The Honey-buzzard Review of 2003-2005

Part I: Perjury and Corruption

A well publicised review of Honey-buzzard records was made by the Northumberland County Records Committee (NCRC) in 2003-2005 (see Birds in Northumbria 2004, pages 223, 224-225). The matter was still reverberating in 2006. Now the dust has settled, how does the review stand up to close scrutiny? This is the first part of a review of the review.

One of the main aims was to involve external expertise, including people from continental Europe where there was much more expertise with the species. For reasons very difficult to discern, this never materialised in any significant way and the fall-back was on self-styled experts from the UK and even on the very limited exposure of the NCRC themselves. The continental dimension will be discussed in a further edition.

The first tale is of perjury by the person who turned out to be the chief external witness, Steve Roberts, and corruption by the NCRC when failing to take account of the perjury in their deliberations.

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.

Contrast this statement above made on my records, to the NCRC by Steve Roberts on 4 March 2004, with that made below by Steve Roberts in his talk to the north of England Raptor Group in Penrith on 22 November 2003 (words recorded by NR on a digital voice recorder):

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.

I queried this total inconsistency with the NCRC. Steve Roberts claimed that he had been quoted out of context on the above. Well it's very difficult to believe that I'm afraid. Steve Roberts stands totally discredited and guilty of perjury. Perjury is not the same as lying -- it is much more serious. Your stated opinion, sometimes under oath, is a critical part of the evidence and will strongly influence the outcome of the case. Acting falsely will pervert the course of justice.

But it gets worse. The NCRC in its considered response said:

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.

This is surely corruption. A court on learning that the chief witness is unreliable should have put his/her evidence aside. How on earth can the NCRC say that the inconsistencies are not major.

Technically of course Steve Roberts was struggling as he was unaware of the different plumage and structure of adult and juvenile Honey-buzzard. For instance juvenile Honey-buzzard have very variable tail patterns. Also the adult Honey-buzzard does not have 3 wide bars on its tail; it has a broad subterminal bar and 2 narrow bars towards the base of the tail, particularly in the male partially obscured by the undertail coverts. Further the emphasis on tail bars, which are difficult to see in the field, rather than the bars on the remiges, which are more visible and equally diagnostic, appears very strange.

On credibility grounds neither the NCRC nor Steve Roberts could afford to lose the case and that just about sums it up! Whatever it says, the NCRC lacked any serious experience with Honey-buzzard and was very dependent on outside expert witnesses who were willing to do their bidding. The obvious question on the convergence of their conclusions was: on which one? i.e. on which statement of Steve Roberts should they rely, and why?

Next (Part 2)