As the rosella red sun slowly heaved its way over the horizon, I raised my binoculars as I slowly trudged through dew laden, waist-high grass. My mission: netting a Red-backed Fairy-wren. My three companions and I had risen before the sun to ensure that our nets were set and our ears tuned for when the wrens started singing at first light. We used mist nets, which are dubbed as such because their weave is so fine the nets as a whole can’t be seen from a distance. Because of this, birds fly unknowingly towards the nets and become caught where trained individuals quickly untangle them.
As light tinged the treetops, the warbled reel of the wrens filled the air. Acting quickly, for we only had a small window of time before the wrens became alarmed by our presence and moved away, my three companions and I set up a mist net five meters from where the birds were singing. We then circled around the net and fanned out to encircle the small grass birds as they tittered and flitted amongst the spear grass. Walking slowly towards the birds, we herded them towards the net. We had tried this technique with the wrens numerous times before over the past several days but had been having bad luck with birds bouncing out or flying over the net. Confident that our luck would turn, we ventured forth.
As we reached the net we exclaimed with excitement: our first Red-backed Fairy-wren! As our grad student, Sam, extracted him from the net, we marveled at the patchy male whom was molting from bright to dull plumage. He was a molted brown with several randomly spaced black feathers and a partially red back. As we brought him to the banding station to draw a small sample of blood and record measurements, we were debating what to name our first wren when Sam exclaimed, “Unless someone is opposed, I think we should band him YAY.” In our utter excitement we all agreed enthusiastically that the band combo was a perfect one. As we gathered around the banding station, we helped Sam record data and extract blood and feather samples. Releasing him back into the grass, we were all grinning from ear to ear. It was going to be a good day.
As the sun climbed higher the birds around us quieted down. We quickly took down our mist nets and went to a new location to try for more birds. Right next to the road about 200 meters from where we had just banded YAY, we heard a large group of birds all singing loudly and there, flying around the tops of the tall Gamba grass, we saw several bright males. Setting up three nets we again encircled the birds and then tried to heard them into the nets. Now would be an appropriate time to mention that Gamba grass in an invasive species from Africa that grows higher and thicker than any of the native Australian grass. In fact, it grows taller than most human beings, making it extremely difficult to see another person 7 meters away let alone a small grass bird. For this exact reason, the Red-backed Fairy-wrens love the Gamba and frequently fly into it for cover. As the other bird netters spaced out in the Gamba to try and drive the wrens into the nets we had placed in the grass, I stayed on the road to direct them towards the net and the birds since they couldn’t see more than a few meters in front of them.
As my companions got close to the net, I saw one, two, four, no six dull wrens fly over the net. What was bizarre was that they kept climbing, up and up until they were a mere speck in the sky. This might seem normal for a bird, but for Red-backed Fairy-wrens it is extremely unusual as they are poor fliers and don’t usually fly more than 10 meters high. Yet these wrens flew higher than all of the trees in the area, a good 30 meters up. “Did you see that?!”, I cried into the walkie-talkies we used to communicate. “No”, the three in the grass replied,” We can’t see anything. We’re in Gamba.” Discouraged, I reluctantly went back to the net and to my amazement, there twisting in the net was not just a Red-backed Fairy-wren, but a bright male. He was beautiful, all resplendent in his black and red garb. We processed him (he was banded WFG) and took quite a few glamour shots before letting him go. As the hot Australian sun climbed further in the sky we took down our nets and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. Mission complete.