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Koreelah NP: Sorting out the fairy-wrens. Part 1, Distinguishing features

This is Part 1 of a three-part series of articles. You can find Part 2, The young males here, and Part 3, The fairy-wrens at Koreelah here

Like all hobbies as you delve further into bird watching and photography, it becomes more and more complex. The more you know, the more you realize there is still to learn.

When you start out, you think it is just a simple matter of learning what the species looks like and you have it all sewn up. Then you find that males and females of a species often have different appearances and that complicates things. Then the juveniles can be different again, and the fledged chicks can be different to the juveniles, and then you discover breeding and non-breeding plumage, and I am not even going to consider regional and individual differences.

Take the most popular of Australian birds, the little fairy wrens, for instance. These are sedentary, living in small family groups, normally consisting of a dominant adult male and female and a number of their progeny (mostly male). If you are able to spot an adult male in breeding plumage, identifying the species is easy, but the males don't always show themselves, or they may not be in breeding plumage, or you may miss out on taking a photo of the male so it would be missing from your photographic record. The females and juveniles are much harder to identify.

So when we take photos of wrens we are always looking out for that dominant male. But at Koreelah, even though we camped in close contact with wrens for three days we didn't see a male bird in breeding plumage in the group. We had lots of good photos of wrens because they were quite accustomed to human presence (always a joy!) but no easy way of identifying the species. Help!

Bird guides weren't much help, so I have been trawling the internet for information, and have tried to add to it by sifting back through my own photos.

This post has ended up being too long for the website manager to handle, so I am going to divide it into three parts. The first part will look at the differences between adult males, females and juveniles in the three species. The second part will explain the changes that occur as the young males mature and adopt breeding plumage. The third part will focus on the group of wrens we saw at Koreelah.

The most useful website with the most detailed information was Lynx Edicions. I am going to refer to websites by name through the article and give the URLs at the bottom of the article.

We have three local species of fairy wrens in north-eastern NSW and south-eastern QLD. The Birds Queensland website states that Red-backed wrens like grassy habitats, Variegated wrens are found in thicker forests and "scrubby woodland" and Superb fairy-wrens are the best adapted to urban gardens. In practice all three species are quite common throughout our area. We don't seem to encounter Red-backed wrens as often at camp-sites, so I don't have as many photos of them, but there was group at the camp-site in the Bunya Mountains NP.

Firstly, the males birds in breeding plumage are easy to identify.

No problems here! As you can see the colours are very distinctive.

Now here are the females:

The problem with identifying the adult female birds is that they are very similar in colour to the juveniles. I had to be sure that I actually had an adult female bird, based on behaviour. The bird on the left, the superb fairy-wren was engaged in feeding a young bird when I was taking photos, so I am sure that she was an adult female. The bird on the right, the red-backed wren was building a nest. In fairy-wrens only the females build nests (Lynx Ed). She is carrying nesting material in her mouth (unfortunately it is slightly obscuring her eye). The variegated wren was just behaving like a wren, I am afraid - I couldn't do better than that.

The red-backed female is the easiest to distinguish from the other two species shown here, because she has a plain brown face and lacks the red colouring around the eye (the eye-ring), and between the eye and the beak (the lores) of the other two birds. She also has a lighter-coloured beak.

It might look easy here, to distinguish between the other two species with the photos in front of you, but in practice it can be very confusing. My impression is that the superb fairy-wren has a lighter, more orange colouring in its eye-ring and lores than the variegated wren, which is more of a maroon colour. Also, I think that there is a more distinct boundary in the colours between the eye-surround and the rest of the head, and the red colouring seems to end more abruptly and is closer in behind the eye in the variegated wren, than in the superb wren.

This is shown more clearly in the close-up images, below. (Note that I have included two photos of variegated wren heads to show both the beak and the colour and shape of the eye-ring and lores more clearly.)

Another point to note is the little white tips to the tail of the variegated wren. I haven't seen this feature on supeb fairy wrens. Lynx Ed says "Many Malurus species have a white-tipped tail, but the extent of the white at the tips varies with age, sex and feather wear. These white tips appear to emphasize the tail when the bird is foraging and in general signalling.....". There are regional variations in colouring, so I had a bit of a look on the internet to see how widespread the "white tail tips" colouring was. A few of the images seemed to have them, others not, so I guess that this feature requires a bit more study!

This is what other writers say:

The Birds in Backyards website states that the "female Variegated Fairy-wren has a dull grey-blue wash, while female and immature Superb Fairy-wrens, Malurus cyaneus, are mostly brown, with adult females having a pale greenish gloss on the otherwise brown tail. The Variegated Fairy-wren is slightly larger in size and has a longer tail " than superb fairy-wrens.

But others (Birds Queensland and Wikipedia) say that the tails of adult female superb fairy wrens are brown or fawn. The website Australian Bush Birds says that the blue tail feature is only seen in adult female superb wrens in the southeast of their distribution range. The bird in my photo above, didn't seem to have blue colouring in its tail.

I do have a photo (shown at left) of a superb fairy wren that could be an adult female with bluish colouring in its tail, but it seems to have darker colouring on the tips of its toes, so I thought it might be a juvenile male that was just starting to change colour (see the photos of juvenile birds, below).

The Birdlife website says that the best way to distinguish between the species is look at the area around the eye and the beak. In the superb fairy-wren female, the beak and eye-ring and lores are all the same orangey-red colour, whereas in the female variegated wren the eye-ring and lores are a darker colour then the beak. In practice, and in photos this is not always clear, as the feathers and beak have different reflective qualities.

Only the brooding female builds the nest and incubates the eggs, which hatch in about 15 days. The young leave the nest about 11-12 days later and are fed for about another 30 days, when they become independent. The brooding female does the greater share of the feeding of the young. The male partner will do an almost equal share of the work, if there are no other "helpers" in the group (Lynx Ed).

The newly fledged baby fairy-wrens of all three species being considered here, have plain brown faces and orange-coloured beaks, and relatively short tail feathers. At this stage it might not be possible to tell the difference between the species.

This may be nearly the end of the colour changes for female red-backed wrens, which lack red colouring around the eye.

Wikipedia states that female red-backs have a yellowish spot under their eye. I don't have clear enough photos of this species to show this, and I couldn't see it in other pictures on the internet.

But the tail of the female red-backed wrens is longer and more pointed than both the juveniles and the male (Birds in Backyards).

Young superb and variegated wrens soon begin to acquire their species' distinctive reddish colouring of the eye-ring and lores, and the juveniles of both sexes look very much like the adult females of the species, except for their shorter tails and wing feathers. When the young birds leave the nest, the tail is only about one quarter of its final length and doesn't reach full size until about 30 days later

(40-45 days after hatching) (Lynx Ed).

There was really nothing to distinguish the young superb fairy wren in the photo above, from the adult female (shown above in the species comparison composite near the top of this article) that was feeding it (except that it was plumper, and stayed in one place and squawked).

On the right is a photo of a young variegated wren which also looks pretty much like an adult female, except perhaps that it still has its orangey-coloured beak and legs.

For superb and variegated wrens the females stay pretty much the same colour, then, for the rest of their lives.

With the adult superb fairy-wrens there is very little to distinguish the adult female from the juveniles, apart from the acquisition of a slightly bluish tail in southern parts of their range. The Birdlife website says the tail colour is "brown overall with a slight bluish tinge that is absent in juveniles". The Birds in Backyards site says "Females have a pale greenish gloss, absent in young birds, on the otherwise brown tail" and that they have brown legs. But I think these features are not always very obvious.

For the adult female variegated wrens, the lower beak may become a bit darker while the top lightens in colour, the tail may become more bluish and the legs and back may be more of a greyish colour.

Although a number of sites say that female wrens moult twice a year at the same time as the males, none of them mention that there is any colour change between the breeding and non-breeding plumage in any of these three species.

The female wrens are stuck with being brown, for good!

In Part 2, I will examine the changes in male plumage as the young birds mature.

In Part 3 I look back at the photos that I took in Koreelah NP to determine the wren species and try to identify individuals.



Lynx Edicions

Birds Queensland

Birds in Backyards

Wikipedia - find entries for the species

Australian Bush Birds


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