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Sutro Bird Watcher: Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Grab Your Binoculars!

December is here and with winter, migrating birds are arriving on Mt. Sutro. This month the ruby-crowned kinglet is an active jewel to see. The ruby-crowned kinglet is a very small bird. It might be heard before being seen in the shrub as it makes its characteristic staccato two note call, sounding like two strokes of a Selectric typewriter.

The ruby-crowned kinglet is found in scrub, looking for insects. It may travel in mixed flocks, a kinglet or two, traveling with the local chestnut-backed chickadees or with bushtits. This is a bird that will not be found at a seed bird feeder.

You won’t hear the ruby-crowned kinglet’s mating call now. In spring and summer the kinglet’s song is a loud, melodious warble. That song is saved for spring-time song while this kinglet is north and throughout much of Canada, preparing to mate and lay eggs. Now the two-part contact call is heard as the kinglet gleans for insects, ingesting protein-rich bugs as he or she spends the winter in Mt. Sutro shrubbery or trees.

The ruby-crown is rarely seen during winter; the feathers of the red and orange crown are lowered and invisible. They will be raised during courtship and territorial displays, and other times of arousal, such as during the first rainfall of a winter storm.

Recently, in November, a ruby-crowned kinglet appeared in my backyard, near Mt. Sutro. "It is glowing," I shout! The ruby-crowned kinglet was seen preening in the bushes after bathing, the flame-red and orange feathers atop his head were visible, glowing! For three minutes this alert bird thrilled at the joys of the bath, on a cool crisp autumn day, the raised red feathers of the crown apparent.

Please note that the photos in this blog show the ruby-crowned kinglet when feeding. See the glowing red crown here.

Constant movement is the behavior that distinguishes the ruby-crowned kinglet. It hovers in front of flowers like a hummingbird, it sallies forth to catch insects on the wing like a flycatcher, it gleans spiders and other insects found on leaves like a warbler. Visually, the white broken-eye ring, surrounding a big eye is an identifying feature, as are the two wing bars. At opposite times of year, the Hutton’s Vireo with similar markings, but a different call and with a stronger beak, might be seen among the scrub oak trees in the Mt. Sutro Rotary Garden.

The habitat on Mt. Sutro provides food, shelter and water for the ruby-crowned kinglet and other birds. Native plants, and the diversity of insects that they host, provide the complex mix of food and shelter that has supported the kinglet through millennia as they travel as far south as Panama in the winter and return north for nesting in the summer

Check out this link for more information, including identification, life history and sounds.

Enter the glorious world of bird watching! Take advantage of the optics that will allow you to distinguish a ruby-crowned kinglet from other little brown jobs on the wing. Develop your powers of observation. Join the ranks of citizen scientists who observe and record their findings.

Invest in a pair of binoculars for a holiday or birthday treat. Peruse bird checklists and field guides

Participate in the local Audubon Society; meet others with shared interests.

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