images of australian wildlife

Red-backed Fairy-wren

Red-backed Fairy-wren

The fairy-wrens are an interesting family to photograph. They are very colourful, quite common in most places, donít mind coming out where the light is good, and rarely shy. All of this makes them an attractive proposition. On the other hand, getting a fairy-wren to keep still for a few moments while you frame, expose and press the shutter can be quite a challenge ó they are almost impossible to digiscope, and harder than most birds even with an SLR. They also tend to like perching amongst dead twigs where sharp shadows spoil otherwise pleasing views (with the naked eye, you rarely notice this, but the camera sees), and with some species (the Superb and Red-backed are examples) the contrast between jet black and bright, glow-in-the-dark highlights means you need excellent light and your exposure has to be perfect. Finally, wrens are deceptive: because their calls are unmistakable and their colours are so bright, we sight and recognise them from further away than we do with a dull-coloured thornbill or gerygone and we wind up with a clear mental picture of a bird that that, in reality, we have only half seen.

For me, the common fairy-wrens trigger another sort of psychological trap: you donít want to work hard, let alone be seen to be working hard, on such a familiar and obvious bird. A real photographer, you say to yourself, works on Painted Snipe and Red Goshawks ó wrens are "easy" birds you just pick up as you go along. This, of course, is a big mistake. Wrens are hard!

But some wrens are easier than others, and the Red-backed is the best of all. Superbs can be very cooperative when they feel like it, the Lovely and the Splendid not too bad; the Varigated is sparsely distributed and rather shy, and the White-winged sits beautifully up in the sunlight but never lets you get within any sort of reasonable distance.