Mixed Messages
African Birdlife|May/June 2021
Deciphering South Africa’s first Crested Honey Buzzard
Callan Cohen

The inconvenient possibility that the Crested Honey Buzzard at Somerset West could be a hybrid throws a spotlight on the tricky identification of this species.

Around lunchtime on Saturday, 30 January 2021, I casually checked the Western Cape General Birding Chat Telegram group. There on my screen was a photograph from Kate Morris taken a few hours earlier in Somerset West near Cape Town and she was requesting identification assistance. I did a double-take: the image was of a Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus, never before recorded in southern Africa but a species I have studied in detail because of its potential as a vagrant to South Africa.

But there was a complication. Many of the Crested Honey Buzzards recorded in the Middle East (and thus potential vagrants to Africa) are thought to hybridise with the closely related European Honey Buzzard P. apivorus and some of the features visible in that initial photograph didn’t exclude it being a hybrid. This Asian species is also widely known as the Oriental Honey Buzzard because a significant crest on the head is found only in southern subspecies, which are often split.

Birders rushed into action and the bird was soon relocated by Somerset West twitcher Bryn de Kocks at the now-famous Spanish Farm raptor-watch point. For more than a month the bird taunted and delighted birders, appearing suddenly on random afternoons and disappearing just as quickly. Some birders visited the site on six occasions before seeing it.

But the excitement of seeing the bird soon turned to uncertainty: could it be a hybrid? Confusion reigned: some birders were extremely disappointed that it might not represent a new bird for their life-list if adjudged a hybrid, while others were uneasy about how to interpret what they had seen. A number of international experts on this species were consulted to give their opinion.

Was the Somerset West bird in fact a hybrid and how does one begin to evaluate all the discussion and opinions?

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