Archive for February, 2020

Golden-crowned Kinglet – a Small Winter Jewel

Sunday, February 23rd, 2020

This winter, for the first time since we moved here to Summit Grove twenty years ago, I have not seen or heard a single Golden-crowned Kinglet – until today. 

Golden-crowned Kinglets are very small, charming birds that we only find here during the winter season. They nest and spend the summer in forests further north. A Golden-crowned Kinglet is a tiny, roundish gray bird with hints of yellow, thin white wing bars, a black-and-white striped face, and a flashing crown of yellow and orange. They flit very quickly through the branches of pines and bare hardwoods, searching for small insects, and often move with feeding flocks of other small winter birds like chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

The calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets are very high, thin, faintly buzzy – ti-ti-ti – a familiar sound in the winter here. Most of the time I hear them before seeing them, because they tend to stay up fairly high, especially – though not always – in pines and other evergreens. 

But today, I didn’t hear the calls at all. The day was cold, crisp, and brightly sunny, with a soft blue sky and lots of high, long streaks and veils of white clouds. I was walking up a hill past a small patch of trees and tangled undergrowth, when the flickering movement of a small bird caught my eye. When I stopped to take a closer look with binoculars, I saw a very vivid, pretty little Golden-crowned Kinglet. Its crown was bright, deep yellow-gold. And all of the markings were very clean and clear. 

It was moving in a characteristic, quick, flitting way at about eye level in a small, bare-limbed tree, making its way intently over the branches. As it moved, it was not calling the familiar ti-ti-ti – it was chirping in a tiny, quiet, but distinct way. Chirp. Chirp. It made this very short, one-syllable chirping call over and over again as it moved. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this call from a Golden-crowned Kinglet before, and I have not been able to find it mentioned or described in species accounts, or in a recording. It was definitely not singing – but the Golden-crowned Kinglet’s song is described as complex, and these notes might have been similar to parts of it. 

I watched it for several minutes as it moved through the branches of small trees on the side of the road, staying down close to eye level. I never heard the ti-ti-ti calls. I also looked and listened for another Golden-crowned Kinglet nearby and could not find one, though it’s certainly possible there were others that I just didn’t see. There also didn’t seem to be a feeding flock of other small songbirds nearby. This one little jewel-like bird seemed to be alone.

Like many North American songbirds, populations of Golden-crowned Kinglets have declined alarmingly in the past several decades, but they are still described as numerous. Although they used to nest mostly in far northern spruce-fir forests, their breeding range has been expanding further south, into the midwestern U.S and the Appalachians. The reason for their winter disappearance in our own neighborhood may be largely the result of habitat changes here, especially the loss of trees, and fragmentation of more and more woodlands both here and in surrounding areas.