Appendix 2

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 Cowland, 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 Cowland (South East England), Wayne Percy (Hants, Dorset, New Forest) and Reg Thorpe (Wales Raptor Study Group). Copies were sent to myself and Malcolm Ogilvie (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 ). 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: Roberts talk 22 nov 2003 penrith you do not see the tail bars on hb.wav. Added on 17/04/15 were longer sections from the talk: id part of talk  full talk.

Some further context is available at:

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 . 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


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 ).

  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 ).

  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