I recently picked up a phone message from a friend who exclaimed, “For three mornings I’ve heard a bird singing. Not the usual chirps or calls, but a real song. What is that bird?”
A smile spread over my face with the promise of spring on this mid-winter day. I settled on a Song Sparrow as the likely songster. But to be sure, I donned my parka and headed outside to listen myself.
Not five minutes into my walk near Wilkinson Road, a sweet song lilted out of a salmonberry thicket. Yep, a Song Sparrow was celebrating a brief break in our rainy January weather.
As I stopped to listen, about 20 birds passed noisily through the woods around me. This winter flock teamed with chattering chickadees, cavorting kinglets and a Hairy Woodpecker calling, “squeak, squeak.”
One of the kinglets landed on the pathway not 10 feet in front of me, flashing a brilliant yellow and orange crown. The tiny, four-inch kinglets are not attracted to feeders and therefore are hard to see and often overlooked.
Rather than seed or suet, the insectivorous kinglets feast mainly on spiders and their eggs, gleaned from the buds or under the bark of trees. The birds also hover in mid air near the ends of branches plucking out goodies.
The kinglet was gone in an instant, but not before it bedazzled me with its colorful crown set against an olive-green and grayish body.
If only these birds were the size of jays or robins, they’d get the kingly admiration they deserve.
Two species of kinglets can be found here on Whidbey Island. The one in my pathway was the Golden-crowned Kinglet, and the other species is aptly named the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The name “kinglet” does justice to the fact that these species can flash a brilliant, jeweled crown, yet they are the tiniest of birds.
Both these species are present here during the winter, and the Golden-crowned stays all year. The males sport an orange crown bordered with yellow and black. The female’s crown is yellow with black.
Although tiny, the Golden-crowned Kinglet can withstand winter temperatures of minus 40 degrees. Throughout the summer, this bird’s faint, high-pitched, “see, see, see,” floats down from the treetops.
On the other hand, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a remarkably rich and loud song. We can hear it singing in the early spring before this species leaves the lowlands and heads up into the Cascades for the breeding season. There, it makes a diminutive nest as high as 100 feet up in spruce and fir trees. The mother Ruby-crowned Kinglet lays up to 12 eggs in one clutch, amazing for a bird weighing less than ¼ of an ounce.
The male Ruby-crowned has its own regal behavior. If another male kinglet comes too close for comfort, the bird holds its scarlet crown erect with lateral red feathers splayed to the sides. The wings are flicked rapidly above the back, and the whole effect creates a flashing impression. Then the bird bursts into its loud, complex song.
Before long, the January rain forced me to bury my head in my hood, quicken my pace and head home. Along the way, I heard the Bald Eagles that winter along this bluff calling to each other.
I reflected on the joys of nature that go on outside our homes every day of the year. And I wondered why it takes a wake-up call from a friend to get me outside. To those who think the world is dark and dead in January, I say: Take a walk and tune your eyes and ears to the life that still pulses. It may give you a lift as it did for me.
Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” For more bird information and to contact Frances, visit her web site with a click here.