Happy new year, and long live the Kinglets

A salt-shaker-sized Golden-crowned Kinglet is caught between hops on the wet gravel and mud of grandiosely named Chinook Way, Center Island’s one-lane main thoroughfare. These birds’ plumage offers a cheerful break from the gray of winter. A big one might weigh a third of an ounce.


Last winter, my loyal reader might recall, I was stymied in getting just the photo I wanted of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, the tiny dumpling of a bird that seems to vacation on Center Island this time of year. My neighbor John, the Mad Birder, has declared it his favorite bird on our rock. While this no doubt has to do in part with the fact that the Nuthatch was, ahem, already spoken for, I concede that Kinglets, with their distinctive yellow-orange Mohawk, are pretty adorable.

This New Year’s Day, when everybody agrees that the new year can only be better than the last, I set out amid gale-force winds to trek across the island to the community dock to run the bilge pumps and check the fenders and mooring lines on our 64-year-old runabout, WeLike.

As I walked, I once again (“for the umpteenth time” would be an understatement) cursed myself for not bringing my camera when I should have. The kinglets were out.

Now, loyal reader, you may have just seen my missive that mentioned the principled and highly respected outdoor writer Barry Lopez, who chose in mid-career to stop photographing wildlife because he felt that telephoto lenses put his quarry at a disadvantage. While I’m in awe of Mr. Lopez, I’m not ready to give up my camera. A good wildlife photo is a piece of art that reflects the photographer’s love and admiration of the subject and can inspire others to love and admire that subject as well.

But in deference to Barry, I’ll tell you about these birds, too.

I first discovered them for myself a couple winters ago when Barbara and I were out stretching our legs along the wet and muddy gravel roads of our island. Suddenly we encountered a small flock of tiny hopping birds in the gravel in front of us. As we moved ahead, they hopped ahead at the same pace, though occasionally we’d laughingly dodge a straggler who seemed oblivious of our marching boots. For all we could tell, it appeared the birds were feeding on tiny bits of gravel, which made us laugh in confusion. Their bright topknot, gaily contrasting with the gray and mud-brown landscape around us, immediately clued me in. These must be Golden-crowned Kinglets.

In mid-hop, a Kinglet obligingly shows off his gaudy head plumage.

The Mad Birder theorized that their appetite wasn’t for gravel — though birds do consume grit to fuel their gizzards — but more for mites found among the gravel and mud.

Their high-energy hopping is what makes photographing them so difficult. It’s sometimes easy enough to get close to them as they peck at the roadway, but it’s maddeningly tough to catch them unblurred in a camera viewfinder, I’ve found. They just keep hopping. Quite quickly.

After inspecting the boat, I hightailed it home for my camera and returned to stalk kinglets. As usual, I ended up with a generous supply of blurry exposures splashed with yellow and green, kind of the way the kitchen wall looks when the cover slips off the smoothie blender. When the birds were near, I fumbled to find my rapid-repeat shutter function. By the time I figured it out, they’d fled to the woods. But after persisting for another half hour and wandering back and forth across the island, I ended up with a couple of keeper photographs, though even the best has only a soft focus.

Maybe it’s their choice. Maybe it’s why they won’t stand still for the camera. Anybody with that kind of flashy hairdo has to have an ego. And, hey, don’t we all look our best in soft focus?

5 thoughts on “Happy new year, and long live the Kinglets

  1. Great photo. I took at least a dozen kinglet portraits last week, but none so captured the soul of that creature.

    Hoping to get out there next weekend, if you can manage better weather for us to cross the strait.

    John S. Farnsworth, PhD Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Sciences, Emeritus Santa Clara University



  2. perhaps they are afraid of having their souls captured on Kodachrome . they should fear not .the kiosks of the past are gone forever .I believe they are mischievous creatures who toy with mere humans attempting to preserve the flashing moments of their lives . Deep Thoughts .Here’s to the ornithologists of the islands . Long may they snap and save snippets of art .


  3. Not only your sweet kinglet photos but also your essay brightens this gloomy soggy afternoon – as do all your stories and images of life on your island. Wishing you and Barbara happy New Year!


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