Ruby-Crowned Kinglets

By josh • Nature, Wildlife • 1 May 2012

After several weeks of nasty north winds, it seems that we in Vermont are about to be inundated with migrants.  Most of our species are likely to be right on time despite our odd winter (or non-winter) and early spring.  Otter Creek Audubon Society’s annual Warbler Warmup is scheduled for Mother’s Day (May 13th), and given the sitings in southern Vermont this past weekend and the coming calm weather they should have a nice variety of songbirds to see before  the trees leaf out.

One of the songbirds that has already arrived is the ruby-crowned kinglet.  These little drab puffballs are no more than four inches in length from bill to tail but their activity level and outsized din make them more conspicuous than they might be otherwise.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wheeler Nature Park, South Burlington, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 400

The ruby-crowned kinglet’s song typically has three distinct segments.  Initial high twittering is followed by low muttering and finally an exuberant jumbled mess that I frequently confused with the common yellowthroat’s alternate “what did HE do” song before I learned the kinglet’s phrasing.

And about the name?

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wheeler Nature Park, South Burlington, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO 400

When agitated or in breeding season, the ruby-crowned kinglet can flash a hidden group of bright red feathers that can appear as a crest under the right circumstances.   The main species photo at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s ruby-crowned kinglet page shows the bird in a state of excitement that I did not provoke in this fellow.

As you can see below, though, the ruby crown is usually nearly invisible…

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Berlin Pond, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 200

…or sometimes appears as a red stripe on the rear crown of the bird.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wheeler Nature Park, South Burlington, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 400

Ruby-crowned kinglets generally forage and nest high in the treetops, but I frequently see them in low, shubby vegetation where they’re easier to observe (and photograph).  The don’t sit still much though, so photography’s still a challenge. This kinglet was hunting insects in a hedgerow at Wheeler Nature Park in South Burlington.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wheeler Nature Park, South Burlington, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 400

The above is not sharp at all despite the reasonable focus and fast shutter speed, but it does demonstrate the way the kinglet hovers almost gnatcatcher-like to pick insects from a tree trunk.

Sometimes the bird would land on the trunk and fuss with the bark to find food beneath, but generally it flitted just away from the trunk, moving rapidly through the hedgerow.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wheeler Nature Park, South Burlington, Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 400

This last one shows the contortions that the kinglet is putting himself through while in flight.  It reminds me of Zurbarán’s St. Serapion (art history nerd alert!) where the head doesn’t really line up in any plausible way with the rest of the body.

It seems that it’s time to start practicing with fill flash.  As much as I’m happy to have some images of the very tricky ruby-crowned kinglet, the harsh high contrast (on what was generally an excellent day for bird photography) would have been helped immeasurably by some additional light in the shadows.

Wheeler Nature Park

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