text and photos by Brian Willson

These fading days of November, on my hikes at Beech Hill in Rockport and vicinity, I see and hear far fewer birds than I did just a few short weeks ago. Far northern species have begun appearing at this latitude—for instance, an American tree sparrow popped up out of a thicket on an outing a couple days ago—and young red-tailed hawks are just now hunting the blueberry barrens of the coastal hills.

If you tend a feeder, you can be sure to watch a number of colorful songbirds all winter. Since I don’t, I usually be sure to list only our native crows and jays and chickadees. Occasionally a raven. And lately I’ve been hearing a northern flicker.

But you can count on one little woodland species to stick around these parts all winter, if you’re lucky and/or patient enough to spot it. I’m referring to the golden-crowned kinglet—a tiny, active bird that, while relatively common, is easy to miss.

Typically, I’ll hear kinglets before I see them. Listen for a very high-pitched, tsee-tsee-tsee call from the upper branches of a stand of spruces. (In fact, you might well hear a few of these calls, as kinglets usually come in small groups.) Watch the foliage for a while until you see little flitting or hovering birds, then train your binoculars on them. If you can get a good look, it’s usually pretty clear what you’re seeing.

Kinglets are very small and have olive-colored backs, dark eye stripes, and white wingbars. They hardly ever slow down—zipping from perch to perch in search of bugs and larvae. You can’t always see their bright yellow crown, but if you do, you won’t forget it.

Maine has another native kinglet (if by “native,” you mean they nest here): the ruby-crowned. But these tend to have moved south by now, whereas golden-crowns—although they migrate also—will hang around here year-round. Despite our short summers, they typically raise two broods of many chicks, and the male of the pair spends most of the time feeding them.

About every other day, these days, I’ll hear or see golden-crowned kinglets. They often hang out with chickadees and brown creepers—other year-round Maine residents—and sometimes even come down into lower foliage and brush, where you can get a good look. The other day, in fact, a number of kinglets were chasing each other within feet of my dog and me, one of them flashing its crest so dramatically as to reveal the seldom-seen red stripe within its golden crown.

It can be a challenge to see a golden-crowned kinglet, but like all birding successes, it only requires a little patience—and perhaps a well-trained ear.

For more information about golden-crowned kinglets, check here.