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Alex’s Birding Chirp No. 13 – Bulbuls, Greenbuls and Brownbuls


Hi everyone, hope you are all well and looking forward to visiting our reserve once the borders are open and back to normal.

Birds that are common in suburban gardens bring life and liveliness that we sometimes take for granted. Bulbuls are a good example of birds that we don’t give a second look. There are ten species of Bulbul, Greenbul and Brownbul in Southern Africa of which four species are found in our reserve. Dark-capped Bulbul, Sombre Greenbul, Yellow-bellied Greenbul and the Terrestrial Brownbul.

Dark-capped Bulbuls are a chattering and cheerful presence not only in suburbia but in wild places too. Fairly tame in gardens, they are usually seen in pairs and also in small family groups.

They were formally called the Black-eyed Bulbul, and in South Africa they occur mostly in the eastern regions. Besides their black head, one of their distinguishing features is the yellow patch under the tail, although this is found on other similar bulbuls as well. They are also known as Toppies, presumably because of the slight crest on the top of the head. The black eye distinguishes this bulbul from the Cape Bulbul with a white eye ring, and the Red-eyed Bulbul with a red eye ring. The Cape Bulbul does occur in parts of the south western Cape, and the Red-eyed Bulbul occurs in the drier areas, such as the Karoo and up into Botswana and Nambia. The three are most noticeably distinguished by the different colours round the eye. (20cm in size)

The Dark-capped Bulbul’s food includes fruit, flowers, nectar, insects, spiders and caterpillars. In our reserve they are frequent lodge visitors especially around bird baths.

They have a variety of cheerful disjointed notes and are often seen in pairs, and when roosting at night the pair will perch pressed together with their heads tucked under their wings. The Dark-capped Bulbul makes its nest in dense foliage and will lay 2 to 3 eggs. Interestingly the Dark-capped Bulbul is parasitised by the Jacobin Cuckoo.

Narrow black eye-ring easily seperates it from African red-eyed and Cape Bulbuls.
The slight crest is where the ‘Toppies’ name originates from.

This is what a Dark-capped Bulbul’s face looks like after feeding on aloe nectar.

Greenbuls and Brownbuls are a large diverse group of drab bulbuls of forest, woodlands and thickets. They are notoriously difficult to identify, however they all have distinct calls that makes it easier to identify them.

The Yellow-bellied Greenbul used to be known as the Yellow-bellied Bulbul. Some people refer to it as the ‘Bush Belly-ache’ because of its guttural call which is often heard in suitable habitat.A chunky greenbul with a heavy bill, yellowish underparts, olive upperparts and a diagnostic white crescent above its eye. (22cm in size) Although they are slightly larger than the Sombre Greenbul, they are easily differentiated by combination of yellower underparts, reddish eyes and a whitish crescent above the eye.

These birds are fairly shy and are more often heard than seen.Their call is also very different to the Sombre Greenbul consisting of a short series of nasal gehr-gehr-gehr.

The Yellow-bellied Greenbul can be found in the eastern coastal region, of South Africa, as well as the north-eastern parts of the country. Beyond our borders they can be found as far north as Kenya.

They are normally found in well-vegetated areas, particularly where there are lots of undergrowth. Their food consists of fruit, seeds, flowers and insects. Sometimes they act like Oxpeckers and may be seen pulling ticks off mammals. They readily visit bird baths, but can be quite shy when approached.

They make flimsy nests amongst the vegetation. Up to 3 eggs are laid. Although only the female incubates the eggs the male does assist in feeding the young.

The Sombre Greenbul or Willie has dull green upperparts, olive-grey underparts and starkly white eyes which separates it from other bulbuls. It is often first detected by its loud, shrill “Willie! …..come out and play with me” song, ending with a nasal “sca-a-ared.” They are slightly smaller than the Yellow-bellied Greenbul (21cm in size)

Their habitat is mostly forest, thickets and dense woodland. They feed on mostly fruit but will also take insects, snails, leaf buds and aloe nectar. Like the Yellow-bellied Greenbul they will regularly visit bird baths and ponds in absence of people or activity.

The Terrestrial Brownbul is a dull, dark brown, gregarious understory brownbul with dark brown-red eyes and a whitish throat. Small groups of 4-6 individuals skulk in understorey of thickets and forest. (normally in the lower 2m of thick undergrowth making them very difficult to see). They hop and sneak through the undergrowth, flicking dead leaves and looking for mainly insects.

Although I hear them regularly around the camp, I have not yet seen one at our bird bath or pond.

Their call is a series of harsh nasal “ugk-ugk-ugk-ugk” chuckling, chattering notes that draw attention to themselves.
The below picture of a Terrestrial Brownbul was sourced from the internet.