Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
This time, in contrast with the brightly coloured Gorgeous Bushshrike that I featured previously, I bring you a highly nondescript little birdie, the Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Phyllastrephus flavostriatus. Now its only feature of note is the yellow-streaked the breast and belly, and these are actually almost never clearly visible. Even in the best of light they're faint; and these birds stick to the gloom of the wet, mossy mist-belt forests of the mountains of southern and eastern Africa. Basically under such conditions, all you can see is a little bird that is uniformly drab-coloured. But strangely enough, it is far easier to spot than is the gorgeous bushshrike! Indeed, it's one of the very first bird species I saw, and immediately managed to identify, the first time I went bird-watching into the amazing forests of the Magoebaskloof region.
So while we have it within good view, let's take a long, hard look at this unassuming yet unique little bird. What is a 'greenbul'? They're members of the Pycnonotidae, the Bulbul family. Now a funny thing about African bulbuls is that, here in South Africa, we simply used to call them all 'bulbuls', but in East Africa there developed the practice of calling the dull-coloured forest bulbuls 'greenbuls' or 'brownbuls', even when they're more greyish than either green or brown. Indeed, hardly any of them are really fully brown, or anything remotely approximating bright green. But recently there have been calls to standardize the names of birds across Africa, for the sake of tourist-birdwatchers wanting to log their 'lifers' in different countries, and because Tanzania and Kenya are such popular destinations, we got stuck with having to change our bird names to theirs, so greenbuls these became.
But what are 'bulbuls' anyways? Americans and Europeans will find them mysterious, but in Africa and Asia, bulbuls include some of the most common and familiar of birds. They are small to mid-sized perching birds, mostly fruit- and insect-eating, many with crests, some with bold markings, and then a huge swathe of species with hardly any distinctive features, making them some of the most challenging of all birds in the world to identify. The one fortunate thing is that bulbuls are very vocal, and most have loud, very distinctive calls. At present, about 166 species are recognized. There have been many re-arrangements and reclassifications of the species, with some of the previously big genera being broken up, and new genera created, as it becomes clear that many very similar species are actually not that closely related. As recently as 2009, a new species has been described, the Bare-faced Bulbul, which is totally unique in the family for its entirely featherless face.
The yellow-streaked greenbul is easy to identify if seen reasonably well for any length of time. They occur singly, but more often in pairs or small family groups. Their way of life is predominantly clambering up and down mossy tree trunks, or along limbs, or around tangles of vines. They creep and climb a bit like woodpeckers, though they don't have comparatively dextrous grabbing feet. They also don't peck, but will probe their bills into the moss or into cracks in the bark, seeking spiders, insects and other small invertebrates. A characteristic behaviour of theirs is to every now and then flick a wing outwards, perhaps to try to startle little critters into revealing themselves by moving. Accompanying their creeping and wing-flicking movements, they keep up a constant rather nasal and sometimes wailing chatter. They always tend to keep in the gloom of the forest mid-story, sometimes venturing up into the canopy or rarely descending to inspect mossy fallen logs on the floor.
These bulbuls typically breed in mid-summer. The rather flimsy nest is usually positioned between 1 and 4 m above the ground, and the female lays typically two salmon-pink eggs, with darker reddish squiggles and spots. An interesting habit of these greenbuls is their extreme reluctance to leave their nests once having laid eggs. It's been reported that the incubating bird will stay put even when you're right next to it. One female eventually was pressured into dropping out of the nest to the forest floor, where she went into a slow shuffle, perhaps as a distraction from the eggs.
At present, yellow-streaked greenbuls are some of the most abundant of forest birds, and occurring over much of Africa. Though not presently endangered, they are very dependent on the continued conservation of their habitat.