By Peter Pierson
Broken dark clouds drop lower as they pass across Granite Mountain, bringing rain, then, as the storm moves in from the west, what is being projected to be the heaviest snowfall in two or three years here in the Central Highlands.
The pending storm brings out the usual visitors in numbers. Juncos, siskins, chipping sparrows, and house finches rotate between the tray and the feed spilled on the ground. Amidst the ground feeders, the distinct black-and-white-striped crown of a lone white-crowned sparrow stands out. Red-breasted nuthatches and juniper titmice pluck through sunflower seeds amidst a wave of chattering bushtits. An orange-crowned warbler waits while a pair of yellow-rumped warblers feed at a suet station.
Brilliant sunlight pokes from between the dark, moisture-laden clouds, illuminating a flash of red in a juniper. It’s a ruby-crowned kinglet, although ruby does not quite do it justice on a day like this. The tiny bird, second, with its close relation the golden-crowned kinglet, in its diminutive status only to the hummingbirds, moves its way down the branches towards the suet.
“Nervous,” as described in guidebooks, this tiny bundle of metabolism flits down the tree, branch by branch, not staying in one place long enough to get a bead on it with the binoculars.
Its distinctive long, continuous, babbling song may be heard well before the first hints of dawn. Here in Prescott, the ruby-crowned-kinglet is common from late fall through early spring. Found in the pine and riparian woods in this, its winter range, the ruby-crowned kinglet is a patron of suet feeders, often amidst bushtits, chickadees, and relations.
Primarily an insect eater, the kinglet can be identified by its small size, small bill, and olive-gray plumage with well-defined wing bars. The males will flash a tuft of bright red feathers, usually concealed in their crown, when agitated, as this one is doing as it flits its wings, working its way towards the suet, or posturing to attract a mate or defend its territory.
The kinglet watches nervously as the band of bushtits swarms the suet. Another brilliant flash of red catches the intermittent sun. The bird drops another branch closer to the feeding station, and then abruptly takes off, disappearing into the higher reaches of a nearby juniper as the sun dips behind a dark cloud.
Peter Pierson is a freelance writer whose essay work has been published for a variety of print media and produced and broadcast for KAXE-Northern (Minnesota) Community Radio and CBC Radio One across Canada.
Visit Prescott Audubon Society at PrescottAudubon.Org. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAudubon.Org.