Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala 灰頭鵐

Category I. Common passage migrant and winter visitor to a diverse range of vegetated often damp open-country areas. Generally, the commonest and most widespread bunting in HK. Numbers have declined however, especially in spring.


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Mar. 2017, Michelle and Peter Wong. Male.

Rather dull and poorly-marked bunting with characteristic habit of momentarily spreading open the tail revealing white in the outer feathers, a behaviour that can be used to identify birds at some distance when plumage is indistinct. Adult male in breeding plumage has dull grey head, throat and chest with blackish lores, forehead and chin, indistinct wing bars, yellowish washed belly and flanks with dark streaks on the latter, dull brown upperparts streaked darker and plain greyish-brown rump.

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Apr. 2013, Michelle and Peter Wong. Female.

Female has brownish-grey head with pale throat and submoustachial, indistinct supercilium, off white underparts with faint yellowish tinge, darkly-streaked flanks, dull grey-brown rump.


The ‘zik’ or ‘zwik’ call is quite distinctive among buntings in HK in being loud, slightly longer in duration than most and, when heard well, somewhat piercing.


In winter it is usually found in transitional areas adjacent to open country, such as the edges of active or abandoned agricultural land, fish pond bunds and the edges of reed beds; it is often associated with damp areas. It occurs in shrubland areas only if there are open patches of grassland and is sometimes found in more extensive grassland areas at higher altitudes. It tends to occur more widely in shrubland on passage when it is also occasionally found in parks or gardens in the urban area. Numbers are highest in the Deep Bay area, but it occurs throughout HK; records from the islands are most frequent during passage periods.


Black-faced Bunting is usually present from the middle of October to the first week of May (Figure 1). Extreme dates in the period are 12 October 2002 (though the earliest on record occurred on 19 September 1993) and 29 May 2007 (the latest on record). Numbers are highest in the last three weeks of November indicating passage through HK. The wintering population appears to be established from the first week of December to late February or early March. Spring passage is indicated by a minor peak in the second half of March and first half of April.

This contrasts with the pattern shown by ringing data for the period prior during which there was a rather weak passage in autumn during November and early December and a much stronger spring passage peaking at the end of March and the beginning of April. Despite the difference in data type, this change in status is considered accurate.

It also appears there has been a substantial decrease in the number of birds passing through in spring. The largest number recorded in HK is a count of 200 at Mai Po on 24 March 1992, while ringing totals of 20 or more were regular in spring in the early 1990s, the highest being 118 in the last week of March 1991. Such counts would be exceptional now, even in non-ringing activities. Since 1999 over 98% of records comprise counts of ten birds or fewer, whereas in the final two decades of the last century typical single site counts in midwinter were of 20 to 30 birds, rising to 50 or 60 in spring.

Black-faced Bunting was considered common in HK after it was first recorded by Swinhoe (1861) until the publication of Carey et al. (2001).


This species occurs less often in defined flocks than its congeners. Frequently and briefly fans outer tail feathers when foraging.


Breeds from southern Siberia and north Mongolia east to Ussuriland and northeast China, and also in central China; winters in north Indochina and south China (Kirwan et al. 2022). In China it is a summer visitor in the central Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) and in Heilongjiang and a winter visitor from the south coast north to Beijing, where it occurs uncommonly (Liu and Chen 2020, Birding Beijing 2020).

Two subspecies are recognised: nominate spodocephala breeding from southern Siberia east to Sakhalin and northeast China, and sordida, which breeds in central China. The latter has darker more saturated colours and more extensive black on the face (Shirihai and Svensson 2018). Yellow on underparts of the nominate taxon varies from almost absent to rather obvious, the latter on easterly breeding birds, and overlaps with that on sordida. It is presumed all or most birds occurring in HK are the nominate taxon.


IUCN: Least Concern. Population trend stable.

Figure 1.

Kirwan, G. M., J. L. Copete, C. Hansasuta, and P. F. D. Boesman (2022). Black-faced Bunting (Emberiza spodocephala), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (N. D. Sly, Editor). 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.

Shirihai, H. and L. Svensson (2018). Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds Vol. 2. Passerines: Flycatchers to Buntings. Helm, London.

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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