May 27, 2018
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Trip yields more surprises

By Chris Corio, Special to the News

Kinglet sighting another highlight of Scarborough marsh

Winter birding is full of surprises. Last week I had written about a trip to Scarborough Marsh that produced some spectacular sightings — bald eagles and my first sighting of a rough-legged hawk — but the story didn’t end there. Something happened that threw a vibrant bit of color into the stark winter landscape.

After observing the hawk, my friend and I continued on the raised path through the marsh, heading for the trees on the opposite side. Entering the patch of thick woods was like entering an icy wonderland.

Here, out of reach of the sun, every branch and every twig was still encased with ice from the storm the day before. The overburdened trees arched low over the path, obscuring visibility; whenever a breeze blew, the trees crackled, sometimes sending shards of ice and cascades of snow onto the path below. Severed branches lit-tered the forest floor and the footpath.

Not daring to chance the beautiful but dangerous place, we turned back. As we were approaching the marsh again, we heard call notes issuing from within a thicket bordering the wetland. The notes were the characteristic “seet-seet-seet” of golden-crowned kinglets, and they were easy to track as they traveled through the sur-rounding shrubs. The birds were constantly on the move, searching for chinks in the armor of ice, looking for dormant insects and insect eggs hidden in bark crevices..

Suddenly, one kinglet paused just long enough on an encrusted twig about knee-high level. Its fiery yellow and orange crown was clearly visible as the bird clung to its icy perch, offering a startling and brilliant contrast to the white starkness of snow and ice. In a second the bird was on the move again, and I marveled at its tre-mendous energy.

Unlike ruby-crowned kinglets, which migrate to more southern latitudes for the winter, golden-crowned kinglets are exceptionally hardy and able to withstand nighttime temperatures approaching -40 degrees. These small songbirds — which are smaller than black-capped chickadees — combat the cold in both behavioral and physiological ways. They may roost communally, lined up along a branch close to a tree trunk, or snuggle into empty squirrel nests. They may also lower their nighttime body temperatures and go into a kind of torpor so as not to expend as much energy keeping warm.

The golden-crowned kinglet’s historical breeding range has been the boreal spruce-fir forest of North America, but it has been expanding its range southward. The kinglets build their nests high in conifer trees, and, incredibly, usually produce two broods each season, with the male feeding one brood of nestlings while the female begins incubating the second brood. Even more surprising, these small birds usually lay between five and eleven eggs for each brood.

In winter, golden-crowned kinglets often forage with flocks of chickadees and nuthatches. However, that day we saw only the irrepressible kinglets as they flitted about the amazing landscape bordering the marsh. Our earlier sightings of the raptors may have been spectacular, but the day would not have been complete without this little bit of fire and ice.

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