Japanese Accentor: March 3rd 2001, Dadapo, Busan
Nial Moores

Japanese Accentor Prunella rubida

One, found and watched by three observers, on March 3rd 2001, at Dadapo, Busan City.

Looking for commoner migrants at the forest/beach interface at Dadapo, Nakdong estuary, Nial Moores, with Dominic Mitchell (editor of Birdwatch magazine in the UK) and Adam Rowlands (British Rarities Committee member and RSPB staff), watched a small russety-rufous passerine fly low along the rocky edge, to land on an exposed perch for 3-4 seconds, about 30 m from us. Even very brief binocular views allowed immediate identification as Japanese Accentor, especially as this species superficially closely resembles the smaller and slighter Dunnock Prunella modularis, one of Britain’s commonest birds.

Obvious features included its overall grey and rufous-brown coloration and its accentor bill (ruling out the obviously dissimilar Grey Bunting Emberiza variabilis). After ’pishing’ for 2-3 minutes, the bird showed again, perched on top of a low bush, for about 15 seconds, and then disappeared back into cover. It could not be re-found (nor photographed) despite over one hour of intensive searching.

The bird’s identification was based on: (1) its typical accentor shape and structure, with a heavy looking solidly dark "insect-eating" bill; (2) its overall grey tones below, warmer brown above (obviously ruling out Siberian Accentor Prunella montanella); (3) its plainer ear coverts than Dunnock, with a brown-washed supercilium lacking contrast; (4) its vent and lower flanks strongly washed with rufous; (5) its variegated brown and black upperparts, with perhaps the warmest tones on the back/nape; (6) its lack of clear wing-bars (ruling out the much-larger and rather more distinctively-marked Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris). The irises were brown with a black pupil, and the legs appeared to be pink.

The Japanese Accentor is believed confined to Japan and islands north of it, and although resident in some of its range it is partly migratory, with birds moving to lower levels in winter, and some dispersing southwest at that time to occasionally reach northern Kyushu (Brazil 1991). The extreme severity of the 2000/2001 winter and southeast Korea’s proximity to Japan suggest that this could have been either a genuine "hard weather" vagrant or that, like the Grey Bunting, the rather unassuming Japanese Accentor might prove to be less rare in South Korea than this single record suggests.

We are grateful for the following description which was mailed to us by Dominic Mitchell (DM):

Description by Adam Rowlands (JAR):

First impression was of a Dunnock (Prunella modularis)-type accentor, but with a dull rufous brown (rather than grey) head. Nial Moores recorded this as rufous on the rear crown and nape, but greyer on the front of the head and ear coverts. DM agreed with JAR that the bird appeared rufous on the throat. The browner colouration almost gave a hooded impression at some viewing angles. The underparts were grey and showed reddish rufous spotting on the rear flanks and ventral area. Therefore, the overall pattern of the underparts was very reminiscent of a Dunnock. The mantle was rich brown with dark streaking (again resembling Dunnock). There were no conspicuous wing bars and no white in the outer tail feathers. The bird had a fine blackish bill. The eye appeared dark (although Nial Moores recorded it as brown). The legs were pale flesh. The medium length tail was held horizontally and was not flicked during the relatively brief periods of observation. It was hopping between perches and remained quite elusive throughout.

After the last sighting we failed to relocate it in 40 minutes’ searching, but JAR finally had further views, which he states as being the best he had. JAR observed the bird through 8x32 Leica binoculars, and DM through 8x30 Swarovski binoculars.

Neither JAR and DM have previous experience of this species, but both are extremely familiar with Dunnock, which is a common bird in the UK. JAR also has previous experience of Alpine Accentor, (P.collaris) in Britain and Europe, Black-throated (P. atrogularis), Brown (P. fulvescens) and Altai Accentors (P. himalayna) in Kazakhstan, and Siberian Accentor (P.montanella) in China. DM also has previous experience of Alpine Accentor in Britain and Europe, and Radde’s Accentor (P. ocularis) in Armenia.

The weather conditions during the observation were overcast, with moderate visibility. It was calm and cool. JAR and DM are both 100% certain of the bird’s identification.