Variation in Oriental Honey Buzzard

My visit to Laotieshan in Liaoning Province provided an excellent opportunity to get to grips with one of China’s most numerous raptors – the Oriental (Crested) Honey Buzzard.  We saw well over 1,500 of these birds during the first few days of our visit from 24 September, but clearly the bulk of these relatively early migrants had already passed through… Numbers tailed off pretty quickly at the end of Sep/early Oct, just as the number of Common Buzzards (a later migrant) began to increase.  The 4th October was the first day that Common Buzzards outnumbered Oriental Honeys.   I suspect that a survey from late August at Laotieshan would reveal several thousand Oriental Honey Buzzards (OHB) passing through (one local birdwatcher told us that the first OHBs of the autumn passed through on 2 September at Laotieshan).

The OHBs we saw were mostly juveniles but there were a few late adults mixed in (adults tend to migrate earlier).  The variation, as with European Honey Buzzard (EHB), is astonishing.

The main differences between OHB and EHB are as follows:

Size: OHB is larger with broader wings and 6 ‘fingers’ (vs 5 in EHB), sometimes recalling an Aquila eagle in silhouette.

Plumage: OHBs, as with EHBs, are highly variable, especially in juvenile plumages.  One of the main plumage differences between the two are that OHBs do not usually have a contrasting carpal patch and have a relatively shorter and fuller tail than EHBs.

In this post I am including some images of the birds we saw, with some comments about age and sex.  Please feel free to contact me if you think I have any wrongly labelled!

Oriental Honey Buzzard, Laotieshan. This is a juvenile, probably a male. Note the yellow base to the bill, the dark eye and the relatively neat and fresh plumage. A hint of grey on the head indicates this is probably a male.
Another juvenile. This one is very dark. Again, note the yellow base to the bill, the dark eye and the fresh plumage. This bird is also probably a male given the hint of grey on the head and the relatively well-marked bands on the underwing and tail.
Juvenile male. Juvenile due to the yellow base to the bill and fresh plumage. A male due to the grey wash to the head and the thick dark tail bands.
Juvenile male. 'Rufous' juveniles like this seemed to be the dominant form. Again, note the yellow base to the bill and fresh plumage indicating a juvenile. Also note the 2 strong tailbands, indicating a probably male (females generally have multiple narrower bands on the tail).
Juvenile, probable female. Aged as a juvenile given the yellow base to the bill and fresh plumage. Probably a female given multiple relatively thin tailbands.
Juvenile female. Note the multiple, relatively thin, tailbands.
Juvenile female. Note pale-ish iris (males retain a dark iris) and multiple tail bands.
Same bird as above.
Juvenile female. Again, note the hint of a pale iris and multiple tail bands.
Juvenile (pale form). Superficially recalls Booted Eagle or Osprey. Not sure about sexing this bird.
Another pale juvenile.
Adult male. Note the all dark bill (indicating adult), grey head, prominent dark trailing edge to the wing, thick tail bands and relatively thick barring on the underwing (all characteristics of a male).
Adult male. Dark bill and prominent trailing edge to the wing indicates adult. Grey on head and two thick bands on the tail indicate male.
Adult male. Thick dark tail-bands, prominent dark trailing edge to wing.
Adult female? Pale iris and three tail-bands suggest female.
Adult female. Pale iris and lack of grey on head suggest female.

11 thoughts on “Variation in Oriental Honey Buzzard”

  1. Great to see the variation – very helpful. Amazing to get so many useful pictures in just a few days!

    1. Thank you, Gretchen! Laotieshan must be one of the best places to see Oriental Honey Buzzards. If the winds are right, many pass very close, allowing exceptional views.

    1. Hi Albert. Thanks. Your bird is a curious individual. “Not sure” is my answer! It has 6 ‘fingers’ as in OHB but the overall structure looks more like EHB. I received an email (from your colleague?) about the Batumi bird and have sent him a reply. I see some respected observers think it may be a hybrid between the two. Must be a possibility as you are close to the area where the two species meet. Terry

  2. Hi Terry,
    Thanks for your wonderful post. Can you please help how we can differntaite between the pale juvenile, Oriental Honey Buzzard and the juvenile Rufous bellied Eagle.

  3. Nice Article. I learnt how to ID Male and Female OHBs in Juvenile plumage. But I think, even female OHBs could show Grey face. I recently photographed a OHB at Kerawalapitiya (Sri Lanka) showing Yellow Iris, Grey face and 3 tail bands (subterminal band not visible on this Bird).
    By the way OHB (pale morph) juvenile recalls Rufous-bellied Eagle juvenile too.

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