Nine different species of fairy-wren call Australia home – and I’d love to see all of them. So far I’ve found five – the two well-known ‘blue wrens’ and the three I will focus on in this post: Variegated, Red-winged and White-winged. White-winged Fairy-wrens are fairly easy to identify if you see a male in full breeding plumage, as in the opening image. In contrast, the females and non-breeding males are very pale and dull, with no eye-ring or coloured lores. Walking along the coastal path between Ocean Reef and Burns Beach north of Perth is a good place to see them. If you are lucky enough to visit Dirk Hartog or Barrow Islands, you might see the nominate race of the White-winged Fairy-wren – the breeding males are very dramatically black with white wings.
The last time I found White-winged Fairy-wrens I captured some interesting behaviour – even though the beautiful brightly coloured male was offering up a blue petal as part of his courtship display, he was ignored by the female in favour of a very scruffy male just starting to moult into his breeding plumage. This seems to be a fairy-wren strategy; although they are ‘socially monogamous’ and have a strong pair bond between the main male and female of a group, they appear to be sexually promiscuous and will mate with other individuals. The behavioural ecology of fairy-wrens looks an interesting area of study.
Variegated Fairy-wrens are found across most of Australia and in many places are the only fairy-wren with a chestnut shoulder. In the south-west of Western Australia we have to be careful as there are two other possibilities. The Variegated breeding males have a distinctive small patch of purply-blue on the sides of the upper breast, usually showing between the black bib and the red shoulder. Female Variegated Fairy-wrens have a chestnut mask formed by the lores and eye-ring, quite a bit darker in colour than the tan bill – this shows well in the photo above.
The other two species with chestnut shoulders are the Blue-breasted and Red-winged – I have yet to see or photograph the Blue-breasted. The differences between the two include preferred habitat (Blue-breasted generally in drier areas) and the shades of blue in the breeding males (when I see/photograph a Blue-breasted I will make a call on how easy they are to separate using that!). The females are easier to split as the Red-winged has chestnut lores, no eye-ring and a black bill while the Blue-breasted has a darker rufous colour that is the same across all three features. I can recommend Birdlife Australia’s article Fifty Shades of Brown for help in sorting out the differences between the female fairy-wrens. I was pretty sure the birds I saw in Donnelly River were Red-winged because of the habitat (jarrah and karri forest) but it was good to confirm with the colouration of the females.