Purple-crowned Fairywrens of Western Australia

So far on my challenge on nature photography inspired journey of the seven continents, we’ve covered Africa and Asia and are currently in Australia. Here is one more Australia story before we move to our next continent.

Flying over the Kimberley region of Western Australia. (Photo by Anja Skroblin)

Flying over the Kimberley region of Western Australia. (Photo by Anja Skroblin)

I imagined dainty but spectacularly colored birds flitting perkily about emerald glades when I learned my friend was studying Purple-crowned Fairywrens. When Anja invited me to assist her, I could practically hear the orchestral sound-track as we’d part the secreting vines to enter a mossy walkway lit by firefly lanterns that would lead us to a mystical grotto aflutter with fairywrens. When I finally clamored into a helicopter behind her in the remote reaches of Western Australia and watched shades of brown spread across the acres below, I realized my imagery would need some adjusting.

I was awed from both land and air by the Kimberley’s rugged hills, cliffs, gullies and canyons. There was nothing lush about this landscape. I was told much of this would be underwater during the monsoonal rain season but in October toward the end of their dry season, the only greenery snaked along riverbeds as a slender patch of riparian habitat. Our helicopter inspired a dust storm as it settled onto the river bank, and I realized that this thin strip of pandanus, grasses and gum trees would have to serve as the mossy glade of my imagination.

A river running through the Kimberley landscape.

A river running through the Kimberley landscape.

When the helicopter was satisfactorily settled, Anja sprang into action. She filled my arms with gear and motioned me to a shady patch by the river where she joined me, equally burdened. She expertly examined the riverbank and its vegetation, then chose the optimal location for her mist net. It was hardly a grotto, but she reassured me that this was prime fairywren habitat. Once the last lines were tightened, she placed speakers below the net and we tucked out of view as she hit the play button.

Melodic trills flowed from the speakers. Within moments, I heard a response from above. A small bird landed on a nearby twig, twittering in irate disapproval at the unknown calls in its territory. It was as dainty as I had imagined, but far perkier and more spectacularly colored than I had anticipated. It’s brilliant purple head bobbed in time with its cerulean tail as it pumped out its protest. It dove toward the speaker and was ensared in our fine netting.

Anja loosening a breeding male Purple-crowned Fairywren from her mist net.

Anja loosening a breeding male Purple-crowned Fairywren from her mist net.

Anja stopped the tape and rushed to the bird, carefully freeing each and every feather and toe before delicately securing it in a cotton bag. She hit the speaker again. Moments later a female was trapped in our net. She lacked the breeding male’s purple crown and had reddish-brown instead of black cheek marks, but her blue tail stood out against her otherwise brown and white feathers as brilliantly as the male’s. In a matter of minutes we’d caught three more birds, all intent on defending their family’s territory from the intruding bird hidden within our speaker. When the speaker failed to attract more birds, Anja decided we’d caught the residents of this area – the breeding pair and three of their off-spring. These were cooperative breeders with both male and female off-spring staying in the territory for at least a couple of years to assist in the rearing of younger siblings before moving to new territories or, in the case of a male, taking over the natal territory. Anja carefully measured each bird, drawing a small sample of blood and individually banding each bird before releasing it back to its territory.

Among other things, Anja’s research revealed the importance of dense riparian vegetation to the persistence of this species, as well as the fact that this vital habitat was being degraded by widespread cattle grazing. So maybe I had the orchestral music, firefly lighting and even the type of vegetation wrong in my imagined Purple-crowned Fairywren domicile, but was the basic concept so far off really? This delicate creature does need a secreted patch of unadulterated emerald along its chosen river.

A male Purple-crowned Fairywren in breeding plummage.

A male Purple-crowned Fairywren in breeding plummage.

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