How to Know the Birds: No. 81, A Kinglet Assist from Merlin

by Ted Floyd

  • What: Golden-crowned Kinglet, Regulus satrapa
  • When: Saturday, January 20, 2024
  • Where: Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park, Jefferson County, Washington

We had walked nearly a mile without seeing a bird. We could hear them, though: the spooky utterances of a Canada jay; the mirthful cackling of a bald eagle somewhere; and the shrill flight calls of type 3 red crossbills. It was foggy. But the real “problem” was the vegetation. The glorious, luxuriant, landscape-shrouding vegetation:

Photo by © Ted Floyd.

We were on the west side, the wet side, of Mount Olympus, the wettest place in the Lower 48 states. You can hear how wet it is on the west side—the dripping and trickling, tinkling and trinkling, seeping and soft burbling. And above it all, twittering and trilling, never letting up, the continual utterances of golden-crowned kinglets. If you were to accurately eBird the old growth Sitka spruce forests on the western slopes of Mount Olympus, they would surely outnumber the combined total of the all the jays and eagles and crossbills—and in some stretches there perhaps the combined total of all individuals of all bird species combined.

We eBirded 15 golden-crowned kinglets for the 1.2-mile trail at the Hoh Rainforest, plus a bit of puttering about the parking area there. That comes out to about one kinglet every 500 feet. Which, even at the time, seemed like it was on the low side.

After we’d gotten back to where were we staying, I started to go through all our audio and video, and I discovered that there were golden-crowned kinglets in every single cut. Their spectrograms are distinctive, but you need to know where to look. The editing software I use has a default cutoff at 8 kHz, which makes sense in most applications; consider that a piccolo, the highest-pitched instrument in the orchestra, has a frequency a bit below 5 kHz—or that Taylor Swift’s normal singing voice doesn’t even reach 1 kHz. But the lowest notes in the kinglet’s call come in at just under 8 kHz:

Sound spectrogram, from cellphone audio by © Hannah Floyd, of four Golden-crowned Kinglet utterances at the Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park, Jefferson Co., Wash., on Sat., Jan. 20, 2024.

They’re not soft. But they’re so high-pitched they’re literally (almost) off the chart. Can you hear them?—

Cellphone audio by © Hannah Floyd.

So I reset the output to go up to 10 kHz on the vertical axis, and I could see the din of golden-crowned kinglets in the rainforest. Our “official” tally of 15, I came to realize, was almost surely an undercount. Hold that thought. We’re going to come back to it. But we’re going to take this story now to a very different time and place.

Back on Dec. 12, 2023, I was birding on the campus of Chatham College in Pittsburgh, a stone’s throw from where I grew up. I was there for old times’ sake. As a kid, I birded that campus all the time. It was nice to see the same old buildings and walkways, the same pond and greenspaces, the same lay of the land. And a golden-crowned kinglet, the same sort of bird I saw there more than 40 years prior. I snapped a quick pic:

This Golden-crowned Kinglet was on the campus of Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Allegheny Co., Penna., back on Wed., Dec. 12, 2023. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

I saw two of them, actually, during my little ramble about the campus. Hence, an “official” eBird tally of 2 for my short excursion there.

A few weeks later, on the morning of New Year’s Day to be precise, I was up around Brainard Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area of western Boulder County, Colo., near the Continental Divide. There were golden-crowned kinglets up there, just as there had been at Chatham College—and just as there would be on the west slope of Mount Olympus a couple of weeks later. We eBirded 11 of them at Indian Peaks.

Let’s do the math now. For those three recent(ish) eBird checklists with golden-crowned kinglets:

  • 2 at Chatham College on Dec. 12, 2023
  • 11 in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area on Jan. 1, 2024
  • 15 at the Hoh Rain Forest on Jan. 20, 2024

But I haven’t told you whole story, confounding and unsettling, but also, in the final analysis I think rich and satisfying.

We’ll start with the Chatham College kinglets. I saw two of them, yes, but there were surely more of them there. Great habitat, with tall planted spruces amid tangles of holly and bittersweet and honeysuckle and more. I must have just missed a few. No problem—It would be rare for even the greatest birder to detect every single bird across a tract the size of the Chatham campus (39 acres).

I had been by myself at Chatham College, but I had a companion—my 19-year-old daughter—with me at Brainard Lake. I said we eBirded 11 golden-crowned kinglets up there, and that is true. But I didn’t you tell the whole truth. I barely saw one of them, and I heard none of them. I don’t hear golden-crowned kinglets anymore unless they are quite close to me. Our tally of 11 kinglets that New Year’s Day in the mountains was perfectly compliant with eBird protocol: There’s not some rule that every member of an eBird party detect every individual bird on the checklist.

And at the Hoh Rain Forest, where I was accompanied by the same eBirder as at Brainard, I, personally, was responsible for a grand total of zero of our kinglet detections. My daughter, and only my daughter, heard those 15 kinglets. And yet… That’s not quite right, is it? Because when I was in the field, I could see my phone lighting up with kinglet spectrograms. In the same way that I learned to read music long ago, I have learned how to read spectrograms. I don’t necessarily need to hear a song to be able to recognize it; the score is often good enough. Similarly, I can see the squiggles scrolling across my phone and recognize them as Regulus satrapa, the golden-crowned kinglet.

The Merlin Bird ID app is getting scarily good. I said so in an installment of “How to Know the Birds” back in June of 2023, not even a year ago, and I predicted that Merlin would keep getting better. Indeed. Powered by convolutional neural networks and deep learning algorithms, it can only get better. Oh, I know there are still some skeptics out there! But I’m also old enough to remember the resistance to “heard-only birds.” Because: What if you were listening to a mimic? Or: What if another birder were birder playing a tape? Or: What if you were wrong? But, no, that wasn’t really the problem, now was it? The problem boiled down to this: Because hearing a bird wasn’t “really” as valid, as worthy, as seeing the bird. Happily, we as a community have gotten over that weird hang-up from yesteryear.

Which brings me to my next prediction: Sooner or later, and my money is on sooner, we as a community will get past the idea that using Merlin isn’t as valid, as worthy, as asking the guide, or peering through your bins, or looking it up in a book; that using Merlin is somehow “cheating.” Instead, we’ll embrace the idea that using Merlin informs and enriches the experience of birding. Folks, it’s coming. Watch this space. Peace.

Can you hear them? Over all the chatter of squirrels and Canada jays; of crossbills and Pacific wrens; above the din of wind and water? Even if you can “still hear the kinglets” (many birders cannot), the Merlin Bird ID app is nevertheless going to get more of them than you do! What are the consequences, going forward, for how we document bird populations?



Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.