Comments on Birdwatch Article on Honey Buzzards -- July 2001 and reply from Robin Khan -- September 2001

Reference: Papps, S, Comb Raider, Birdwatch, no. 109, 22-25, July (2001).

The impression given in this article that Honey Buzzard numbers are increasing in Britain but the secrecy of the birds makes them hard to find meets with approval. There are a few reservations:

  1. The relatively large numbers of Honey Buzzards in May 2001 does not arise from last year's juveniles involved in the movement of September 2000 re-routing themselves back through Britain. These juveniles will not return until 2002 Ages of Returning Honey Buzzards.

  2. The population quoted for the Netherlands is rather dated. It is now 630-760 pairs British Population is still relatively small rather than the 150-200 pairs quoted. Populations for Belgium and Luxembourg have also increased beyond those quoted.

  3. There is no reference to these web pages, which alone first raised the likelihood that the British population of Honey Buzzards was higher than generally thought.

Against these it was interesting to note that a population of 15 pairs is now being quoted for Wales. See O'Shea, B, In Search of Birds in Wales, Skylark Books (2000). The Welsh population was apparently first detected in 1991 Honey Buzzards in Wales .

Reference: Khan, R, Floating Honeys, Birdwatch, no. 111, 12-13, September (2001).

The reply to Papps's article is an epitome of the very conservative views held by fieldworkers who have studied Honey Buzzards over the past decades and seen their local populations stagnate or decline. It is most unlikely that these populations have been involved to a significant extent in the current colonisation. The recent sharp rise is numbers is likely to have resulted at least initially from continental birds moving through eastern Britain in spring and settling in the rich habitat available. Such birds would have been shot by gamekeepers prior to c1990 when the intense persecution of Common Buzzard in game-rearing areas finally began to ease.

Khan's suggestion that observers are seeing immature or wandering birds throughout the summer and mistaking this for breeding is very patronising. If I see a pair of adults displaying at a site in May and early June, one adult on a further visit in July, a pair floating over the same wood in mid-August and three birds soaring in early September including a weak-flying juvenile, I conclude that a pair has fledged one young. Under BTO breeding atlas criteria, this is confirmed breeding. When this pattern spreads to contiguous sites, it is clear that a local breeding population has become established. To ask for more concrete proof would involve inspecting the nests, something I will not do as the birds must not be disturbed (both legally and ethically).

The sentence "At least 95 percent of the Honey Buzzards that drifted down our coast-lines in autumn last year were juveniles deflected from Scandinavia and further east by adverse weather..." is arrogant. Should there not be some indication that this is opinion rather than fact? As an opinion it is looking more and more tenuous in view of the large number of Honey Buzzards recorded this spring and in August. See Honey Buzzard Migrants: totals by month 2001 for the totals, almost certainly incomplete, logged so far this year up to July. See Birdguides for the August totals. Furthermore, the analyses for the 2000 movement on these web pages indicate that a British origin for the juveniles (and accompanying females) is by far the more tenable theory.

Khan's views are echoed in the Devon Bird Report 2000 (p. 47, section writer Mark Darlaston; p. 177-178 Migrant Movement over Haldon 30 September 2000, Mark Darlaston) where it is stated even less equivocally:

"This movement involved north European birds on southwards migration through Scandinavia. Caught by easterly winds, they were pushed further W than normal, making landfall on the E English coast on 20 Sep, then working their way down through England. The vast majority left the country further E on the S coast before reaching Devon".

Where is the evidence to support such sweeping views? On solider ground Devon had one late June record and about 12 in the major movement from 26th September - 1st October of which seven were clearly identified as juveniles. Two at Dawlish Warren on 30th September and one at Kingsbridge on 4th October remain to be substantiated (p. 146, Devon Bird Report).

Similar rather fixed views on Honey Buzzards can be found in two Birdwatch articles: A Honey Guide for May, no. 35, 43, May (1995) and Eric Simms, Sting in the Tail, no. 26, 24-26, August (1994). However, at least these articles were written before the population had increased to the present level.

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