The Honey-buzzard Review of 2003-2005

Part 5: Weaknesses in Current Bird Recording

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 fifth part of a review of the review.

Previous (Part 4)

The previous four parts show a sorry story where a review has been conducted with prejudice in a biased manner. In effect the NCRC knew what the answer would be at the outset of the review and repeatedly acted without principle or integrity to achieve this answer, even though the evidence may have pointed to a different outcome.

Before the review I would have reacted with amazement if a county records committee could have been shown to have acted without integrity in its main function of providing an accurate record of the birds occurring in its area. This is no longer the case. The NCRC in particular seems to have been more inspired by using its power for personal objectives, the destruction of NR's reputation, than in its scientific objective of monitoring bird populations. The perjury committed by Steve Roberts is an example of a researcher behaving in an egotistical manner to try and remove competition rather than attempting to improve our underlying knowledge of the species.

NR is a professional scientist and does understand the competitive pressures and the problems of peer review. But in science and engineering there is still an underlying Hippocratic code whereby falsification of data or unreasonable rejection of claims by others is regarded as detrimental to the long-term progress of the subject. Researchers violating this code seriously jeopardise their career prospects. The question is: should bird recording be under the ultimate control of people who may have no empathy with the underlying scientific method? The question of precision versus accuracy could also be raised here but is best left to a later date.

With rare vagrants there is a natural check on the county records committees – the British Birds Rarities Committee (BBRC). This may not be perfect, but it does provide a level of appeal. However, there is no equivalent structure for birds that are perceived to be rare breeders. The Rare Breeding Birds Panel (RBBP) did appear to take the views of county records committees as final, judging from the introduction to its reports as for instance those for 2002 and 2003-4:

It is the Panel’s policy to follow the opinions of the appropriate county recorder and local committees, and to publish records that have not been vetted in this way only in exceptional circumstances.

The same advice was reproduced in the report for 2005 but there was a slight change, although denied as such in the report for 2006:

There have been no changes to the acceptance criteria for records since the last report (Holling et al. 2008). It is our policy where possible to follow the opinions of the relevant county recorder.

In the report for 2007, the emphasis on the opinion of the county recorder is omitted:

There have been no changes to the acceptance criteria for records since the last report (Holling et al. 2009), from which further information is available.

The current advice appears to be:

Observers may, if they wish, submit records directly to the Panel Secretary, but the normal procedure is to send them in the first instance to the relevant County Recorder who will forward them to the Panel.

So there appears to be a slow drift away from relying absolutely on the County Recorder's view. What would seem to be more desirable is for all data to go through the County Recorder but for the RBBP to be able to review the County Recorder's advice, particularly if deemed controversial, through its own expertise and that of international experts. At the local level there may be political issues as well as a lack of experience with the species concerned.

One problem which may be motivating the slow drift in the RBBP from absolute reliance on the County Recorder (and hence on county record committees) is the potential for abuse of the recording system. An observer of a rare breeding bird can be informed, subtly or otherwise, that unless locations are revealed to assist listers in reaching their targets, then they may find it tough getting their records through the committee. In my experience such pressure (pages 1  2) was applied implicitly by one member of the NCRC, Andy McLevy, in March 2003. The 'keep up the good work' at the end of p.2 can be contrasted with highly defamatory remarks made a year later by the same individual in public places, after the desired information had not been provided. The Honey-buzzard colonisation was at a delicate stage in 2003 and the secrecy was justified. With the colonisation now secure, NR is providing much more information on localities, including site photographs, through his web pages.

For the moment, it remains to itemise those responsible and their role in the review.

NCRC Members


Years served during review (2003-2005)

Official responsibilities

Chris Kehoe

2003 2004 2005

British Birds: member Editorial Board, chair RIACT

Ian Fisher

2003 2004 2005

Chair NCRC, County Recorder

Andy McLevy

2003 2004 2005

Stefan McElwee

2004 2005

Graeme Bowman

2003 2004

Maurice Hepple


Chris Knox


Tier 2 Assessors (providing additional opinions on non-breeding birds, see section 4 of NCRC response)

Alan Curry

Michael Hodgson

Steve Holliday

Stewart Sexton

Known External Assessors


Expertise on Honey-buzzard

Steve Roberts

Studies a small number of pairs in Wales; collates information from some other workers; author of a number of articles in British Birds on breeding ecology

Andrew Rowlands

Studies with Steve Roberts a small number of pairs in Wales

Rob Clements

Studies a small number of pairs in Kent

David Jardine

Studies a small number of pairs in Scotland

Clive Finlayson

Considerable experience with adults on migration at Gibraltar

Next (Part 6)