The Honey-buzzard Review of 2003-2005

Part 2: Negligence, Bias and Ignorance

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). This is the second part of a review of the review.

Previous (Part 1)

So what was the extent of technical debate in the review?

Opening the case for the prosecution (there are no Honey-buzzard in Northumberland!) Steve Roberts (Wales and the Marches) sent to Ian Fisher, County Recorder and Chair of Northumberland County Records Committee (NCRC), this letter. The letter was supported by Rob Clements (Kent), Malcolm Cowland (South East England), Wayne Percy (Hants, Dorset, New Forest) and Reg Thorpe (Wales Raptor Study Group). A copy was sent to Nick Rossiter (NR) and Malcolm Ogilvie (Rare Breeding Birds Panel).

A full response was sent by NR to Steve Roberts with copies to his supporters and to Malcolm Ogilvie.

But no further response was made by Steve Roberts or his supporters.

This is a very strange state of affairs. Under natural justice the NCRC should have pressed Steve Roberts to answer my points. But not only was this not done, the NCRC also failed to make any technical judgement on the differences in opinion and in effect, through the outcome of the review, ruled that Steve Roberts was right and NR was wrong. This displays clear bias in the actions of the NCRC. An opportunity for advancing the understanding of Honey-buzzard identification by the NCRC was also lost. In effect the NCRC preferred a state of ignorance to prevail. Considering how important the outcome of the review was for understanding the status of the Honey-buzzard in the UK, the actions of the NCRC were negligent.

Technically it was clear in the exchange of opinions that Steve Roberts and his supporters had very little experience of juveniles in the air. Their comments that they do not appear above the canopy, their opinions on the Staufen birds and their ageing of the post-assembly flocks, suggest that they were not aware of the differences in plumage and structure between adults and juveniles. Ringers are often struggling with juvenile identification above the canopy as once they've ringed the birds before they fledge, that's it for the season! The review should not have permitted ignorance in this area to prevail: juvenile Honey-buzzard are more like Common Buzzard than adults, as supported by recent literature.

In other areas Steve Roberts questioned whether Honey-buzzard ever performed a succession of dives. The literature at the time certainly indicated they did and all findings in the Northumberland study area since indicate that diving whether in a single plunge or as a series of dives is an integral part of Honey-buzzard behaviour. Steve Roberts also questioned the regular spacing of Honey-buzzard territories. Since the correspondence the density has increased but the regular spacing persists with 2.5 km between nests. A similar regular distance has been found in Scotland. Steve Roberts also questioned why I did not see much wing-clapping. Well I still don't see much of this activity. But I suspect this requirement is an unscientific extrapolation from the behaviour of the very small number of Honey-buzzard pairs that are studied in Wales.

There was actually one area where the NCRC did make a judgement – the tail-bars are easily seen – but most unfortunately for them, this area is clouded by the charge of perjury against the chief witness Steve Roberts (see Part 1).

There was an obvious route for the NCRC to make their review authoritative: to secure the opinions of experienced Honey-buzzard researchers on the continent. This is the subject of the next part.

Next (Part 3)