November is usually a dismal month, thanks to cooler temperatures, gray skies, rain and mud. But not this year.
The first week of November has been perfect — bluebird skies and 70 degrees. It has felt like spring.
But weather forecasts report more seasonable weather will return; I doubt we’ll see such mild weather again until April.
Regardless of the weather, however, days are getting shorter and nights are growing. And that photoperiod is the one absolutely reliable environmental cue to which all wild creatures respond.
Despite spring-like temperatures, the fall frenzy continues for chipmunks and ground hogs. Migratory birds are heading south, and new winter residents arrive each day.
A mixed flock of juncos, white-throated sparrows, purple finches and red-breasted nuthatches has joined the usual crowd of chickadees, titmice and goldfinches at my feeders.
Tiny winter bird
But it is a tiny winter bird that has captured my attention this week. Its call came from high in an evergreen.
The high pitched voice was easy to distinguish from the incessant clucks of foraging chipmunks who dominate the forest floor this time of year.
It was the call of a golden-crowned kinglet — “zee, zee, zee.”
Like many birds, kinglets are often heard before they are seen. Their high pitched voice is distinctive.
When I looked up, I spotted two tiny greenish birds hovering as they gleaned insects from the tree’s evergreen needles.
Kinglets weigh about six grams — a bit less than a quarter-ounce.
Golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets are two of the tiniest songbirds in North America.
Some pass through as they work their way south; others stay the winter.
Kinglets are small, olive-colored birds. Both species are about four inches long, they have wing bars and their bellies are lighter than their bodies.
Look to their heads for differences between these two insectivorous songbirds. Black stripes border the fiery orange top of a male golden-crown’s head. The female’s crown is yellow.
Both sexes also wear a broad white eyebrow stripe, so the head has a distinctly striped appearance. Ruby-crowns are duller.
Females lack the red hat that characterizes males, though the male’s red feathers are seldom visible.
Only when males get excited or agitated, perhaps by the presence of a hawk, do they erect these feathers and display the colorful ruby crown.
The keys to recognizing ruby-crowns are the white eye-ring and the absence of stripes on the head.
Kinglets nest in the coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains and across the northern U.S. and Canada, though golden-crowns also nest south along the spine of the Appalachians.
Remarkably, these tiny birds lay clutches of seven to nine eggs. They accommodate such large clutches by arranging the eggs in two layers.
Furthermore, the nest is usually so deep the incubating parent is concealed beneath the rim of the nest. Incubation lasts 12 to 15 days, and two broods are typical.
Both species migrate to the southern U.S, so during the fall and winter they may show up just about anywhere.
Because kinglets are so small and only visit backyards occasionally, they’re unfamiliar to many people.
How to spot
If you know what to look for, they’re easy to spot.
Be alert for active tiny birds often associating in loose flocks with chickadees, titmice, brown creepers and fall warblers.
Kinglets forage at the tips of branches and sometimes hover while gleaning small invertebrates and egg cases from hard-to-reach leaves and twigs.
Sometimes they venture to the ground and forage amid the leaf litter. Wherever they are, though, kinglets seem to move constantly and flick their wings as they move from limb to limb.
Seldom does a kinglet perch quietly to allow a birder a leisurely look. These very behaviors, coupled with the distinctive head markings, make identifying kinglets manageable.
Because kinglets eat invertebrates almost exclusively, they ignore the seeds we offer in feeders. They may, however, eat suet or peanut butter/suet mixes.
Chilly fall mornings and hard frosts send insects to their winter refuges, so look for kinglets at suet feeders.