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Koreelah NP: Sorting out the fairy-wrens. Part 3, The wrens at Koreelah

During our recent camping trip to Koreelah NP, in May, we were greeted by wrens that hovered around our campsite, but of which species?

It is easy to tell the difference between the species of fairy-wrens if you see an adult male in his brightly coloured breeding plumage, but how about during winter, and what about the juveniles and females with no male nearby?

Here are photos taken else-where of male fairy-wrens in breeding plumage.

Joe did take a photo of an adult male Variegated Fairy-wren (Malurus lamberti) over near the waterfall a hundred metres or more away, at Koreelah while we were there, but was the group of wrens that foraged around our campsite the same species, or were they Superb Fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus), or even Red-backed Fairy-wrens (Malurus melanocephalus)?

That was the difficulty. There was no male in the group near our campsite, in full regalia. They were all in their off-season or juvenile colours.

And was it even just one group, or maybe two groups with overlapping territories, or maybe even of different species?

I have sorted some of my better photos of the wrens that came in to investigate our campsite, into groups, based on the time the photo was taken, to show individuals that were likely to belong to the same group.

For the distinguishing characteristics of the three species of fairy wrens, please see Part 1 (females and juveniles) and Part 2 (young males) of this series of articles.

I have included some of my clearer photos below, sorted into a time sequence.

Day 1

At about 3.30 pm on the first day (22nd May, 2015) this first group came to greet us. These are some of the individuals. The group was bigger than this. I only wanted to include photos that gave a good chance of identifying the species, sex and status of the bird.

Then a bit later, around 4.00 pm I took photos of these birds:

Day 2

At about 10.00 am on the second day I photographed this individual:

An hour or so later, these two:

At about 12.10 pm:

And at about 12.30 pm:

Day 3

At around 12.30 pm on Day 3:

So who were all these fairy-wrens?

I wanted to try to work out what the species was, if they were all of the same species, and if possible, to identify some of the individual birds.

Identifying the male birds was easy. There were three of them and they had distinctive markings.

Photo A in the sequence above, shows the first (henceforward called male A). This bird has a blue colouring in its tail, but still has the remains of its reddish lores and orange beak but the tip of its beak has darkened, it has acquired pale feathers in the lower part of its eye-ring, and a few darker-coloured feathers behind its eye (shown in the photo on the right).

ThIs bird is a young male in its first winter. It is pictured again on the second day eating a bit of orange carrot (left by previous campers) in Photo M, and on the third day in Photo R.

The second male, in eclipse colouring is shown in Photo B, above, with a close-up of its head, on the right. As well as the black between its eye and beak and the pale feathers beneath its eye, it has a few dark feathers on its cheek near its ear and some tiny blue feathers just above its beak.

This must be a male that is more than a year old, experiencing at least its second winter.

This male was a frequent visitor to our campsite, in the company of the juvenile male above, and a number of females. It appears again in Photos E, H, O, and Q.

The male in Photo G above, with a close-up of its head on the right, which first appeared at about 10 am on our second day at the campsite, doesn't seem to have been in the company of other fairy-wrens, and we didn't see it again. It has the half-moon of pale feathers beneath its eye that seems to distinguish the male superb fairy-wrens from their variegated cousins, as do both of the males above.

Although it was in eclipse plumage it is clearly distinguishable from male B. Did it belong to the same group?

More dominant male fairy-wrens have a shorter period in eclipse plumage, and acquire their bright breeding plumage earlier in spring, or even effectively, miss the eclipse period and retain their bright colours all year. Since we didn't see a male with bright feathers while we were there, perhaps the dominant male belonging to this territory had died? Male fairy-wrens are sedentary, and don't usually move out of their own territory except to migrate into a neighbouring one when the dominant male dies. Perhaps this young male had hopes and there would be a competition for dominance?

The males were easy to distinguish from each other. Sorting out the females is a much more difficult prospect. There were at least three of them, as shown in the photo on the right, taken at about 4 pm on the first day there.

Since the young male A above, was already acquiring his adult colouring, and by May, all of the young birds in the last brood should have matured to adulthood, I am assuming that all of the birds with orange lores and beaks, were females.

The female bird in the middle of the photo above was clearly recognizable by her half-grown tail-feathers. This is the bird in Photo C, and also in D, F and I.

Thereafter, I don't think she appears in any other photos of the female birds, which all seem to lack the short, half-grown feathers.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to distinguish between the other female birds in the photos, so they will have to remain unidentified.

Presumably one of the females is a parent bird. The others might disperse from the group over the next couple of months, perhaps into a neighbouring territory.

Information contained in the two previous articles in this series (which you can find here and here) I think indicates that all of the wrens pictured here belong to the same species, and are superb fairy wrens.

The reddish coloured lores on some birds, and blue colouring on others disqualifies them from being red-backed wrens, which lack these features.

The half-moon of pale feathers beneath the eyes of the male birds, and the shape and colour of the lores and colour of the beak of the female birds makes them unlikely to be variegated wrens.

It has been very time consuming, writing these three posts, but very rewarding to have learnt so much about the three species of wrens, in the process.

I hope the information proves useful to others as well.

I think it would be a useful exercise to do a similar study of other species such as golden and rufous whistlers.

Here are links to Sorting out the fairy-wrens: Part1, Distinguishing features and Part 2, The Young males

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