Saturday, November 13, 2010
The Kinglet Cousins
I have seen the kinglet cousins on many different occasions. Mr. Ruby-crowned appears in mid-April, a tiny, curious bundle of energy who may pause anywhere to fuel up as he journeys to the boreal forests to breed. On his journey south in the Fall, his hormones have quieted, and he is more leisurely in his travels. Eventually he will find his way to the deep south, where winter hardly deserves the name.
You need to be a patient birdwatcher in order to get a good look at either of these birds. They are tiny and almost constantly on the move. And, if they are difficult for the birdwatcher with binoculars, they are a real challenge for the photographer. When I was in the mountains of the Gaspe Peninsula this past June, I was in Mr. Golden-crown’s nesting neighborhood. He was quite provoked that I dared walk a trail in his territory, but he did most of his protesting while half hidden. He gave me only fleeting photo opportunities, and most of those were a blur.
But ... I was in Cape May two weeks ago when there was an epic fall out of migratory songbirds that left the most veteran birders in a daze. I don’t know how the kinglet numbers that were present compare with a “normal” year, but I do know that I had more close encounters with the two cousins in one day than I have had over the course of several years.
The scientific and common names of both kinglets are consistent. Both are “little kings” who wear a crown. Mr. Golden-crowned is Regulus satrapa - “little king” and “ruler.” Mr. Ruby-crowned is Regulus calendula, “little king” and “glowing,” referring to the ruby crown. Both birds are named for their “kingly” appearance, not for their unusually tyrannical behavior. Parenthetically and by way of contrast, the behavior of our Eastern Kingbird is captured in his family, genus, and species name, all of which are “tyrant.” Also parenthetically, Europe has two additional cousins (Genus Regulus), the Goldcrest and Firecrest, both of which look very much like our Golden-crowned Kinglet.
Most of the time, Mr. Ruby-crown’s ruby crown is concealed. I have had glimpses of the ruby crown during his spring migration when he has been agitated over my intrusion into his territory or when he has been rehearsing his repertoire for mate attraction. On fewer occasions when my viewing angle was just right, I have seen a hint of his crown.
To my surprise and delight, on many occasions when I was watching Mr. Ruby-crown in Cape May, his red crown was visible and obvious. Maybe it was because he was feeding so low in the bushes, sometimes even on the ground at my feet. I was looking down on him, down on the top of his head. The red streak of his crown was clearly visible.
Alas, we will have to wait until next April to hear Mr. Ruby-crown’s song. When I watched him in Cape May, there was only a wiry “tsip” as he moved through the bushes in his feeding frenzy.