This time last year I was lucky enough to spend a week in Far North Queensland, exploring the Cairns area with my daughter. I’ve always wanted to visit this area, largely because of the interesting birds that can be found there. The first day started well, with a new species (White-breasted Woodswallows) before I’d even left the airport . Once I had collected the camper van and Sarah had arrived from Sydney, we paid a quick visit to the Cairns Esplanade. Not the best time of day to bird by that stage, but the sun was shining and I managed a few decent images of another new species, a Peaceful Dove.
Peaceful Dove on the Cairns Esplanade
Then we set off to find our campsite for the first couple of nights. We stayed at the Speewah Conservation Park, a lovely spot near Kuranda. Definitely not recommended for caravans though – the road in is pretty steep in places. The first morning there were lots of birds calling in the rainforest, which got a bit frustrating as they were often really hard to spot. The Brown Cuckoo-doves were friendly and I got to know their call quite quickly. I do find birding in completely new places can be challenging if the vegetation is dense, as I don’t have any idea what all the calls belong to (Shazam for bird calls would be great).
Our campervan at Speewah
We decided to stay up on the escarpment for the day and explore some of the waterfalls a bit further south. As you can see below, it was a very overcast (and sometimes wet) day so not the greatest for photographing birds. We had a fun time though, swimming at the Elinjaa Falls and seeing a good range of new birds, including the strange Pheasant Coucal. I have added the rather poor photo of a Grey-Headed Robin to show the challenges of birding in the rainforest – no light and so many leaves for the birds to hide behind!
Millaa Millaa Falls
The following day we explored Kuranda and the Barron Gorge area, and then headed for Port Douglas on the coast. Sarah was not impressed with the beaches we stopped at – we are very spoilt in Western Australia – but we did find Port Douglas very attractive. After waking up to more interesting bird calls (I did spot one of the culprits – the Yellow Oriole), a visit to Mossman Gorge was in order. On the shuttle bus into the gorge, some tour guides were talking about an unusual sighting – and although we had gone for the self-guided option, we were lucky to be in the right place when they were pointing out the very cryptic Northern Leaf-tailed Gecko to their clients. We waited for everyone to move on and had a good look – I don’t how someone spotted it on the lichen covered tree trunk.
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 scruffy, not-really-in-breeding-plumage-yet male getting his chance
The very unexciting female White-Winged Fairy-wren at Burns Beach
The very scruffy-looking White-Winged Fairy-wren male just starting to show some of his nuptial plumage
White-winged Fairy-wren male in breeding plumage, with a blue petal as a courtship offering
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-wren male in breeding plumage at Lake Joondalup
Note the dark chestnut mask and tan bill of the female Variegated Fairy-wren.
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.
Another view of a female Red-winged Fairy-wren
Male eclipse Red-winged Fairy-wren on the bark of a eucalypt at Pemberton
Female Red-winged Fairy-wren showing her black bill and chestnut lores
Breeding plumage of a male Red-winged Fairy-wren at Donnelly River village
Eclipse male Red-winged fairy-wren showing the black lores and beak