It had been a surprisingly cold night, not far from freezing, and I was up early and out exploring the Banksia-dominated bush fringes of the Quaalup Homestead. A pair of Restless Flycatchers were hawking winged insects from a washing line, and a solitary Laughing Kookaburra sat motionless on a fence post. A thin, accelerating trill was coming from a thicket close to a heap of rusting farm implements, so I wandered over to investigate.
Like a sparkling sapphire dropped in the dust, a tiny Splendid Fairy-Wren stood on the track, standing out from its background in such a striking fashion that it honestly took my breath away. Never had I seen such a radiantly blue bird! I soon realised that there were several others in the nearby bushes, but none had the remarkable plumage of this male. Fairy-wrens are co-operative breeders, with the offspring of the previous season assisting their parents in raising the next brood. Sub-adult (or subordinate) males resemble the powdery-brown females, except that they have turquoise wing feathers as well as blue tails.
There are nine species of fairy-wren (as well as three emu-wrens and nine grass-wrens) in Australia; these make up the exclusively Australasian family of Maluridae that extends also to Papua New Guinea. Despite their common name, recent genetic studies have revealed that they are not closely related to wrens at all, or to any of the warblers. Rather, it seems that an ancient lineage of passerines became isolated when Australia split from the super-continent of Gondwanaland, and subsequently radiated into the range of unique and endemic families such as honeyeaters, sittellas and currawongs that we see today. In the case of the fairy-wrens, they appear morphologically identical to the African prinias – a result of ‘convergent evolution’ as they have such similar dietary and other habits and occupy such similar niches.
Quaalup Homestead, Fitzgerald River NP, W.A., Australia, September, 1993.