Just as spring often waits a beat between the first yellow-rumped warbler and the full flood of migration, fall too pauses and takes a breath between the departure of the festive summer songbirds and the full reveal of winter’s wonders.
In that breath, the Kinglets come.
These tiny birds, closely related to the Goldcrests and Firecrests of Europe, Africa, and Asia, nest in the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern U.S. They live almost exclusively on insects and other invertebrates and their eggs, and eat prodigiously for their size. Despite this, some of them manage to overwinter in New York City and points even further north, and others manage to migrate to southern Mexico.
That takes a rather single-minded dedication to the art and science of finding bugs. Oh, it doesn’t distract them from making more Kinglets – they’re known to produce two clutches of eight or nine eggs a season – but it sure seems to distract them from nosy humans who get within mere feet of them while they’re making pit stops on migration. This is fortunate, since Kinglets are best appreciated up close.
Kinglets are primarily army green, gray and cream, a bit yellow… the colors of woods that are barely waking from or slowly slipping into winter. The Golden-crowned have two strong wing-bars and the Ruby-crowned have a single wing-bar and vivid eye-rings. But as their names suggest, the real action is on top of their heads – male Ruby-crowned Kinglets have a small cap of bright red feathers, while Golden-crowned Kinglets of both sexes have a black-lined yellow streak down their domes. Alas, the Ruby-crowned’s ruby crown is almost always hidden from view, and the Golden-crowned’s golden crown, while more obvious, has subtleties that are easy to miss, like the red-orange shading in the center of the males’ yellow patches. Only a lucky, nearby observer will see the male Ruby-crown flash his jewels. This weekend, I was that lucky observer twice, to say nothing of the magnificent views of Golden-crowns at eye level, doing their hyperkinetic thing. A flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets can make even the biggest Grinch smile.
Soon the year will exhale, and we’ll get our winter wanderers – up to our elbows in Pine Siskins, it looks like, and on the hunt for Crossbills and Snowy Owls. And we’ll have a few Kinglets to remeber this moment in fall by, until things begin to thaw and they flock back through again.