Chinese Bulbul: Oct 29th 2002, Eocheong Island
Nial Moores

Chinese Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis

Photo © Nial Moores

One (presumed) adult (subspecies unknown) first found and photographed on October 29 2002 on Eocheong Island, Jeollabuk Province. Still present on November 1, 2002 (when NM left the island).

In largely sunny periods with a light northwesterly wind, while conducting a survey of raptors and other migrants on Eocheong Island, loud shrike-like or bulbul-like "Tocc-Tocc-Tocc" calls were heard coming from an area of dense bamboo, fruit trees and bushes behind the village, in an area favoured by many species of migrant. After about 2 minutes, the bird was located, perched near the crown of a small tree. Identification of the bird as Chinese Bulbul was immediate, as NM has prior experience of this highly distinctive and attractive species, from Beidaihe, Hebei, China, in 1992 and Hong Kong (several visits during the 1990s). A series of images were immediately taken with a digital camera through a tripod-mounted Nikon telescope.

Eocheong Island, 29 October 2002, © Nial Moores

Identification was based on its overall size and structure, being (1) a medium-sized bird, with (2) a largish, crested head; (3) full, plump "belly"; (4) comparatively short wings and medium-length tail; and (5) a longish, pointed bill. Even more striking was its diagnostically pied head pattern, with a (6) largely black head (7) contrasting markedly with its white throat, and (8) a whitish patch to the rear of the lower ear coverts and (9) most especially a triangular white wedge stretching back from the eye, across the whole nape (though some of these feathers showed darker tips on closest views). The head pattern alone ruled out all other superficially similar species, including all other bulbul species. In addition it had (10) generally brownupperparts, with (11) a sullied brown breast band, with some brown also extending along the flanks; and (12) a paler belly and vent. It also showed (13) bright lime green edges to much of the closed wing, and on some of the tail feathers, as well as some faint yellowish-green streaking on the mantle and breast sides. (14) Its calls and song (given frequently) were highly distinctive too, even if very difficult to transcribe accurately, essentially being loud, repetitive and rather melodic.

Eocheong Island, 29 October 2002, © Nial Moores

Disappearing for up to 30 minutes at a time, the bulbul then often emerged from dense vegetation to perch in the open, preferring a fairly restricted area of habitat on the 30th. Especially in the early morning on October 31, it perched at the top of a tall willow, and sung persistently for about 15 minutes, before flying several hundred meters to another area of trees and bushes. On November 1st, it was heard calling only briefly. The bird seemed to associate very loosely with a small group of Brown-eared Bulbuls Ixos/Hypsipetes amaurotis, and apparently fed largely on berries.

Largely confined to central and eastern China as a breeding species (though also present on Taiwan and Japanese islands south of Kyushu [Brazil, 1991]), and considered to be mostly resident, MacKinnon and Phillipps (2000) state that northern populations of Chinese Bulbul migrate southward in winter, with regular records in Hebei Province and on the Shandong Peninsula (only 300 km northwest of Eocheong Island). After being first recorded in Beidaihe, Hebei, in autumn 1986, it has subsequently even become established as a breeding species there (M. Williams in lit.). The individual on Eocheong Island was found after several days of force 5-6 northwesterly winds, a period that also produced amongst a wide range of migrants several presumed Hume’s Leaf Warblers Phylloscopus humei. Although a first record for Korea, it appears possible that if the trend of increasingly hot summers and mild winters continues, that the species could likely occur more regularly in Korea in future decades.

At least 5 subspecies have been recognized (Howard and Moore, 1984) and although the east Chinese sinensis would be the most likely to occur on range (three of the other taxa being considered largely resident; the fourth being found in Central China) a request for information on subspecific identification and ageing has been made, as detailed descriptions do not appear to be contained in the more easily accessible literature.