There is only so much birding patience available when the temperature is hovering in the single digits. I was, patiently, trying to get a good look at the tiny mouse-sized bird flitting through the branches of a spruce tree. The thing was in constant motion – first on top of a branch, then underneath it, then hovering in front of it. It was probing, picking, peering, and prying into every possible nook and cranny provided by that tree. I finally identified it as a Golden-crowned Kinglet, due to the fact that it was a hyperactive mouse-sized bird prying into every available nook and cranny. The fact that it was pale greenish in color and topped with a black-bordered yellow crown only confirmed the identification. Unfortunately, my patience quickly faded once identification was achieved.
I decided to try for a photo op, but the bird would not stop moving. Even chickadees will pause every now and then to take a breath or to perform mental math. This one, however, consistently stayed one-half second ahead of my focusing abilities. With a digital camera you can see your image as a momentary freeze frame immediately after the shot is taken. Image after frozen image revealed this Kinglet as a blurred smudge, a well-focused butt, a set of precisely focused tail feathers sticking out of a blob of protoplasm, or as a terrific view of an empty spruce branch. Finally, after losing all feeling in my glove-less camera hand, I fired off a series of random shots before giving up. Frankly, I didn’t care at that point either. Yes, I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet. They are not rare…they are, in fact, common winter birds. They are tiny and secretive and I was numb and slurring. Why kingle with minglets…or, I mean mingle with kinglets, when I could easily do the same thing later in the day when it was twenty degrees warmer at a balmy 26 degrees F.?
Yes, I whimped. Deciding that flesh performs better when it is not blackened and peeling, I abandoned the pip-squeak to its own devices. Afterwards, to my horror, I noticed that one of my shots actually came out o.k. – I mean it pretty much represented a fairly tolerable image of that little sprite (see last photo and detail here). I could even tell, based on the lack of an orange center on the yellow crown, that it was a female. Now I was forced into writing a blog about Yellow-crowned Kinglets in order to justify this shot. I was going to write something about hibernating clams, but nooooooooooooo….a fickle mini-flicker of fate intervened.
Nearly every bird guide will use the words “constant motion,” or something with a parallel meaning, when describing Golden-crowned Kinglets. Even their wispy “see-see-see” call is ventriloquistic and fleeting. My experience, therefore, was typical. Early investigators, of course, never had this problem because they would shoot them with rifles rather than Canon Powershot cameras. Audubon never had to put up with hyperactive little birds when he had his Kentucky rifle loaded with birdshot. Today we have to suffer the consequences of remote observation so that we needn’t snuff birds in order to identify them. Thanks to those earlier lethal methods of freeze-framing, however, we have Audubon’s paintings and detailed scientific studies which tell us why these little guys are so hyperactive.
Golden-crowned Kinglets are the smallest winter bird in our region. Measuring barely 3 ½ inches in total length and weighing only .2 of an ounce (that’s 6 grams for you Canadians out there) you’d think they are not the over-wintering type. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are half the weight of the average Gold-crown, but at least they have the common sense to migrate south. This leaves the kinglet as our smallest bird for six months of the year. One of their winter survival tactics, apart from fluffing up and snuggling with their fellow kinglets from time to time, is constant eating. Constant eating requires constant foraging and constant foraging leads to perpetual motion. They can’t afford to stop for too long.
Scientists, using tiny dead birds I might add, were able to determine that kinglets were eating large quantities of scale insects – tiny crust-covered critters adhering to spruce and pine needles. My little Kinglet often hovered out in front of a branch and picked off the scale insects from the spruce needles as I watched (in fact, one of my blurry out-of-focus shots shows this activity – see above). One surprising result of the last quoted study (by eminent energetics researcher Bernd Heinrich) revealed that these birds were also finding an incredible number of over-wintering caterpillars. Out of the 483 winter prey items recorded, 287 were inchworms! Previously no one suspected that these caterpillars were even available as winter food, leave alone in any quantity.
It takes a lot of inchworm hunting to measure out a winter, so I must end with a respectful nod to this hyperactive little mouse bird. Even in the midst of her life or death struggle, she apparently sacrificed a full second of her time just to smile for my camera. I was just too slow to realize it until after the fact.