For the Birds: The small, but mighty kinglet

People like large birds. Eagles, hawks, owls, even herons and waterfowl, get birders and non-birders alike excited.

Smaller birds? Sure, birders get excited about smaller birds too, but for non-birders, these birds have to bring something appealing to the table.

Everyone likes cardinals. They’re bright red. Everyone likes chickadees. They’re cute, tame and active. Non-birders are split on blue jays. Some like them because they are blue (and fairly large), and some dislike them because they heard jays are bully birds and they can’t let it go.

In fact, many smaller birds go completely unnoticed by non-birders, even when the birds make their presence rather obvious. A flock of white-throated sparrows or dark-eyed juncos can dart in every direction right in front of a non-birder and it will be as if nothing ever happened. A birder, however, will stop dead in his or her tracks, reach for the binoculars and try to find the little birds in the brush just to confirm an ID.

Not that I’m being critical of non-birders. It’s just not their thing. My son Andrew loves cars. When we drive together he points out all the cars that catch his eye. Look, Dad, there’s a BMW X2TR5 or an Audi 627X, he’ll say. Those aren’t the real models, of course. I forget the real model names the second he tells me. I’m glad he has a passion and great knowledge of it, but cars aren’t my thing.

Just like birds aren’t everybody’s thing.

I thought about that during a recent walk. To me, it was a great bird walk. I saw a lot of birds that got my blood pumping and managed to get a few decent photos of some elusive species. The bird list included species such as palm warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, Carolina wren, ruby-crowned kinglet, and the aforementioned white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed junco. Not bad for November.

All of those birds are small and rather nondescript, at least without the aid of binoculars. A non-birder would have been bored silly. I was loving it.

The kinglet got me thinking most of all. They are tiny birds, never sit still and hardly utter a peep when they pass through New England in the fall. I can almost guarantee that a non-birder has never taken even the slightest interest in a kinglet. Yet birders love them.

Kinglets are almost as small as hummingbirds, in size anyway, not necessarily in weight. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are about 7 to 9 centimeters long and ruby-crowned kinglets are about 9 to 11 centimeters long. Hummingbirds are a mere 2 to 6 grams, depending on activity and the last time they ate. Kinglets weigh in at a comparatively hefty 5 to 10 grams. By comparison, black-capped chickadees are 10 to 15 centimeters and 11 to 12 grams.

Kinglets are also rather bland from a distance or by a quick glance. Closer inspection yields an interesting mix of olive green, yellow, black and white plumage. As their name suggests, males have a red crown that is exposed when the bird is excited. In my experience, it is not exposed too often.

Kinglets are a far cry from an eagle or heron, but they are big in character, hardiness and energy. As a birder, I can appreciate that.

For the Birds: Keep an eye out for kinglets

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-crowned kinglet inspects sedum for food in New England, fall 2019.

I’ve seen them in the deep woods, in my flower garden, in suburban parks and even at a sandy beach.

There are no excuses for missing out on kinglets during the fall migration. That is, unless you aren’t outside enough looking for them, which is unacceptable.

Last week, I wrote about the tiny kinglets being tough creatures able to withstand extremely low temperatures. This week, I’ll take a closer look at kinglets, a good reliable sighting throughout New England during migration periods.

We have two types of kinglets in New England: the ruby-crowned kinglet and the golden-crowned kinglet. Don’t let the names fool you, the color of the crown is not a good way to distinguish the two species in the field. First of all, you hardly ever see the crowns in the first place — especially that of the ruby-crowned kinglet — and secondly, the colors don’t Continue reading

For the Birds: Many sturdy birds from which to choose

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers …

Photo by Chris Bosak
A ruby-crowned kinglet inspects sedum for food in New England, fall 2019.

I was recently interviewed about birds and bird population trends by radio show host John McGauley of WKBK.

John had a lot of interesting questions and, following the interview, one in particular stood out in my mind. He asked: “What are the more sturdy birds? Are there any that are especially hardy and durable?”

My on-the-spot answer was hawks and other large raptors. While hawks are indeed large and strong and fierce, I wish I had would have responded differently. All birds, large and small, are hardy and durable. It would have sounded like a wishy-washy answer, but I could have explained it.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, weighing in at about three Continue reading

Classic For the Birds: Neither summer nor winter

Here’s another classic For the Birds column, this one originally printed in the fall of 2007. Andrew was five, Will was two, the economy was starting to unravel.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet perches in a tree at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods on May 5, 2014.

We’re losing birds daily as the days get shorter and nights get cooler. That’s the pessimistic view.

We’re gaining birds daily, too, as the days get shorter and nights get cooler. I like that one better. I try to be a glass-half-full type of guy, even as my 401k plunges into the abyss.

Fall migration is a funny thing for birdwatchers in New England. We say goodbye until next spring to some birds, such as oystercatchers, ospreys, and hummingbirds; and hello to our winter birds such as white-throated sparrows, juncos, and ducks of all shapes and sizes. In the meantime, birds that nest north of here and winter south of here will pass through like a train in no particular hurry to reach its destination.

Now is the time to concentrate on those varieties. The kinglets, warblers and vireos of the bird world. Our summer birds have been with us for months. The winter birds will be here soon and stay with us until spring. The migrants are fleeting. That’s why they’re called migrants.

Kinglets are my favorite fall migrant to watch. A tiny bird that would easily fit in the palm of your hand, kinglets are energetic little bundles of joy. We have two varieties in New England: ruby-crowned and golden-crowned. For the most part they migrate through New England at different times, but I once watched from my kitchen window a ruby-crowned and golden-crowned sharing the same hemlock branch.

Kinglets are not shy and will often hunt for tiny insects within arm’s reach of any human patient enough to stand still long and learn its hunting pattern. They hunt high in trees, along the tops of average-sized bushes and even along the ground. I once watched a ruby-crowned kinglet hunt on a sandy beach a few autumn’s past.

Warblers are the jewels of the bird world in the spring. They are colorful, spritely and somewhat easy to identify if you can get a good look at them. In the fall, they are still sought after, but often painfully confusing for birdwatchers. The males of most species, resplendent in their breeding plumage in the spring, sport feathers that are dulled by age and the toils of summer by fall. First-year birds — mere helpless naked babies a few months ago — are passing through New England in their confusing neither-here-nor-there plumage.

I had an unfortunate warbler sighting last weekend. I was walking along a long road with my five-year-old, Andrew, and two-year-old, Will. First, let me clarify the walking situation. We had just spent a wonderful, but exhausting morning/early afternoon at an Aquarium in southern New England. We had to walk a fair distance back to the car, but the kids were in no mood to walk under their own power anymore — especially if sharks and seals were not involved — so I had Will on my shoulders and Andrew in my arms. I love them to death, but they are getting heavy.

Suddenly Andrew, who was facing backwards, says, “Daddy, you just walked past a bird.” Sure enough, there on the sidewalk was a dead black-throated blue warbler. I put the kids down and examined the bird. It was perfectly intact and likely either collided with a window or simply fell exhausted from the sky. Not that I particularly enjoyed that warbler sighting, but it did serve as an educational lesson for Andrew and Will, and was a mighty handsome subject at that. (It also gave me a little break from carrying two growing boys.)

Double-crested cormorants made for another educational lesson that morning. The cormorants were alive and well, and this lesson was actually fun — at least I thought so, anyway. Cormorants are large diving water birds. When they swim pretty much only their long necks are above the water, making them look like swimming snakes. There were about a dozen of them swimming under a railroad bridge in a river. It was Andrew’s job to first find them and then count them. The game could have gone on for hours as the diving cormorants became “new” birds each time they resurfaced. He got to about 30 before the game got old and we went back into the Aquarium.

Soon, the double-crested cormorants will be gone and great cormorants will take their place along New England’s coast for the winter. Also before long, waterfowl of many varieties will arrive in New England. Some will merely pass through and some will stay all winter.

The days are going to get even shorter and the temperatures are going to get a lot colder. Those ducks, however, will help us get through the winter. They always do.