Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata 硫磺鵐

Category I. Scarce passage migrant, more numerous in spring; occurs in vegetated open-country habitats and shrubland edge.


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Mar. 2016, Michelle and Peter Wong. Male.

13-14 cm. Relatively small and subtly patterned bunting with a clear-cut narrow white orbital ring broken at front and rear in all plumages. Male has plain greenish head with darker lores and chin and greyish bill, yellowish throat, greyish mantle streaked blackish, warm buff edges to tertials and inner secondaries, near white tips to median coverts, diffuse white tips to outer webs of greater coverts, pale yellowish underparts with diffuse dark streaks down flanks.

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Nov. 2008, Michelle and Peter Wong. Female/immature.

Females and first-years have duller head pattern with indistinct pale supercilium and submoustachial, diffuse pale tips to median coverts, pale buff tips to greater coverts, narrow warm buff edges to tertials and dull underparts with poorly-marked flank streaks.


The typical call is relatively thin and high-pitched compared to some other bunting calls.


During the period 1999-2020 approximately 40% of reports were from the migrant watchpoint of Po Toi, 26% were from the Deep Bay area and a further 20% were from Long Valley. Given that Po Toi was barely visited in the 1980s and 1990s, this is broadly similar to the situation up to 1998 when just over half the observations were in the Deep Bay area.

Japanese Yellow Buntings are usually seen in open-canopy shrubland or shrubland edge, agricultural edge habitats, inactive or abandoned agricultural fields, well-vegetated fish pond bunds, on the edges of gei wai or even at the edge of mangroves. There are also records from other localities scattered across HK, mainly the New Territories but also Lantau, Cheung Chau and HK Island.


Japanese Yellow Bunting is a scarce passage migrant in spring and autumn, approximately twice as numerous in the former (Figure 1). Peak numbers in spring occur in the first three weeks of April and extreme dates are 25 March to 4 May. In autumn the highest numbers occur in the second and third weeks of November and the extreme dates are 25 October and 4 December. Most records since 1999 are of one or two birds with the highest being five at Long Valley on 21 April 2006.

In contrast, from the mid-1980s to 1998 small parties of birds were not infrequent, and larger numbers occurred during years with influxes, the highest counts being 15 on 11 April 1993 and 17 on 6 April 1996. From 1987 to 1996 there were four years in which the sum of aggregate weekly counts in spring reached double figures or, in one year, a triple figure (116). Since then, however, despite increased observer coverage, especially since 2010, only single figure totals have been recorded. This would seem to indicate that there has been a decline in numbers passing through HK (see Figure 1).

At the same time numbers have declined the period of occurrence has expanded to include autumn, though this is likely to be due to increased observer activity. The first autumn record occurred on 10 November 2007, since when there has been at least one record in most years. Numbers are low, with no more than three recorded at any site. Most of these records have occurred at Po Toi or the well-watched Long Valley, though there does not appear to be any association with rice cultivation at the latter site.

Japanese Yellow Bunting was first recorded in HK in 1860 by Swinhoe who saw one in spring (Swinhoe 1861), presumably on HK Island. However, it was not seen again until 10 April 1984. Since this species is considered to have declined significantly in Japan (Brazil 1991), it seems probable that it was overlooked during the intervening period amongst the large numbers of superficially similar Black-faced Buntings.


Forages on seeds, but no details. Usually seen in or near dense cover, habits similar to Black-faced Bunting.


Monotypic. Breeds in the northern half of Honshu, Japan and winters in the northern Philippines, though there are also records from southern Japan (Copete 2020). In China occurs as a migrant through southern and eastern coastal areas (Liu and Chen 2020).


IUCN: Least Concern. Population size over 10,000 individuals.

Figure 1.

Brazil, M. (2018). Birds of Japan. Helm, London.

Copete, J. L. (2020). Yellow Bunting (Emberiza sulphurata), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Liu, Y. and Y. H. Chen (eds) (2020). The CNG Field Guide to the Birds of China (in Chinese). Hunan Science and Technology Publication House, Changsha.

Swinhoe, R. (1861). Notes on the ornithology of Hong Kong, Macao and Canton, made during the latter end of February, March, April and the beginning of May 1860. Ibis 1861: 23-57.

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