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.
Male Superb Fairy-wren in breeding plumage, at Mt Field in Tasmania
Female Superb Fairy-wren in the leaf litter
Female Splendid Fairy-wren at Lake Joondalup
Eclipse male Superb Fairy-wren showing a few remaining blue feathers
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.
A male Splendid Fairy-wren, probably a young bird given the black bill with the tan eye-ring
Two wrens cudding – young male and female Splendid Fairy-wrens
Female Splendid Fairy-wren with her pale tan eye-ring, lores and beak
Eclipse male Superb Fairy-wren in Tidbinbilla
A male Splendid Fairy-Wren in eclipse plumage, in April.
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).
Little Boy Blue
Breeding male Splendid Fairy-wren showing the face fan display
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.
A Little Corella balancing comically before its evening drink
Squabbling Little Corellas, a common site in parks in Perth
Western Corellas on the side of the road in the Wheatbelt region
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.
Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos feeding on the ground in Canberra
Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo fooling around
A very serious Long-Billed Corella, an Eastern states species that has become established in Perth
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.
Carnaby’s feeding on dryandra (Banksia sessilis)
Carnaby’s Cockatoo feeding on a hakea in a Perth garden
A Carnaby’s couple mutually grooming
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.
Galah with crest blown up by the wind
Flock of Galahs feeding on a grain spill in the wheatbelt
Young galahs fooling around
Galah debarking tree at Coalseam
Cold and damp galah waiting for the sun to rise at the Pinnacles
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.
Crimson Rosella in the Australian Botanic Gardens
A hopeful Western Rosella at a tourist stop in the forest of South-Western Australia
Western Rosella snacking on weedy flowers at Donnelly River in south-west WA
Eastern Rosellas feeding in the grass
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.
Rainbow Lorikeet sneaking a grape in the garden
Rainbow lorikeet enjoying our grapes
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.
Australian ringneck with berries for breakfast
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.
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.
Murrimbidgee River at sunrise, Wagga Wagga
Flying foxes (Fruit bats) roosting in Wagga
Superb Fairy-Wren on barbed wire fence
Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo fooling around
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.
View from Charlotte’s Pass
Along the walking trail near Sawpit Creek
A mountain stream from the Rennix Trail
Eucalypt forest at Sawpit Creek campground
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.
Water Dragon trying to be cryptic
Water Dragon close-up
Patterns of Eucalypt bark in the Botanic Gardens
Australian Water Dragon posing beautifully
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.
Crimson Rosella in the Australian Botanic Gardens
White-Winged Chough foraging in the Botanic Gardens