Twice during the first week in October I received messages and photos from friends about little birds they had spotted in the city, one on a balcony rail thirty stories high and one that had survived a collision with a streetfront window. In both cases the bird was a golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa), a wee migrant that we see twice a year when it flies through the Barrington area.
There are two kinglets – golden-crowned and ruby-crowned – that visit our area. But it’s the golden-crown that tends to come through in big numbers and often sizable groups. When you hear the ultra high-pitched, short, sometimes nearly indiscernible notes of the bird – ti-ti! – you usually hear the sound all about you as several of the diminutive creatures forage for small insects.
This fall I have encountered golden-crowned kinglets for over a month now, and some may well continue into winter. In fact, the species almost always shows up on Christmas Bird Counts. We have many late flowering composites growing around our countryside home – asters and goldenrods – and I’ve noticed the kinglets clinging to the seed heads, often with black-capped chickadees, as they nab whatever it is they are looking for and obviously finding on those plants. I mentioned the observation on a recent walk I led along the lakeshore in Chicago and within minutes, in the prairie garden atop the McCormick Center garage, we heard the high notes of golden-crowned kinglets and found them on the seed heads of various prairie plants.
Visually, the golden-crowned kinglet (a big name for such a small bird!) is striking. The face is boldly marked with black and white stripes; it often seems to me that it has been painted with mascara. Its crown is a bright yellow-orange. Overall the kinglet is an olive gray but its wing and tail feathers are tinged with a subtle but lovely yellow. Each wing has a single thin white wing bar. I think of the kinglet as a little dynamo, as it seems to be in perpetual motion, hunting and picking up insects with its tiny black bill, all the while emitting those shrill, thin notes.
The golden-crowned kinglet nests in boreal or mountain forests, most often in spruce and fir trees, considerably north of Barrington latitudes. Despite their tiny size, they can endure temperatures well below zero. Naturalist and author Bernd Heinrich describes graphically their survival strategies in his book, Winter World. While they often seem to prefer conifers, the kinglets forage in trees and shrubs of all types in and around Barrington. They are liable to appear almost anywhere – in local forest preserves, parks, even in vegetation on town streets.
It will be the sound more than the sight of the kinglets that is apt to alert you to their presence. If you keep your aural radar alert to those high frequency notes, you have a good chance of seeing the rapid movement of the tiny winged creature. You need to be quick with binoculars to actually watch the bird. But the reward makes the effort well worthwhile.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.