Nature in Focus Blog

A few more fairy-wrens

White-winged fairy-wren in breeding plumage
White-winged fairy-wren in breeding plumage

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.

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Australian “Blue Wrens”

Male Splendid Fairy-wren in full breeding plumage at Joondalup

Brightly-coloured male Fairy-wrens in their nuptial plumage can stop many an Australian birder in their tracks. The birds may be tiny but they more than make up for it with showiness. Most familiar are the two “Blue Wrens’ – the Superb Fairy-Wren (Malurus cyaneus) of the east coast and Tasmania, and the Splendid Fairy-wren (Malurus splendens) found across the south-western and more southern central areas.

The male blue wrens are easy to identify in their distinctive breeding plumage, but most male Fairy-wrens are only dressed in their beautiful breeding colours for spring and summer; in autumn they moult back into what is called eclipse plumage – similar to the females at first glance. Separating the females, youngsters and non-breeding males is a bit trickier, requiring a close look at the colour of bills, eye-rings and lores. First year males can be confusing as they show the tan eye ring of the females combined with the black bill of a male, while some of the older males will retain their bright colours for the whole year. Often it is thought that the family groups consist of one male with several females but closer inspection usually reveals some birds to be males in non-breeding plumage.

The blue feathers of the males are iridescent, caused by the particular structure of the barbules of their feathers. Its not hard to see where the Splendid Fairy-wren’s scientific name of splendens (shining) came from. I have often noticed this iridescence when photographing the breeding males – usually the images need the contrast and highlights toned down a bit to prevent the feathers looking plastic. The feature image for this article is a good example – not sure how successful I was. The ear-coverts are often the shiniest feather tract – they are used in face fan displays, which appear to be a territorial behaviour (sometimes seen in response to call playback; phishing is a better option).

Corellas and cockatoos

Flock of corellas at sunset
Flock of corellas at sunset

Some of the noisiest and most commonly seen parrots in Australia are the large white corellas and cockatoos – huge flocks can often be found congregating loudly near their roosting sites, like these Little Corellas at Carine Open Space. These birds all feed on the ground and seem to have adapted well to human landscapes, to the point of being pests.

In Western Australia, a feral population of the Long-billed Corella has established after aviary releases. Destructive pests in WA and their native Victoria, they damage crops and chew cabling, reticulation pipes, and even tarmac. On the East Coast, the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos can be just as destructive – I’ve seen them completely wrecking the fittings on street lights, seemingly just for fun. Certainly no-one can watch any of these birds for long and not be amused by their antics. They make great photographic subjects.

Sometimes known as the rock stars of birding, Carnaby’s Cockatoos are loud, messy and very engaging. Endemic to the south-west corner of Western Australia, they (and the closely-related Baudin’s cockatoo) are endangered, threatened by habitat destruction and competition for the limited number of nest hollows. Luckily they do seem to be adaptable with regard to their food requirements, expanding their diet to include the seeds of commercially grown pine trees (see here for a research paper on this topic). They probably still prefer their traditional diet of native plants like dryandra and hakea. As with most cockatoos, they form lifelong partnerships with their mates.

Disregarded by many Australians as a noisy pest, Galahs (also known as Pink and Greys) are a very attractive bird that visitors enjoy seeing. Another species that has benefited from our changes to the environment, they are common in most rural areas of Australia as well as in many urban areas, where they feed on our handily provided green lawns. They usually nest in tree hollows and have been know to debark trees to prevent predators climbing up the trunks. As with most birds in this group, they are noisy but lots of fun to observe.

A celebration of Australian parrots

Cheeky Australian Ringneck hoping for a handout at Donnelly River
Cheeky Australian Ringneck hoping for a handout at Donnelly River

No visitor to Australia can fail to notice and be charmed by the colourful, noisy and endearing parrots found in this country. Some of the most brightly coloured are the beautiful rosellas. They all have a similar plumage pattern, with an obvious cheek patch. My favourites are the Crimson Rosellas, which unfortunately are only found over east. I am always amazed at how such brightly coloured birds can disappear into foliage and be hard to spot.


Another brightly coloured and very noisy species is the Rainbow Lorikeet. Mainly found in the northern and eastern coast regions of Australia, they feed on the nectar and pollen of native plants, but have adapted to garden plants and will raid fruit when it is ripe. Unfortunately a population of these lorikeets has become established in Perth, as they out-compete local species for nest-hollows to the detriment of some of our endangered birds.


The Australian Ringneck is widespread across the country and varies quite a bit in colouration. My images are of the Western Australian races; the one with the red mark on the forehead is also known as the Twenty-eight Parrot (something to do with the call apparently). They can become quite tame/habituated if offered food, like the bird in the opening image which was taken at Donnelly River Village where people obviously often feed them.


Some of the prettiest parrots are very small and quite hard to get close to, such as Rock Parrots and Elegant Parrots (very similar) and the slightly larger Red-rumped Parrots. They mostly feed on the ground and are usually very wary, requiring a sneaky approach. There are some very beautiful birds in this group but many are very rare – maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to photograph a few more species.

Following the Murrimbidgee (sort of)

Rennix Trail sunrise in Kosciuszko National Park
Rennix Trail sunrise in Kosciuszko National Park

The most direct route to the Snowy Mountains from Adelaide (the A20) quite closely follows the Murrimbidgee River, the second longest river in Australia. Our best look at the river was at an overnight stop in Wagga Wagga, an unusually large town for inland Australia. The Murrimbidgee looked lovely and cool at the end of an extremely hot day. I had a relaxing time watching some of the birds on its banks, as well as a colony of flying foxes or fruit bats – unfortunately they were a bit far away on the opposite bank to capture well.


From Wagga we left the river and headed directly for the cooler climes of the Snowy Mountains, the source of the Murrimbidgee. A bit of an issue with the tyres on the hired campervan delayed us in the small town of Tumut – luckily we were in town when we noticed the problem and the guys at Tumut Valley Tyre Service were able to get us on our way as quickly as possible. We just managed to make it to Jindabyne in time to get a campsite for the night. After a day revisiting Kosciuszko National Park, we decided to camp at Kosciuszko Mountain Retreat near Sawpit Creek, a lovely site nestled in among the eucalypt trees. The area was also heavily populated with fierce horseflies, as we discovered when we went for a walk along the Waterfall Track – it is quite tricky taking photos of scenery or birds when as soon as you stop walking you get attacked by vicious insects.

Early next morning I dragged my son out of bed to accompany me on a sunrise expedition – we explored the beginning of the Rennix Trail which is where the opening image was taken in beautiful morning light. Stopping in Jindabyne for delicious pies, we then headed for the ACT and Canberra. We lived there for a year in 2002 so it was a bit of a trip down memory lane, although our main goal was to leave David at the Australian National University to begin his Honours year. Once he had checked in to his hall of residence, I dropped the boys off for their last golf game of the trip and headed for one of my favourite places in Canberra, the Australian National Botanic Gardens. A birder’s paradise, it also features lots of interesting plants (naturally) and a reasonably tame bunch of Australian Water Dragons (Intellagama lesueurii) that sun themselves on rocks and make great photographic subjects when they’re not getting underfoot at the café.

I enjoyed photographing birds I hadn’t seen since we lived in the ACT, like the funny White-Winged Choughs with their messy digging habits and the striking Crimson Rosellas. I did manage to see my favourite Australian parrot, the Gang-Gang Cockatoo – but wasn’t lucky enough to get any photos. All too soon, it was time to say goodbye, find space for the tripod in the suitcase and head for Sydney and our flight home.

A taste of South Australia

Port Lincoln sunrise
Port Lincoln sunrise

Having finished the golfing activities, we headed down the Eyre Peninsula exploring some of the South Australian coastline along the way. I would love to return at some stage with more time, as there were plenty of places worthy of further exploration and better light for photography. The granite inselbergs at Murphy’s Haystacks, for example, really need some Golden Hour light to do them justice.


Basing ourselves in Port Lincoln for a couple of nights, we enjoyed a lovely day exploring Coffin Bay National Park, and sampling some of the local seafood.

A visit to South Australia has to include some wineries – a long drive north to Port Augusta and then south again found us in the Clare Valley, one of the premium wine regions of Australia. By this time, the heat wave we left behind in Perth had caught up – temperatures around 40 deg C tend to slow activity down – but we did manage to visit a few estates. We then relaxed a bit in Hahndorf, an attractive town in the Adelaide Hills with a very strong German influence (yummy beer and sausages).

Plans for the next stage had to be abandoned due to the extreme temperatures (all the national parks in South Australia, northern Victoria and western New South Wales were closed) so we decided to head for the Snowy Mountains as quickly as possible – at least we had air-con in the vehicles during the day. South Australia is definitely on the ‘revisit’ list.

The heart of the Nullarbor

Sunset on the Nullarbor
Sunset on the Nullarbor

The Nullarbor is most definitely well-named, from the Latin words Nullus arbor, meaning No trees. The seemingly endless flat plain covers an area about the size of the State of Victoria. Once a shallow sea-bed, the Nullarbor is the world’s largest karst landform. South of the Nullarbor is the Great Australian Bight, essentially a very large bay with steep cliff faces. We stopped briefly at a couple of the viewing platforms – with me cursing that the light was in the wrong place for landscape photography – and made it to the Nullarbor Motel just before sunset. Not long before reaching the motel, David and I saw a dingo on the side of the road, and then discovered that the golf hole at the motel was called the Dingo’s Den. Interrupting dinner to take some photos of the sunset, I got another glimpse of a dingo – of course, I had my very wide angle lens one so the dingo is a speck in the distance. He is on the edge of the Royal Flying Doctor Service airstrip; the RFDS is a lifesaver for residents and travelers in the Australian Outback.


Next morning saw the beginning of the last golfing day, with some fun hunting balls around the Dingo’s Den. This was followed by some very hot and dusty holes in places with odd names (Nundroo and Penong). Finally we made it to the golf course in Ceduna for the last two holes! A visit to the Visitor Centre to get the cards signed off (and to David’s relief, to hear that there were much worse scores on record) was followed by a well-deserved 19th hole in the air-conditioned comfort of a Ceduna pub.

Eyre Highway

Balladonia bushland©Jennie Stock – Nature in focus
First stop on the Eyre Highway after Fraser Range was Balladonia. The golf hole here is named “Skylab” in homage to the bits of the NASA space station that scattered its bits all over the area in 1979. The Balladonia Motel includes a museum with some interesting displays and information, and provided a decent cup of coffee to keep the support crew awake while the men wrestled with the ‘fairway’. The opening image for this post was taken more or less from the tee; if you look carefully you can see a red sign in the centre behind the trees, marking the green’s whereabouts. No signs showing where the golf balls went to!


Balladonia also marks the beginning (or end) of the 90 Mile Straight – one of the longest stretches of straight road (146.6 km) in the world – between here and Caiguna. Definitely not the most scenic drive, although the blowholes near Caiguna were interesting (just not very photogenic). Cocklebiddy was the next stop – this is the launching point for visiting the Eyre Bird Observatory, something I would have loved to do. Unfortunately that would have required a 4WD drive camper and more time than we had available, as the road into this part of the Nuytsland Nature Reserve is really rough. Instead we spent the night at Madura Pass, a much prettier campsite than I was expecting. A highlight for me here was seeing my first wild Major Mitchell’s cockatoos – didn’t get the best pictures but so happy to see them.


We spent a bit of time the next day exploring Eucla, the next stop on the golfing agenda. The hole’s name “Nullarbor Nymph” references an interesting story/hoax about a woman living with kangaroos, cooked up as a publicity stunt for the area. A short drive towards the coast allowed us to explore the ruins of the old telegraph station and the remnants of a jetty once used for bringing in supplies. Blinding white sands made this a tricky location for photography in the middle of the day – thank goodness for polarising filters.


Finally after nearly 1500 km we reached the eastern end of Western Australia at the WA/SA Border Village, a very boring but descriptive name. The sign makes you feel a long way from anywhere!

Norseman and Fraser Range Station

Sunrise at Fraser Range Station
Sunrise at Fraser Range Station

Day Four of our cross-country trip began slowly, as our planned destination was only 100 km away. We began the day with a bit of exploring around Norseman, a much smaller gold-mining town that marks the beginning/end of the Eyre Highway. When heading east it is the last major town in Western Australia before you get to the border with South Australia, 720 km away. Finishing up with a walk at the Beacon Hill lookout, we enjoyed spectacular views of the Great Western Woodlands ( see previous post for more information).


Fraser Range Station was our next golfing and overnight stop. A working pastoral lease and farm, Fraser Range hosts one of the Nullarbor Links holes and offers station stay-style accommodation and camping. After some frustrating golf action, we walked to the top of the rocky outcrop near the homestead to enjoy watching the sunset (and a beer or two). A delicious dinner in the station kitchen was followed by David and I experimenting with a bit of night photography.


Next morning, I was up early (thankfully a bit later than in Perth, due to changing longitude without changing time zone) to capture some sunrise images. A great treat was seeing two Wedge-tailed eagles soaring overhead.

Crossing Australia with golf as a distraction

Wave rock with my son providing some sense of scale
Wave rock with my son providing some sense of scale

Just over a year ago (yes, I know, I’m a bit behind), we began our trip driving across Australia from Perth to Canberra. Wave Rock, one of Western Australia’s iconic tourist attractions, was our first overnight stop. Not one of the easiest things to photograph effectively, the wave is the eroded northern face of the granite formation known as Hyden Rock. I suspect landscape photographers would have to pick the time of year (in other words, the angle of light at sunset/sunrise) very carefully to get great images. It was a lot bigger than I expected and fun to climb up and wander around the top of the rock. I enjoyed a bit of bird photography around the campsite.


Next stop was Kalgoorlie, famous for its goldfields, and the Western starting point of the Nullarbor Links, the world’s longest golf course. This golf ‘course’ kept us entertained for the next six days, with my son and husband playing the holes as we traveled – I just took photos and videos (and did quite a bit of giggling). The first two holes are part of the lovely Kalgoorlie Golf Club – from a golfing point of view, things went downhill pretty rapidly after that!


The next three holes were still on actual golf courses, at Kambalda and Norseman, but they did leave a bit to be desired in terms of grass.


The patches of the Great Western Woodlands we passed through were much more interesting. The GWW is huge, covering about 16 million hectares of Western Australia. Driving through the woodland over a few days really makes you realise how awesome it is – so wonderful to know there are still some trees left on our planet! This information from DPAW’s website is a good summary: “It is regarded as the largest remaining area of intact Mediterranean-climate woodland left on Earth and contains about 3000 species of flowering plants, about a fifth of all known flora in Australia. It includes nearly a quarter of Australia’s eucalypt species, many of which grow nowhere else in the world, and its varied habitats are home to a diverse array of mammals, reptiles, frogs and birds. Aboriginal occupation has been dated to at least 22,000 years and the region has great cultural significance, with Aboriginal people retaining strong links with and responsibility for country.”

This final image was taken just next to the caravan park in Norseman so pretty much in the middle of the Great Western Woodlands, late in the afternoon.

 

Sunset in the Great Western Woodlands, Norseman
Sunset in the Great Western Woodlands, Norseman