Golden crowned kinglets: glints that catch our soul by surprise

Golden crowned kinglets are hearty little songbirds that can withstand cold temperatures. (Peter Pearsall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The sky was that blue unique to winter: endlessly deep and crystalline clear, like staring into a sapphire. We were standing on a small boardwalk that juts into open water along the Marsh Edge Trail. Overhead, a bald eagle cast an indifferent gaze in our direction.

Winter is the ideal time to visit the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, MD. Thousands of waterfowl congregate here, and they are joined by scores of bald eagles, hawks, songbirds and waders. I needed a break from the flood of post-election stories. This was balm for my raw feelings.

Behind us I heard a “tsii” from the treetops. I swung the binoculars into action and quickly found several small birds flitting about. Carolina chickadees came into view, but there was another bird that caught my attention. It was even smaller than the diminutive chickadees, about the size of a hummingbird. It had a black-and-white face.

I was looking at a golden crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa). It would be another 20 minutes before I saw the eponymous yellow-orange crest on a male that was foraging in the low scrub nearby, but the ID was certain from the start.

Golden crowned kinglets are exceedingly small. When they hatch, they are the size of bumblebees. Full grown, they are just 3–4 inches from beak tip to tail end. They weigh a mere 0.2 ounces. In spite of their size, these kinglets are hearty birds, braving temperatures dramatically lower than the 25-degree weather we were experiencing.

The golden crowned kinglet has a pale olive-green back and is gray below. It has white wingbars and yellow edges to its flight feathers. The species has a tiny, thin black bill. A black stripe runs through the eye and is topped by a white eyebrow. Above that, thick black bars often conceal the golden crest. The male raises its crests in claiming territory, during courting and at other times as well.

Some golden crowned kinglets live permanently along the Pacific Coast and in the montane regions of the Rockies and Appalachia. Most, though, breed in the boreal forests of Canada every summer. As the weather chills, they migrate to the lower 48 states where they can be found from mid-October to March. Here in Maryland, kinglets arrive primarily in November.

Although they are quite territorial during breeding, kinglets will join flocks of other small birds every winter.

Kinglets love conifers. Not only do they breed in these trees but they also prefer them in winter. Usually, they are concealed high in these trees, where they capture insects, which form the basis of their diet. Their voice is often the best signal to alert birders to their presence.

To capture insects, kinglets glean them from needles, hawk them on the wing, or even hover to access them in hard-to-reach places. The kinglet diet includes grasshoppers and crickets, lice and mites, butterflies and moths, bees and wasps, and beetles and spiders. In winter, when insects are scarce, they nibble on egg cases and also eat seeds.

Kinglets are monogamous, and they have distinct breeding duties. Although they breed where the seasons are short, they often produce two sizable broods annually.

The cup nest is built up to 60 feet high in a conifer, usually near the trunk. The clutch consists of 3–11 eggs. When the birds hatch, they are tiny and helpless. The female continues to provide warmth and protection in the nest while the male provides food for his spouse as well as their offspring.

As soon as the first batch fledges 16-19 days later, the female starts a second brood. The male continues to feed the young and the female for the next two weeks while the 0.5-inch long eggs incubate. By the time the second brood hatches, the first is on its own.

Mortality rates are high. Plus, loss of habitat has gradually reduced golden crowned kinglet populations by 2.5 percent annually for decades. In all, the population dropped by 75 percent since the 1960s.

Today, conifers are making a modest comeback and so are kinglets. Plantings in Pennsylvania have been particularly beneficial. The kinglet population is now considered stable and is expanding slowly in the Eastern United States.

Winter provides terrific opportunities to view the ducks, swans and geese for which the Chesapeake is legendary. These wonderful waterfowl are big and often boisterous. The golden crowned kinglet offers a different kind of viewing pleasure. Its small size belies its hardiness, and its bright crest adds a delicate touch to its miniature beauty.

Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the small wonders in a world of big distractions. But careful watching is often amply rewarded. The kinglet had provided just such a prize for this searching soul.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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