the review period, or outside Northumberland. We still remain uncertain of the identity of many of the images submitted to the CRC and those presented on BNR’s website, the quality of some of the images does not, in our view, allow for precise identification.

With regard to the assessment of breeding records, we were glad to be able to draw on the valuable comments of experienced raptor workers who knew far more about the typical breeding behaviour of Honey Buzzards than us and were able to guide our decisions about what represents proof of breeding by this species

7. What was the result of any such approaches?

See 6 (above) and appendix 1 where the full texts of correspondence from Dick Forsman and Clive Finlayson are presented.

8. Has my very detailed report on methods adopted in the Honey Buzzard survey and results for 2002 (sent you July 2003 at your request) been circulated to CRC members and Steve Roberts and David Jardine?

Yes, but only to the CRC. This document was labelled ‘confidential’ so it would have been inappropriate to show it to anyone outside the CRC.

9. Was my response to Steve Roberts’ comments circulated to the CRC? In particular were the CRC aware of the major inconsistencies between his talk at Penrith and the material in his letter?

Yes, this response was circulated to the CRC.

With regard to the alleged inconsistencies, we felt that these were largely the result of the differing contexts in which the comments were made (a view expressed by Steve Roberts, hereafter SJR, himself), we would not characterise these inconsistencies as ‘major’, nor do we regard them as consequential in the context of the overall review as our conclusions, although largely coinciding with those of Roberts and others, were independently derived. For reference, copies of the relevant correspondence are provided in appendix 2.

10. Exactly what material was reviewed by Steve Roberts and David Jardine? Steve Roberts mentions an early version of my website, David Jardine mentions the textual descriptions.

During the course of the review SJR and David Jardine (hereafter DCJ) were both sent copies of all the records (including copies of the photographs) that referred to birds in claimed breeding locations. DCJ also saw the letter from SJR et al (requesting the County Recorder – hereafter CR - to review assessment procedures of Honey Buzzards, particularly with regard to breeding records) and BNR’s reply to this (see appendix 2.1 and 2.2).

11. The comments by David Jardine encouraged a positive way forward whereby the SW Raptor Group should be given time to find nests and other evidence for breeding through our disturbance permits, which were first granted last summer. Why has this approach not been followed?

This approach will be followed, it cannot be retrospectively applied unless evidence is provided that nests have previously been found. If evidence of breeding is presented in the future we will naturally examine this on its merits. Similarly, if new and relevant information is provided that breeding has occurred in the past we will also look at that on its merits. For reference, DCJ’s letter containing these comments is presented in full in appendix 3 where he makes it clear that, in his considered opinion, for a breeding record to be confirmed a nest must be found, this is the approach to the recording of confirmed breeding records, past or present, that we propose to follow.

12. David Jardine thought it likely that some of the descriptions of mine were valid. Why has this not been mentioned in the report of the review?

A report of the review has not actually been written so we are unsure how the conclusion that we have failed to mention DCJ’s views in it has been reached. Nor are we sure why any reference to DCJ’s views, or those of anyone else, on this subject ought to be included in such a report. The full text of DCJ’s email is presented in appendix 3 where he offers a very measured assessment of the difficulties posed by BNR’s claims, and the public controversy surrounding them, and admits that he has not come to a firm conclusion about whether none, all or some of BNR’s claims are the result of misidentification. In fact DCJ deliberately refrains from entering the debate on the identification of individual birds and focussed instead on wider recording issues.

DCJ was not alone in feeling that some of BNR’s descriptions/ photographs possibly referred to Honey Buzzards, we felt so too; not all of BNR’s Honey Buzzard claims were rejected during the review and many of those that were found not to be acceptable simply didn’t contain enough relevant detail for us to come to a favourable conclusion. A complicating factor was the fact that some convincing sounding descriptions of this species accompanied photographs that, in our considered opinion, were not actually of Honey Buzzards.

13. David Jardine also cast doubts on the methods adopted by the CRC:

The weaknesses of providing written descriptions and their review have been tested by this situation particularly where the review team (i.e. the N&TBC Records Committee) is perhaps less involved in raptors … than the observer. Therefore it will be right in due course to ask the N&TBC and the Records Committee to review what lessons can be learnt from the case”. “I am happy for this email to be circulated to various parties and I hope that all find it a useful contribution to helping resolve this issue in a scientific manner. I have copied it direct to Nick for his information”. Why has the CRC ignored this advice?

We would not agree that any advice offered by DCJ has been ignored, quite the contrary in fact. Some of DCJ’s comments appear to have been taken out of context here (see appendix 3 for a copy of his full email). Nor would we agree that DCJ casts doubts on the methods adopted by the CRC. DCJ comments on the general problem of assessing records based solely on written descriptions; as experienced record assessors we are more aware than most of the difficulties of assessing written descriptions but we can only work from the information presented to us. A distinction needs to be drawn between the assessment of identification and the assessment of whether breeding has occurred as these are two quite different subjects, although the latter is clearly related to the former.

Having contacted DCJ for clarification, he has stated that part of his purpose in making these comments was to suggest that it would be a worthwhile action to draw up a list of species and contexts in which it was suitable to seek outside assistance in assessing records. The CRC agrees with this view and will be working on such a document, particularly focussing on the kinds of evidence required to confirm that breeding has occurred for certain species. In the case of Honey Buzzards, for example, this will require the discovery of a nest and for this to be independently corroborated, this is based on the advice of DCJ in his original email (see point 11 and appendix 3).

14. Is the CRC aware that another observer has independently been studying breeding Honey Buzzards in SW Northumberland under a disturbance permit? This person is a friend of Andrew Rowlands – hence Andrew’s admission on Bird Forum recently that he knows Honey Buzzards are breeding in Northumberland from information on my web site and from other information.

Yes, the CRC are aware that such a permit had been granted, this was mentioned by BNR in his letter of 24/04/2004, for example (see appendix 2.2). However, unless the person involved in this research provides evidence to the CRC that he or she has actually found a nest and has been studying breeding Honey Buzzards in Northumberland there is not a lot we can do about it as we can only base our decisions on the evidence presented to us. So far we are not aware that anyone in possession of a disturbance permit has come across a Honey Buzzard nest in the county.

We would be delighted if someone was able to confirm beyond doubt that Honey Buzzards are breeding in the county but this would not allow us to retrospectively accept breeding records when the evidence presented so far to support this is, in our view, insufficient to confirm thatthe birds had been 1) identified correctly or 2) definitely breeding.

We are, of course, willing to examine any relevant additional information from previous years that may not yet have been presented to us, i.e. new photographs that clearly show Honey Buzzards, firm evidence that nests existed etc…

We have checked all of the correspondence on Birdforum and believe that the following comments from AR are probably what BNR is referring too:

I don't have a problem believing there are HB's breeding in Northumberland; there seems to be enough evidence on one website to make me think that they must be breeding there. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of identification mistakes made on that site (with buzzards and falcons); this does make things very confusing for someone with little experience of these species.

. (dated 04/04/2005)


1. I am sure that Nick has both Hobbies and HB breeding in the N.E. of England. There seems to be enough evidence, both on his site and elsewhere, to support this.

2. Unfortunately, some of the photographs (and the video footage) do not support his claims - they are of too poor a quality or are simply of the wrong species.

3. I too have grave doubts regarding the Hobby photographs; the habitat, time of year and the photographs themselves all lean towards Merlin.

(dated 23/10/2004)

In order to clarify the situation with regard to BNR’s comment that AR ‘knows’ that Honey Buzzards are breeding in the county and the role of his ‘friend’, we have contacted AR and he has replied as follows (non-relevant parts of this email, directing us to certain overseas images on BNR’s website which AR regards as obvious Common Buzzards, have been removed):

Hi Ian

I'll be brief - this has gone on long enough.

I have no idea who Nick is referring to; I know no-one, friend or
acquaintance, working with or studying  raptors, anywhere in
Northumberland or indeed, anywhere in northeast England that I am aware of.
I believe that Honey Buzzard are breeding in the NE of England - based on
my understanding of the audio recordings and of the description on Nick's
site of calls made at the nest site and the photographs of probable Honey
Buzzards. IF these are genuine field notes and recordings made in the
reported area!

I hope I've answered your queries; feel free to contact me again if you
need to.


Andy (received by email in 23/04/2005)

AR was the originator of the first Birdforum thread discussing the identification of the birds presented on BNR’s website. For reference, the links to two separate threads on Birdforum in which Northumberland Honey Buzzards are discussed are:



15. What is the CRC reaction to the recent letter in British Birds by Rob Clements, quoting a significant Honey Buzzard population in Cumbria and the occurrence of many more pairs in northern and western Britain?

We are not sure what relevance this question has to the Honey Buzzard review.

As already stated, we do not doubt that Honey Buzzards could, or even should, be breeding in Northumberland, we just haven’t been provided with any evidence that convinces us of this yet.

What was also interesting in this letter, and in the letter by SJR et al (see appendix 2.1), was the reference to substantial numbers of non-breeding immature Honey Buzzards being present in Britain each summer which, in turn, means that a particularly rigorous approach is needed when establishing whether breeding has actually occurred, i.e. we feel that at least the first confirmed breeding of this nationally rare species ought to be supported by firm evidence that a nest actually exists, as suggested by DCJ in his letter (see point 11 and appendix 3).

Also, as some juveniles are known, through satellite tracking, to disperse over quite long distances (30km at least) from the nest prior to migrating (so that, in theory, a Cumbrian bred juvenile could take up temporary residence in Northumberland) we do not consider that records of juveniles in autumn present proof of breeding, even in areas where adults or adult-like immature birds may have been seen earlier in the season.

In order to clarify the status of this species in Cumbria, Rob Clements was contacted, the relevant paragraph of his reply is copied below:

Hi Ian,

In my BB letter I refer to a substantial population in Wales and Cumbria. I can only use as examples those counties (countries!) where the presence of HB has been published, since I don't want to give away locations where their presence is still kept secret. So I lumped in Wales and Cumbria together as typical of Western Britain, where HB were traditionally thought to be absent. In fact, I'm told the Cumbria population is only a handful of pairs (one ot two confirmed breeding at one site: a few other sightings from other areas of suitable habitat). So, there could be anything between one and five pairs present. In Wales, there is a considerably larger population; probably best that I don't mention a specific figure. Needless to say, the presence of HB in these areas doesn't mean that there HAS to be a population of one, two, twenty or more pairs in Northumberland. My position on HB in Northumberland remains the same; it would be surprising if there were not a few summering/breeding birds in such a large well-wooded county, but I have neither seen or heard of  any evidence of either category, especially not from Nick Rossiter's web-site.

best wishes

Rob Clements (from email received 25/04/2005)

Rob Clements was a co-signatory of the SJR et al letter calling for a review/ rejection of the Northumberland breeding records (see appendix 2.1).

16. How many records of Honey Buzzard were received by the County Recorder last year and not passed on for publication in the bulletin, for whatever reason?


17. Did the County Recorder maintain strict confidentiality on the list of sites accompanying the report on methods (item 8)?


Finally, we are happy to answer any further queries put to us by the NTBC committee (and received via the chairman or secretary) in relation to the Honey Buzzard review but we will not be able to answer further queries from individual observers unless these relate to specific records.

Ian Fisher and the CRC, (April 2005)


Appendix 1

Correspondence from international raptor experts

As BNR has enquired about the opinions of international experts on the subject of Honey Buzzard identification on his website (points 6 and 7), the following two communications are included here for the sake of completeness. To reiterate our earlier comments, such opinions did not influence our conclusions as these had been drawn prior to these comments being made but they do give us confidence that the finding of our review are justified.

1.1) Comments from Dick Forsman (Finland) on the identification of the birds presented on BNR’s website (as reported by AR on the Birdforum discussion group on 07/10/ 2003)

Hi Andy,

I am sorry to inform you, but practically all of the photos on the Honey
Buzz web site are actually Common Buzzards!!! The only convincing Honey
Buzzards I could find were the ones from Liege, Belgium. Also the bird from
Perthshire, Scotland looks like a HB. All the others can be identified as Com

The pictures are too many to start to go through them one by one, but in
most pictures the pattern of the secondaries, the underwing coverts and the
body show the diagnostic Com Buz characters, while in some cases the shapes
of the birds clearly show them to be Com Buzzards.

In case of any seriously difficult cases I am willing to defend my case
further, but as for the current pictures I think they speak for themself.



1.2) Comments (dated 03/10/2003) from Clive Finlayson (Gibraltar) on the identification of the birds pictured on BNR’s website as presented to us by Steve Holliday who had contacted Clive Finlayson privately with a request for his opinions.

OK Stevo,

I've now looked at all these pics. This guy doesn't know what a Honey
looks like! Let's go through them:

Liege: Yep, Honeys

Baden Baden: Honey, OK

Stauffen: This is a Buzzard. Probably eastern subspecies or hybrid -

Leisberg: This is not a Honey. Prob.
vulpinus type again

Hexhamshire 1 (2002): This is a Buzzard

Derwent: Buzzard

Allen: Buzzard

Hexhamshire 2 (2003):  Buzzard

Bywell: Bad pics but probably Buzzard

South Tyne: Buzzard

Dunkeld: Bad pics but probably Honey Buzzard, almost definite

Tampere, Finland:
vulpinus Buzzard

I can send you Honey pics from Gib if you want!!!


NB. the Tampere images have since been changed and now show Honey Buzzards (CRC)

Further comments after Steve Holliday asked if Clive Finlayson would mind his opinions on the Northumberland birds being forwarded to the CRC


I don't mind at all. You can state that I have NO DOUBT that these are not
Honeys. I should know after watching and photographing them since 1966!!!

Be in touch re spring soon.


Appendix 2

2.1) Full text of a letter sent to Ian Fisher (CR) by experienced raptor workers in which concern is expressed about the recording of breeding Honey Buzzards in Northumberland:

Ty – Canol

Church Lane

Llanfair Kilgeddin





Ian Fisher

74 Benton Park Road




Dear Ian

We are writing to you in connection with the “Honey Buzzard” breeding records that have been provided to the Northumbria County Recorder by Nick Rossiter over the period 1993-2003. We have spent many hundreds of days working on Honey Buzzards at their breeding sites in many parts of Britain. Over the past twenty years we have gained experience of this species in all types of habitat throughout their breeding cycle. We hope that you are prepared to consider our informed opinion on these “Honey Buzzard” records.

We have seen the debate on “birdforum” where many experienced raptor watchers, including Dick Forsman, have given their opinion on the supposed Northumberland “Honey Buzzard” pictures posted on Mr Rossiter’s website www.nrossiter@supanet.com. We did not add our opinions as we had no wish to add to Mr Rossiter’s embarrassment in a public forum. We recognise that, as Mr Rossiter stated during the debate, he had every right to establish a website and publish his opinions on ornithological matters. However, as described below, Mr Rossiter’s pictures are clearly almost all Common Buzzards.

However, data provided to the Rare Birds Breeding Panel is another matter. The Honey Buzzard remains a rare breeding species. It is important that its current status be accurately recorded. If it is obvious to all experienced raptor workers that inaccurate data is being submitted and published, it detracts from the reputation of the Rare Birds Breeding Panel. Since this data is used by the RSPB, BTO, English Nature and other conservation bodies, it is important that all data published be, as far as possible, accurate. While we are certain that Mr Rossiter’s records are provided in good faith, we feel that the weight of evidence against his local breeding raptors being Honey Buzzards is compelling. In consequence, we hope that the Northumbrian Bird Club will reconsider its current policy of passing on his records to the Rare Breeding Birds Panel.

Below is a brief summary of our unanimous opinions on the data provided on Mr Rossiter’s website.

The original pictures posted on his website of raptors photographed in Northumberland are either unidentifiable or clearly show Common Buzzards. Not one of the Northumberland birds can be clearly identified as a Honey Buzzard, and, indeed, are evidently Common Buzzards. After amending his website with several pictures from locations outside Northumberland clearly showing Honey Buzzards, there are still pictures of Common Buzzards that have been incorrectly identified as Honey Buzzards. These opinions were echoed by Dick Forsman, a published raptor expert, in his posting on the previously mentioned “birdforum” debate. We note that, despite the overwhelming evidence from contributors to this debate, Mr Rossiter does not appear to have sought any opinion on the pictures from any experienced British Honey Buzzard worker. He could have phoned Steve Roberts, who he has made contact with in the past, or asked him privately for his opinion at the recent raptor conference at Penrith. His failure to do so brings into question his commitment to publishing accurate data.

The accompanying text on ‘jizz’ also records the behaviour of Common Buzzards. We have never seen Honey Buzzards perform “a series of dives…each one taking the bird lower”. We have, of course, seen Common Buzzards regularly performing this display. The “vulture” poses he describes, with wings pressed forward, fanned tail and “repeatedly com(ing) to a brief, almost complete, standstill (or stall)”, is regular Common Buzzard behaviour. We have never seen this behaviour in Honey Buzzards.

On Plumage, he states that the tail bands are “invisible”, even in active flight at low altitudes. In various parts of his text he ascribes this “invisibility” to the gloomy light conditions prevailing in Northumbria. He quotes Steve Roberts out of context, who quite rightly suggested that identification of distant Honey Buzzards is most easily done by “jizz” and flight posture, and that a reliance on tail bands to confirm identity shows a lack of field experience. However, we commonly see tail bands quite clearly on low flying Honey Buzzards. Even the pictures of Honey Buzzards on his website, taken in Finland and Belgium, clearly show these tail bands. All adult Honey Buzzards have these tail bands. The sole reason why tail bands are not visible on his local birds is that there are none because the birds are Common Buzzards. In pictures 4 and 8 of his Staufen series, the Common Buzzard is so close that the fine barring on the unbanded tail is visible. To suggest that there are really three wide bars present that are “invisible” due to poor light conditions is manifestly absurd.

On identification by “jizz” and flight posture, he suggests – rightly – that the small head and protruding neck, pinched-in wings and long tail are the features by which experienced raptor watchers differentiate Honey Buzzards from Common Buzzards. Unfortunately, his lack of experience with Honey Buzzards means that he “sees” these features in “bog-standard” Common Buzzards, even at close range. (See the Staufen series of pictures.) This experience can only be gained by repeated watching at sites where both Common and Honey Buzzards are regularly seen. In time, it will be seen that there is no secret formula to identifying these species: they are really very different in almost every feature of behaviour, structure and plumage, and can be confidently differentiated at almost any range.

There are numerous other discrepancies within the text. Mr Rossiter doesn’t realise that Honey Buzzards are most active in display throughout July and August, when wing-clapping is seen on a daily basis. Indeed, Honey Buzzards wing-clap vigorously if neighbouring males are in sight – almost certain within Rossiter’s alleged distances. He appears never to have seen his birds carrying wasp-comb, an unsurprisingly common feature of Honey Buzzard behaviour. His “Honey Buzzards” appear to live in discrete “nuclear families” with one or two juveniles. At all the sites we watch there are numerous non-breeding birds present throughout the latter part of the breeding season, with regular interaction between four or five adult birds. In contrast to Mr Rossiter’s experience, juveniles at our sites are rarely seen above the canopy before departure. To record the number of juveniles produced without visiting the nest sites would be an impossible task, especially if there were up to fifteen territories in one area, as he claims. Also, satellite tracking has revealed chicks in September residing in woods up to 30km from the nest site. The Honey Buzzards we have studied are almost invariably silent except when nest visits are made. Mr Rossiter’s birds call “wildly” even apparently during display. We note that Mr Rossiter identifies his birds as male and female without commenting on, or photographing, the grey head of all male Honey Buzzards, a feature that is obviously the most easily visible identification mark for sexing this species, noticeable often at considerable distances.

To summarise, even without the photographs there would be a weight of evidence that Mr Rossiter has been monitoring a population of Common Buzzards. We believe that this mistaken identification has been made from the best of motives and applaud Mr Rossiter for his enthusiasm and his creation of a detailed and thought provoking website on the 2000 Honey Buzzard “invasion”. We think that the Honey Buzzard is a possible coloniser of Northumbrian woodland, and hope that Mr Rossiter and other Northumbrian birders will be successful in finding a genuine breeding pair. We would be happy to discuss this matter with Mr Rossiter, or any other Northumbrian birder, with an interest in this fascinating species. However, in the meantime, Mr Rossiter’s records should be reassessed urgently and the Northumberland data cancelled at county level and national level in the interests of genuine Honey Buzzard research.

Yours sincerely

Steve Roberts, on behalf of,

Steve Roberts – Wales and the Marches

Rob Clements – Kent

Malcolm Cowland – South East England

Wayne Percy – Hants, Dorset, New Forest

Reg Thorpe – Wales Raptor Study Group

cc Malcolm Ogalvie RBBP, Nick Rossiter

2) Full text of BNR’s email response to the above letter:

Response to Letter by Steve Roberts calling for Rejection of Northumberland Honey Buzzard Records

To: Steve Roberts, Ty-Canol, Church Lane, Llanfair Kilgeddin, Abergavenny, NP7 9BE

Cc: Ian Fisher, Martin Kitching, Malcolm Ogilvie, Rob Clements, Wayne Percy, Malcolm Cowlard, Reg Thorpe

26th April 2004

Dear Steve

I was very interested in your letter to Ian Fisher of 4th March 2004 (posted 9th March). It was nice of you to send me a copy. I note that it was signed by Steve Roberts (Wales and the Marches) with the apparent support of Rob Clements (Kent), Malcolm Cowlard (South East England), Wayne Percy (Hants, Dorset, New Forest) and Reg Thorpe (Wales Raptor Study Group). Copies were sent to myself and Malcolm Ogalvie (sic). In due course, I hope you will not mind me publishing on the Internet my response and your letter to which I am responding. I feel there will be great public interest in the matter.

1 Experience

I note the collective claim to experience of Honey Buzzards (HB hereafter) in Britain is 20 years. However, your experience is rather less, Steve. I thought you first met HB in Wales in 1991 (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/animals/features/143index.shtml ). That's not long before I found HB in Northumberland in 1993. Wayne Percy also recently gave his fieldwork experience as 12 years in a comment on Bird Forum, So our experience is similar except my study area is larger and holds more pairs. So I dispute your claim as having more field experience than I. This is relevant as you do not supply much evidence at all in your letter to back up your assertions, simply relying on your claimed superior knowledge.

2 Bird Forum Debate

The debate on Bird Forum was very interesting. My protagonists seemed to be unable to adapt to the changing content as I added new material and annotations and indeed seemed to find this process unfair. The whole point of web technology is that changes can be made much more easily than to printed media. The site was still in the process of construction when the debate started and the timing was not of my choosing. It was inevitable that I would fortify the site with further pictures, sound files and annotations as the debate progressed. Yet I note that Steve Roberts refers to his opinion of the initial state of my web site. His stance here lacks objectivity. Any rational view on whether HBs breed in Northumberland must be based on the latest state of the web site, not on its initial state.

Just as seriously, HB workers from Wales, Kent and the New Forest appeared to have some difficulty with field identification of HB. For instance in the debate it was claimed by some of the workers that :

The first three were quickly shown to be wrong by looking at one plate of Forsman (plate 23) illustrating a soaring flock of HB. The fourth was also quickly shown to be wrong by looking at Ferguson-Lees' book. When such evidence was pointed out to the workers, they said in effect "we have field experience, who needs books?" This approach is totally unscientific. For methods to be acceptable we need techniques that are transferable from one person to another. I note that the undersigned of this letter have not written any articles on HB identification.

Among a number of inaccuracies in the letter is the statement that the undersigned "did not add our opinions as we had no wish to add to Mr Rossiter's embarrassment in a public forum". Wayne Percy is an apparent signatory to the letter and he played an active role in the debate including a threat to hospitalise me at one stage! There is also little doubt, by examining the style of the Forum and of the letter under consideration, that Steve Roberts collaborated closely with Andrew Rowlands in the debate. Steve Roberts was perhaps too timid to contribute directly.

There seems to be an impression in Steve's mind that the Bird Forum debate was conclusive. The debate was led by the vociferous Andrew Rowlands and Wayne Percy. I did not notice any conclusive technical arguments. Towards the end Andrew Rowlands wheeled in Jane Thompson to make some judgments. She thought that some of the Northumbrian birds looked like Honey Buzzards. The forum ended shortly after her comments were made as Andrew and Wayne degenerated into the sort of verbal abuse normally associated with losers.

3 Unsubstantiated Comments of Steve Roberts

Steve Roberts' views on the data on my web site are almost entirely unsubstantiated opinions. For example the statement "Not one of the Northumberland birds can be clearly identified as a HB and indeed are evidently Common Buzzards" is not supported by any technical evidence at all.

In the Bird Forum debate it was very difficult to extract any objectivity from my protagonists. Initial objections included clearly erroneous ideas such as HB never push their wings forward. Later objections seemed to be mainly on plumage grounds such as the tail bars (see below). In spite of my additional publication of some of the original slides to show the poor level of under-lighting and the low number of pixels for the HB in the frame, there seemed to be a poor level of understanding of the interpretation of photographic evidence, a state of affairs which I found (and still find) pretty worrying.

4 Inconsistency of Steve Roberts in Visibility of Tail Bands

Steve Roberts claims that I have quoted his speech at the Penrith Conference in November 2003 out of context. His apparent backtracking in his letter, now emphasising the tail bands:

we commonly see tail bands quite clearly on low flying Honey Buzzards

can be contrasted with his talk in which he said :

To try and identify them from plumage I think is a loser to begin with. If you're still going to go down that road you're going to be very, very limited. You need to be able to identify Honey Buzzards from their structure. Every book you pick up will tell you that a Honey Buzzard has got three bars on the tail and I can imagine loads and loads of birders going out looking for three bars on the tail. [shows a picture of Honey Buzzard from underside]. That's a good Honey Buzzard and it's close. You were lucky seeing that one flying by so close. You don't see three bars on the tail, it's just lighting. Look at that one also. That's a good Honey Buzzard but you cannot see the tail bars. If you start thinking that you've got to see plumage details to identify Honey Buzzards, you're missing the point. You've got to identify Honey Buzzards from their shape and structure.

Listen to this for a digital recording of this part of the talk. It appears that Steve changes his views to suit the audience! I am very sorry but this must result in a loss of credibility.

(as usual with sound files: right click on url, save target as, double click on saved file to get optimal results. The full url is:

http://www.n-a-rossiter.supanet.com/hb/Steve Roberts talk 22 nov 2003 penrith you do not see the tail bars on hb.wav

and some context is available at:

http://www.nrossiter.supanet.com/hb/plumage.html )

5 Inadmissible Evidence from Finland

Dick Forsman's views on my site were interesting but it was surprising how close his views and misspellings were to those of Andrew Rowlands (Wales) and how, as pointed out on the Forum, his style was not quite what one expects from a museum curator.

The timetable for the comments is interesting:

I do not think that this evidence is admissible as it stands. The nature of the initial instructions to our Finnish source, the cursory examination, the lack of an original copy of the reply to me and the poor academic quality of the reply are not convincing.

6 The Few Fresh Technical Objections

A few fresh technical objections are made to my web site in the letter under consideration. I presume the great bulk of the remainder is assumed to be right. The fact that there is no comment on aspects that are obviously right suggests an unbalanced critique and one looking for faults rather than the truth. There is no constructive attempt by Steve to improve our knowledge of HB behaviour.

A number of the objections relate to behaviour. It should be obvious that behaviour will vary from area to area to some extent. Influences would include the topology of the landscape, the timing and length of the breeding season, the density of HBs, the density of other raptors particularly Goshawks and weather conditions. Noted behaviour would also vary with the timing of visits, distances from the nests and how much time was invested in simply watching behaviour.

The fresh objections and my replies are:

  1. Diving: I claim that HB perform a series of dives... Steve Roberts says we have never seen this. Ferguson-Lees & Christie (p. 340) say "plunging downwards on partly closed wings in similar steps broken by upward swoops ... either performance may involve up to 40 undulations over several kilometres".

  2. Vulture pose: I claim a vulture pose with pressed forward wings, fanned tail, and almost stalled flight. Steve Roberts says we have never seen this. One of the pictures at Liege shows the same HB as that seen close-up in this mode of flight. See http://www.n-a-rossiter.supanet.com/hb/liege%2012%20aug%202003%20ad%206.JPG . Working at a distance I have had to study the jizz of birds very closely. With nest visits, study from a distance may be seen as of less importance and that may explain the lack of broad field experience in my protagonists.

  3. Staufen birds: The only technical evidence raised against the birds on my site being HBs concerns those photographed in Staufen, Baden Baden. These of course were in Germany, not Northumberland. The birds were not as close as claimed by Steve Roberts and they were photographed against very strong sunlight. The original slides at http://www.n-a-rossiter.supanet.com/hb/Staufen%201%20Aug%202002%20original%201.jpg

and http://www.n-a-rossiter.supanet.com/hb/Staufen%201%20Aug%202002%20original%202.jpg

show that only judgment on shape and structure is possible. Plumage cannot be judged in such lighting conditions.

  1. Wing clapping: Steve Roberts claims that wing-clapping activity is very high in July and August so my failure to spot this invalidates my claims. There are a number of observations here:

    1. The Northumberland HB season runs significantly later than in Wales. Many Northumberland HB are still incubating in July. I rarely see HB in July as they become invisible then. They emerge more in August but engage mostly in patrolling.

    2. The observation that HB are very active at this time runs contrary to all standard literature on HB including Steve Roberts' talk at Penrith. This, I am afraid, is another instance of inconsistency in Steve's views from one audience to another.

    3. The density of HB in Northumberland is much lower than in the Welsh study area so conflicts will be rarer although perhaps more likely now. In 2001 the nearest neighbour distance in Northumberland was 7.4km as against 2.4km in Wales (see http://www.nrossiter.supanet.com/hb/hbdensity.htm ).

  1. Honey combs: It is claimed that I have never seen HB carrying combs in Northumberland. On what is this based? Interestingly I have made no comment on combs on my web site. The source of this information is interesting. I have seen HB carrying combs on a few occasions . I do not think this is that easy to see as the birds tend to enter the woods in which they nest at low altitude and fly though glades and clearings.

  2. Assemblies in later part of breeding season: The claim is that I have not seen congregations of HB at this time. Incorrect -- this is clearly stated at the end of my jizz section: "More recently the juveniles from adjacent nests have formed groups after the adults have left and these groups engage in strenuous practice flights on the edge of the moors. These groups leave together, typically around 15th-20th September".

  3. Juveniles not above canopy: Steve Roberts claims that they very rarely see juveniles above the canopy while I do. I wonder how many observations his group has made at this time of year (in September). Ringers tend to 'switch off' after the ringing has been done. It defies common sense that a bird that is shortly going to embark on a massive journey is not going to practice flying. However, I do comment in my web site on the retiring nature of some isolated juveniles.

  4. Discrete territories: Steve Roberts is surprised how orderly the HB territories are in Northumberland. The spacing between nests of 7.4km explains this but it's now getting more complicated with in-filling. In 2001 the nearest neighbour distance in Northumberland was 7.4km as against 2.4km in Wales (see http://www.nrossiter.supanet.com/hb/hbdensity.htm ).

  5. Separating males and females: The lack of plumage details in my photographs taken against the light certainly does not mean that I never see or assess such details. As mentioned on my site the sparser and broader barring on the outer primaries is relatively easy to see through binoculars, even at quite a considerable distance, as a bird occasionally twists or turns. I have regularly commented on the barring across the primaries in my notes supplied to the County Records Committee. Females look darker on the remiges than males and this is the optimal way to separate the sexes in my opinion. Against strong light it is difficult to determine the head colour.

7 Honey Buzzard Calls and Moult

Calls could be included in the above but the lack of knowledge of this important aspect by my protagonists is so worrying that a special section is warranted. I find it amazing that none of the field workers from Wales and the south of England are familiar with the calls of HB. They cannot describe them, they have not recorded them and they cannot distinguish them from those of Common Buzzard. This in itself shows a lack of keen observation. In 2003 I made many recording at over ten sites and produced sonograms and comparisons with the literature. I have tri-syllabic calls and alarm calls as recordings and sonograms which correspond closely to those in the literature. These recordings show conclusively the presence of HB in Northumberland. Moreover since HB only call in their nesting areas, this shows HB are breeding in Northumberland. I get the impression that my critics do not understand sonograms.

It is also surprising that none of our field workers from the south has studied moult. This is a very useful way of assessing HBs and Common Buzzard and my ideas for using primary moult are original and very promising for separating birds photographed against the light. Presumably Reg Thorpe is not one of those BBRC members quoted in the latest rarity report as asking observers to look for a much wider range of features in Black Kites.

8 Track Record

The final paragraph is marvelously patronising. The suggestion though that Northumberland's HB breeding records need to be discounted needs a response.

Many of my HB records have been judged locally over the last few years. The County Records Committee has accepted all the full descriptions of HB that I have provided from 1998 through to 2002. These notes contain much more information than simple photographs.

With respect to other raptors I played an active role in monitoring Merlin on the Northumberland moors in the 1980s. I also pioneered the studies of Common Buzzard in Northumberland from the start of their recent re-colonisation in 1988, monitoring their population growth and writing many letters to the press to encourage their survival against persecution. I was brought up in Devon where Common Buzzards have always been common and I make several visits a year to that county. I have spent many weeks in Andalucia, Spain and northern Morocco watching migrating raptors and I also have extensive experience of Honey Buzzards in their breeding areas in continental Europe.

I have also been the pioneer of Hobby studies in Northumberland monitoring now about ten sites at which quite a number of observers have confirmed sightings. I have led club field trips to the south west, the last of which in September 2002 located juvenile Hobby (two) and a total of six raptor species altogether. The Hobby is still a rare species in Northumberland to most birders but the identifications were to everybody's satisfaction.

It is probably also relevant that I am a respected international expert in large gull identification, contributing original studies on Yellow-legged Gulls, giving papers at the last three International Gull Meetings on identification and being a respected contributor to international forums such as Birding Gulls and BIRDWG01. In these studies I have made detailed observations on structure, size, moult, calls and wingtip patterns of all ages and produced provisional identification criteria.

9 Motives

The whole tone of the letter of 4th March greatly disturbs me. This is not a scientific communication seeking the truth on HB in Northumberland. That might raise questions and suggest some tasks for the 2004 breeding season to substantiate the state of affairs more to everyone's satisfaction. After all we are not dealing with a fly-past rarity with no hope of further information.

The tone is instead deeply destructive. Even the way I'm addressed throughout of Mr Rossiter is a de-personification. I am Nick Rossiter - all birders are normally addressed in this manner. There is a desire to dump the records and close the matter down. I was suspicious that the debate on Bird Forum started in early October (just after the last HB left). There is now a desire to finish it quickly (before the birds return in mid-May). I sense a number of political factors:

As recently as 2003 Steve Roberts wrote (with Lewis, Observation of Honey-buzzard Breeding Density in Britain, British Birds 96(1) p.37-39) that he thought the current population of HB in Britain was in the low hundreds. If he now thinks there are no HB in Northumberland, there is no hope of this figure being attained. Northumberland is a large county which has had considerable attractions historically for the species and it has extensive forests and woods at a range of altitudes and composition. If Steve Roberts is sincere in his views on the current status of the HB in Northumberland, his past notes in British Birds are totally misleading.

10 Incredible Situation

To reject the current HB records means that in effect we have a new species in Northumberland:

The observer of these features is one of the most experienced raptor watchers in Northumberland. He (NR) thinks they relate to Honey Buzzard rather than to a new species.

11 Conclusions and Recommendations

To conclude, I think it would be very rash to act precipitately on the basis of the letter dated 4th March. My critics have shown many gaps in their knowledge of HB and many of their views contradict each other or are inconsistent with the literature. I favour a strenuous effort in 2004 to obtain more evidence in Northumberland followed by a more informed and less heated review. I would suggest that my critics should also spend 2004 profitably, studying the jizz more, learning the calls and taking note of exact moult sequences. Then at the end of the year, British HB knowledge will have advanced substantially.

It is a great pity that the British HB scene has come to the current stand-off. Maybe it is simply a turf war. I am perfectly happy for a vigorous debate provided it is technically based and not aimed primarily at denigrating reputations.

Yours sincerely 

Nick Rossiter

SJR et al did not respond further as far as we are aware (CRC)

Appendix 3

Full text of David Jardine’s email (sent 28/04/ 2004) referred to in questions 12 and 13 above

Dear Ian
Please accept my apologies for not getting back to you on the Honey Buzzard (HB) records which your Committee wish reviewed; I have been very busy at work on my return and the field season is now upon us.

Thank-you also for updating me on the correspondence which has been taking place. That it is developing in this manner disappoints me greatly. The tone and nature of the debate reminds me of a celebrated botanical controversy which left the Heslop-Harrison records in doubt for many decades. (These are outlined in Karl Sabbagh's interesting book "A Rum Affair"). Please note that I cannot emphasise too strongly that it is the tone and nature of the correspondence which is similar and not the nature of the issues involved. 

Fortunately there are also great differences between this case and that of Heslop-Harrison and there is an opportunity for resolution which I hope that both the Records Committee of NTBC, and the wider ornithological community and Nick Rossiter will grasp. In the remainder of this email I will develop my thinking of how this can be taken forward. It is not my intention to rake over every individual description and give my (subjective) verdict on the evidence which is placed in front of me. Many have already done this, including a number whose field experience of HBs is greater than mine and therefore I do not feel that I can provide anything significant in this respect which may help take this matter forward. Rather I wish to sit back and reflect about where we are and how we might move forward.

We currently have
two camps:
Firstly there is Nick Rossiter and his colleagues (NR's team) who have presented their findings on HB in Northumberland. These are based on their experience and collection of evidence to substantiate their position. The nature of NR's team's evidence is based mainly on field sightings, descriptions, photographic evidence and some sound recordings. (I apologise if this is an incomplete summary). Their findings have been subject to peer review in the form of the NTBC records committee, which initially accepted their findings and is now reviewing them. There has also been a wider peer review which has taken place more publicly on an unrefereed website. The findings of NR's team have been challenged by the second group.

The other camp consists of a group of field ornithologists who have also worked on HBs, and some international commentators. They, like NR's team have worked on HBs for years. Their experience is based upon field observation which is used to find nests and then to follow the fortunes of these birds through the nesting season. They have published a series of papers on HBs in independently refereed journals and as far as I am aware have not had their work challenged.

Confirming the presence of breeding HBs in Northumberland
Thus we have a local team with their experience and results being challenged by a national (and international) view. It is not for me to judge which has more experience. There is, however, a significant difference between the two approaches being taken (as far as I can currently ascertain). This is that the national group has verified its findings through observation of the birds at the nest. As far as I am currently aware NR's team has not presented such evidence. This, I believe, has to be seen as the key to unlocking the way forward for this rather secretive raptor. It is imperative that NR's team provide indisputable evidence in the form of a HB nest / nests which are independently checked, for the wider ornithological community to be satisfied that HBs are nesting in Northumberland. To NR's team credit it appears that efforts are in place for this to be provided in 2004 as licences have been applied for and issued. Because of the unresolved (and possibly now unresolveable) difference in opinion in identification features of birds in flight (photographs etc) it may be that a search for every nest will be required to confirm the exact breeding population. There is a technical point which is worth making here, in that, even if the young birds are fledged, then the nest should be searched for and located, as "nest detectives"  will be able to confirm which species has used it, from the location of the nest, the materials used in its construction and if in the winter following its use, the fragments of prey remains found at the nest. These pieces of evidence will be extremely helpful while differences in opinion on (flight) identification remain.
I would suggest that it is sensible to consider the terminology of the First Atlas in respect of HBs in Northumberland - are they confirmed breeding, probable breeding, possible breeding or not breeding at all (Sharrock, 1976, p17)? The controversy over identification leads me to suggest that, at present, there are grounds for setting aside the breeding records until the quality of evidence is improved (or is presented through the approach I suggest). On this next point I am hesitant as I do not wish to offend NR's team through lack of access to all their data, but it would appear that:

- there does not appear to be conclusive evidence of confirmed breeding (We really need a nest to be 100% sure, given the controversy over identification)
- there is a little evidence of probable breeding; the presence of (disputed by some) sight records of adults during the breeding season (giving displays which are under some dispute) and of (again disputed by some) sight records of fledged juveniles (and here the precise origin of these putative juveniles may not have been conclusively established)
- there is some evidence of possible breeding on the basis of sight records (which are disputed by some).

It would be helpful if NR's team could consider their data and start to classify each site in terms of the quality of evidence for breeding at each site and be prepared to discuss the nature of that evidence with other parties.

The possibility of mis-identification
The two camps are in dispute over the identification features being used and there are signs that this will not be easily resolved. Nevertheless, a number of possible outcomes  should be considered:

- that NR's team's identification is 100% correct
- that NR's team's identification is 100% incorrect, or
- that NR's team's identification is partially correct.

At present, I personally have not come to a firm conclusion on which of these is likely to be the case, although the level of criticism of some of the identifications by respected and independently reviewed HB workers suggests that it may not be the first. The strength of NR's team's conviction on their observations and the detail of some of their sightings also suggests that the second is unlikely. This, however, for the Records Committee and the wider ornithological community leaves the hardest, that some of the records may not be correct.

The approach I suggested above of seeking to identify the nests and nest sites of the birds, however, will help in this respect as the breeding population and their nest sites is actually the important element in this. In my opinion the correct or incorrect identification of single birds in flight is probably not that important, rather it will, for some, be a matter of a tick on a year list. Such things are trivial human foibles but are of little or no biological / conservation significance (and it is the latter which I think NR's team is trying to establish). A sighting confirmed (or disputed) does not in my mind constitute a breeding record. At best it is sign of a possible breeding record which needs to be followed up and therefore of only the lowest significance - to be scientifically rigorous NR's team needs to work steadily through each of the sites to classify the level of evidence that they have (acknowledging that there is some dispute over identification) and to work hard to bring each site into the confirmed breeding category through the tracking down of nests (which have some level of corroboration).
The weaknesses of providing written descriptions and their review have been tested by this situation, particularly where the review team (ie the NTBC Records Committee) is perhaps less involved in raptors (or any other particular group of birds) than the observer. Therefore it will be right in due course to ask the NTBC and its Records Committee to review what lessons can be learnt from this case.

I am happy that for this email to be circulated to the various parties involved and hope that all find it a useful contribution to helping resolve this issue in a scientific manner. I have copied it direct to Nick for his information.


Appendix 4

Summary of the Honey Buzzard review and its results

55 records of Honey Buzzards (from 1984 to 2003) were reviewed (the records of breeding for the years of 2000, 01 & 02 are classed for the purposes of this document as 1 record, as they were all dealt with at the same time). A further eight records from 1971 to 1997 were unavailable for review. There are also records going back to 1953, which are also untraceable.

Six records that were reviewed had previously been found unacceptable. Another eight records (all from 2003, but not including breeding records) were submitted after the review process had started.

Of the 55 records reviewed, 36 (plus the breeding records for 2000 & 2001 = 69%) were previously accepted; the breeding records for 2002 being pended at the time the review started. Of the six records not accepted at the time of the review, none have subsequently been accepted, and of the eight new 2003 records assessed four (50%) were accepted during the review.

Of the 36 remaining records between 1984 to 2002, only 13 (36%) remain accepted.

None of the breeding records (i.e. pairs reportedly fledging young) have been found to be acceptable on review (although one sighting of a bird in suitable breeding habitat was accepted).

It is our conclusion that there are no confirmed instances of Honey Buzzards breeding in Northumberland during the review period.

A list of all the records that remain accepted will be published in BiN 2004