Tuesday 11 February 2014

Black-faced Bunting (personata, spodocephala and sordida)

Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala personata, sometimes split as Masked Bunting E. personata is a common taxon in Kansai, one a visitor will see with minimal effort. It is easily found anywhere with thick ground cover and bushes, shrubs or trees. Thus it's common along the Uji/Yodo and Katsura rivers in Kyoto but not the manicured Kamogawa. It occurs in parts of the botanical gardens or Imperial Palace where there's undergrowth and around the feet of surrounding hills such as at Takaragaiike. It doesn't occur in continuous forest where any Black-faced type call is more likely to be Grey, though the combination of a road following a stream through forest will often create enough habitat for them. It isn't shy, nor is it a skulker, but prefers to stay in cover and doesn't habitually perch prominently like Meadow Bunting, the other very common bunting here.

Winter male in the botanical gardens, Kyoto 3 February.

Winter male at the botanical gardens, Kyoto 7 March.

Breeding male on the Yodo river, Kyoto 10 April.

A bright female on Hegura in October.

A female-type on the Katsura River in Kyoto, 21 November. A visitor will probably see birds with these yellow suffused underparts more frequently than the bright underparts of the previous individual. Some visitors I've guided commented that birds here were much less yellow than they had expected. The ear coverts are grey enclosed by a brown border, compared to spodocephala the flank streaking is less contrasting because of the duller ground. 

In spring nominate continental birds are regular in western Japan, particularly on the islands, they're fairly common on Mishima (Yamaguchi) and Hegura (Ishikawa) it seems to be the default taxon in the Yaeyama Is. and on Tsushima. Females I see are strikingly white below, much colder than even the least yellow personata. If they can be seen, the outer tail feather markings are meant to be distinctive. However I was puzzled that I never saw breeding plumage males considering personata males look the part at this time of year, then suddenly in 2014 there were more males than females. Just one of those odd coincidences I suppose.

This spodocephala, unusually, was out on open fields far from cover on Mishima (Yamaguchi) 4 May 2009.

Another spodocephala Mishima (Yamaguchi) 29 April 2009. The cold greyish head and white underparts are eye-catching.

I came across this spodocephala only about 100m beyond the previous bird. Though most of the visible white on the tail in this shot is on t5, enlarging the image shows black is restricted to the outer web of t6. The head is uniformly grey, lacking brown lateral crown stripes and border enclosing the ear coverts. The flank streaks are fine on this individual but they are nevertheless conspicuously offset by the clean white ground.

Male spod. Hegura, May 2014. 

Male spod. Hegura, May 2014.

A fresh male spodocephala perched up with several personata on Hegura, 7 October 2011. This bird appears to have a more delicate bill than the personata at the bottom, A Guide to the Buntings and North American Sparrows (Byers et al 1995) states personata is heavier-billed. Admittedly it's difficult to judge because of the angle here but it also looks slight on the more heavily cropped image below.

The chin to upper breast is grey unlike any personata, it has a faint but distinct sub-moustachial stripe which I'd put down to pale tipped fresh feathers. I was surprised to see fine breast streaking underlying the grey and at first wondered whether this could be an aberrant personanta, however the t6 pattern matches that of spodocephala.

This heavily cropped shot shows the wholly white inner web of t6 as well as black on the outer web extending well up the feather from the tip.

Below are two more interesting birds on Hegura on the same date as the above male. Neither gave definitive views but if personata they raise questions about identification of female-types in autumn. The first is a very cold-plumaged bird lacking any hint of yellow and the second buffer with a browner head and faint yellowish tint to the throat. While I don't doubt many personata have yellow below limited to a light wash, I wouldn't expect a total absence of any yellow hue.
I'm unsure about the status of sordida, how often or whether, it occurs in Japan. I understand female-types are yellowish below and would therefore be more likely to go undetected. According to Brazil (Field Guide to the Birds of East Asia) female sordida has browner crown and ear coverts, with a buff not yellow supercillium.

Female-type on Hegura, 7 October 2011. This bird had extensive distal black running up the outer web of t6 but I was unable to see more detail. The sub-moustacial stripe and throat are a cold white and the underparts lacked any yellow. The overall appearance suggests spodocephala and though my attention was drawn to it, I could never be certain about its identity with the brief views I was able to get.

The other bird on Hegura on the same date as the previous two was subtly different to other Black-faced I've seen and seems to further muddy the waters. Could this be sordida or is it personata mostly lacking yellow pigment? On the face of it the southern distribution of sordida makes occurrence unlikely, autumn occurrence even more so. However Byers et al states some authors treat north-east Chinese and Ussuriland populations as part of sordida. I don't know if there are any morphological features shown by these birds which might support the view. This bird has browner ear coverts than typical personata or spodocephala with a much bolder brown border than the latter. The lateral crown stripes are very brown quite unlike  spodocephala but they look very contrasting even by personata standards. There is a yellowish tint to the throat but the sub-moustacial is white. The supercillium is buffish behind the eye and buff with a hint of yellow before the eye. The underparts are off-white and lack yellow except perhaps a very slight yellowish blush to the more buffish flanks. The streaking on the underparts is very fine but distinct against the light ground. The combination of bold brown lateral crown stripes, and border to brownish ear coverts seem to rule out spodocephala so if sordida seems too fanciful, this bird would at least indicate how very lacking in yellow personata can be. It's unfortunate I wasn't able to get more complete views. 

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