On bulbul browsing and the importance of detailed, illustrated field notes.
by Richard Hoath
I’m flicking through the wellworn pages of my Stevenson and Fanshawe’s Birds of East Africa as one does of an evening. And I home in on the bulbuls ahead of a possible East Africa trip. As one does of an evening. They are a difficult group of birds some 35 species in my target area and far more beyond. They are for the most part dull in drab browns and olives but with occasional flashes of rufous and yellow and some have exuberant and cheerful vocals. The Joyful Greenbul of Western Africa has certainly earned its name.
And we have bulbuls here in Egypt. Indeed one of our most common yet unrecognized and under-appreciated birds is the unattractively named Common Bulbul. It is drab. At 17 cm it is not imposing and is decked out in beiges and browns, paler below and with a darker head and breast. When excited there is a slight crest but it is not going to set the world on fire. Vocally it is of much more interest, its chortlings and babblings being a key part of Cairo’s dawn chorus and its chattering a daylong audio backdrop, unrecognized for the most part, to the city’s comings and goings. My life would be poorer without the Common Bulbul.
Eastwards, across the Suez Canal, or now both of them, the Common Bulbul is replaced by the ever so slightly more flamboyant Black-capped or White-spectacled Bulbul — so good they named it twice. This species is much the same but with a white ring around the eye and with bright yellow below the tail, the vent of the name. It can be looked out for at St Katherine’s in the gardens of the monastery if one can still get there. It too chortles and chatters and babbles though the books report that the song “appears to be consistently delivered at a slower pace with a few notes at a time and lacking the characteristic jolting rhythm of [the] Common Bulbul.” I cannot vouch for that but a bulbul with a yellow bum in Sinai is going to be the White-spectacled Bulbul.
But back to my bulbul browsing and my Stevenson and Fanshawe. Their first bulbul page is of the five bulbul species most likely to be encountered in East Africa and the dowdy Common Bulbul is right up there. And I have seen the Little Greenbul and the Mountain Greenbul and the Slender-billed Bulbul but the fifth of the ubiquitous quintet, the Yellowwhiskered Greenbul does not ring a bell and yet it is described as “very common within its range, inhabiting highland forest, forest strips and wooded gardens from 700-3000m.” Well I had been in its range and “to highland forests, forest strips and wooded gardens” and I had travelled within the 700-3000m parameters and yet it seemed I had never seen this bird. And so I hit the books, this time my books, the journals I write and sketch in whenever I travel.Via my journals I found myself in Uganda in 2005 and specifically the Sese Islands in Lake Victoria on July 9, 2005. After a walk in the forests and gardens the entry reads,
Bulbul/Greenbul sp. Very uniform dark brown olive upperparts and tail. No bars, spots etc. Dull grey lowerparts but with bright pale yellow throat, though when seen from below either side of throat. In trees above room. Musical bubbling bulbul calls. Dark eye (brownish). *Yellow-throated Leaflove.
And there it was — a misidentification. The Yellow-throated Leaflove does indeed occur in southern Uganda but it has a white eye (iris) and a uniformly yellow throat. I consulted my Zimmerman et al Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania and there, under Yellow-whiskered Bulbul it was writ, “The most numerous greenbul from 1500-3000m … readily identified by the prominent yellow streak on each side of the throat. With whiskers compressed may appear yellow-throated.” So, a misidentification from nine years ago finally corrected by detailed field notes. I had seen the Yellow-whiskered Bulbul.
The moral of this tale is that it is very, very important to take notes and record sightings however mundane they may seem to be. The emphasis now is on the camera. It is so easy to point and click but the instant image does not capture the true essence of an animal, bird or otherwise. That is why field guides, even in this digital age, still predominantly use painted illustrations to depict their subjects. A photograph can capture an instant but a high-quality painted plate can capture all the features of a particular species in one image. Thus in the plates of both Stevenson and Fanshawe and also of Zimmerman et al all the features of the Yellow-whiskered Greenbul were fully depicted down to that divided yellow throat and dark eye. Courtesy of my field notes, in 2015, in Garden City, in the middle of grading final exams I had a new East African species — the Yellow-whiskered Bulbul. The Yellow-throated Leaflove will have to wait another day and another trip.
Field notes have another use though, and one that I was totally unprepared for. In 1992 I was in Zaire, what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and more specifically in the eastern DRC in a town called Bukavu on the southern shore of Lake Kivu. I was there to visit the Kahuzi-Baiga National Park home to the Eastern Lowland Gorilla and I did indeed catch up with the gorillas and the Mountain Gorillas further north in the Virunga National Park. Nothing can compare to an audience with wild gorillas but that is another story.
I was trekking around Bukavu, binoculars in hand, looking for birds and found a promising piece of forest off the beaten track. I settled myself down with my bins, my field guide, my journal and my camera with impressive long lens, and waited for the birds. In forest waiting is a sound tactic. Birds will often pass through in multispecies parties so while one might see nothing for hours, all of a sudden there may be a tsunami of species passing through. I waited. And waited. I clocked up a Great Sparrowhawk all big and dark above and pale below, and a flamboyantly chestnut male Paradise Flycatcher with its improbably elongated tail ribbons. Flamboyant and improbable but not earth shaking. And then there was a clamor and thrashing from the canopy and into my binocular sights came a stonking great Lady Ross’ Violet Plaintain-eater now known as Ross’s Turaco (I prefer the former). This is a relative of the cuckoos, bright purple throughout and with a bright crimson crest and stout de curved yellow bill. Turacos are birds of character and this 54cm of deep mauve magnificence duly performed as it clambered deftly through the maze of twigs and branches as I sketched and drew and watched. And I noted.
There was a click from behind me, a metallic click, not a natural click and I turned round to find three heavily armed Zairean soldiers in full combat gear with guns trained on me and they were not smiling. The click was a safety catch. This was no innocent patch of forest for naïve naturalists to park their bags and wait for bird parties. This was the grounds of the headquarters of the Governor of Kivu Province, a vast fiefdom in then-dictator Mobutu’s realm, I was sitting there with all the accoutrements of a spy, the long lens camera, the binoculars, the camouflage gear (we naturalists like to blend in), maps and a notebook. And it was the latter which saved me.
In my notebook, my journal, were all the sketches I had been making of the spectacularly plumaged Lady Ross’ Violet Plaintain-eater. And the bird, an avian prima donna as ever there was, was still there clambering and growling through the foliage. I showed my sketches to the military. I showed them my field guide. I pointed out the bird still performing above relishing its Warholesque 15 minutes. In bad French I explained what I was doing. They decided I was not a spy. Mad, very definitely, but not a spy. I lived to see another bird.
And then there’s the time my journal got me out of jail in Sudan. But again, that’s another story!