The Honey-buzzard Review of 2003-2005

Part 3: A Lack of Transparency

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 third part of a review of the review.

Previous (Part 2)

After the review had been completed, NR received this communication dated 29 March 2005 from the County Recorder, Ian Fisher, on his personal records. The therefore in the last paragraph does seem to be a non sequitur but building on the general picture NR raised a series of questions on the review and the NCRC responded. One of these questions concerned the use of continental experts to review records. Without the authority of continental experts, the review would look hopelessly ineffectual as UK expertise was recent, often limited to a few pairs in each study area and in the hands of ringing groups who may not study all aspects of the species' stay in the UK.

As a member of the committee of the Northumberland & Tyneside Bird Club I attended many committee meetings while the review of Honey-buzzard records was underway. The review started in October 2003 but was not concluded until March 2005. This seemed an extraordinary length of time and raised several questions as to what was going on. The explanation given on several occasions by Martin Davison, Chairman of the Club at that time, at committee meetings was that continental experts had been approached for their opinions and they were being very slow in responding.

It was therefore with some surprise that the only opinions from continental experts in the final report had both apparently been collected in early October 2003. So there had clearly not been any need to wait for these. This surprise was reflected in a question put to the NCRC by NR and the answer by the NCRC:

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

No, at least not by the CRC.

So either the continental experts contacted did not reply in the end or they did reply but the replies were not those anticipated and were ignored. The lack of support for the results from continental experts weakens the review substantially as expertise on the continent is long-standing, involving large sample sizes. The result is thus quite bizarre with continental expertise apparently being sought but then not supplied or ignored. The suspicion must be that the communication with continental experts did not produce the damming critique anticipated for NR's records as a failure to respond could have been simply noted as such, while a communication backing NR's position, even to some extent, would have been deeply embarrassing. It is also possible that the response above is being economical with the truth: the approach was made through a third-party.

Another probably unintended effect of the long time to complete the review was that another Honey-buzzard breeding season occurred in 2004, giving NR time to obtain more data. This amusing mishap is discussed later.

Returning to the Birdforum debate, it is claimed in the response to my questions under Section 6:

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.

Appendix 1 is part of the NCRC response above to NR's questions but for convenience the relevant extract is given here.

Dick Forsman apparently entered the Birdforum debate after a request from Andrew Rowlands, a member of the Welsh team studying Honey-buzzard. The claimed contribution by Dick Forsman raised some surprise at the time, witness this message on Birdforum from Grampy Bustard who was surprised at the misspelling of Perthshire and the light tone. Further details on the message were then given by Andrew Rowlands including technical details of the delivery of the message. Steve Roberts quotes Dick Forsman's comments as supporting material for the views in his letter, already dealt with earlier where NR noted that Forsman's apparent communication was inadmissible:

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.

Dick Forsman is a regular contributor to various internet forum and this recent message gives a measure of his academic style. Academics are very careful in using abbreviations and in the African Raptors material note the consistent use of standard abbreviations and compare this with the range of abbreviations used inconsistently in the Birdforum message. Continental academics also never use cheers to conclude their messages; regards or best wishes are much more common. The surprising misspelling of Perthshire as Pertshire has already been noted above. In Appendix 1 of the NCRC's response to my questions this misspelling has been corrected without comment. There is also a straight grammatical error: but as for the current pictures I think they speak for themself should be but as for the current pictures I think they speak for themselves; continental scholars do not write like this. Incidentally note the thrust of Dick Forsman's comments in his African Raptors message: structural features vary greatly in raptors even within one species between adults and juveniles.

Perhaps the strongest pointer to the dubious nature of this evidence is that Dick Forsman is not acknowledged in the official report of the review, while an acknowledgement is given to the other contributor from the continent, Clive Finlayson. Andrew Rolands [sic, Rowlands] is also rightly acknowledged in the official report.

Much less doubt surrounds the authenticity of Clive Finlayson's contribution as given in Appendix 1. His contribution was requested by his friend Steve Holliday, a member of tier 2 of the NCRC review committees (see Ian Fisher's communication for definition of tier 2). Clive who has counted many Honey-buzzard at Gibraltar will undoubtedly be very familiar with the appearance of adults of the species but may not be so familiar with juveniles, many of which cross the Mediterranean more directly, further to the east. In addition juveniles, by time they reach Gibraltar, are more mature than those seen in their breeding areas shortly after fledging. Indeed extending Dick Forsman's comments above, it seems that there are 4 types of Honey-buzzard from the identification perspective: adult male (on which many expectations based), adult female, juvenile (fledged greater than one month) and juvenile (just fledged). The identification by Clive of two birds from the very west of Germany as vulpinus (Steppe Buzzard) suggests that he does not think they are standard buteo (nominate Common Buzzard) but Baden Baden is far removed from the Steppe Buzzard range.

Much more useful support for the NCRC's conclusion would have been evidence from researchers studying breeding Honey-buzzard on the continent. Because of the lack of transparency as to what evidence was sought in this respect and what was received, the review lacks credibility.

In the next part we look at the limited information made available to reviewers of NR's methods for studying breeding birds.

Next (Part 4)