Our rule is that if a bird perches somewhere on our property or is spotted flying directly overhead, it counts. The latter criteria explains why my family’s list of “backyard-bird species” for 2015 includes a Mississippi kite and a wood stork.
That’s now how the bald eagle got there, however. He's there because he gave my wife a buzz cut.
The list of 32 species my wife and I spotted last year is what most Lowcountry suburban residents see at their feeders -- passerines, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. In addition, a barred owl occasionally roosts in a tall pine in our backyard, and kites regularly conduct summertime air shows around the golf course across the street and sometimes stray into our air space.
But a bald eagle had never given us so much as a fly-by before my wife was unloading groceries from her car one day this past fall. Emerging from the garage for her second trip, Debi heard a powerful whoosh of air behind her and the quick passing of a massive shadow as the eagle swooped just above her head. It glided under a the bough of a water oak that hangs over our driveway, then arced majestically upward to perch in a tall pine across the street. He sat there for several minutes, peering at my wife.
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Unfortunately, I was not home, so I missed the whole thing. Oh, well. Maybe next year.
As uncommon as it might be for a bald eagle to visit a densely wooded yard that’s not particularly close to water, I might be just as surprised about the common species that didn’t make our list in 2015. For instance, somehow we didn’t record an eastern bluebird. They've been so abundant in the past. Perhaps we simply forgot to note on the small, yellow tablet we keep on our kitchen counter. Whatever the case, I’m certain that for the first time in many springs, none used the nesting box we nailed to a tree several seasons ago.
There was no black-and-white warbler, like there was in 2013, and no red-tailed hawk, as there was in 2014. No American goldfinch or dark-eyed junco, either. The blue grosbeak that visited our feeder for a day or two in late May or early June each of the past two years skipped over us this year.
But in January, we again saw the ruby-crowned kinglet that spends much of the winter showing off his head plumage and strutting proudly on the shrubs outside our dining-room window. He’s gotten less and less bothered by our presence through the years, so that he allows us to come right to the pane and give him a good look. We marvel at a creature so dainty that the leaf of the Indian hawthorn on which it stands bows no more than if a dragonfly had landed there.
One winter, the kinglet will stop showing up, and Debi and I would probably trade a pine tree full of bald eagles to see our braggadocious harbinger again.
Life is most enjoyable when you appreciate the little things.
Here are the 32 species we spotted in 2015 and the date they were first sighted.
Jan. 10: Chipping sparrow, Carolina chickadee, white-throated sparrow, northern mockingbird, ruby-crowned kinglet.
Jan. 11: Northern cardinal, eastern phoebe, Carolina wren.
Jan. 18: House finch.
Jan. 19: Blue jay, tufted titmouse, yellow-rumped warbler, mourning dove.
March 20: Red-bellied woodpecker.
April 28: Barred owl; yellow-throated warbler.
April 29: Brown thrasher, painted bunting, downy woodpecker.
May 3: Gray catbird.
May 5: Ruby-throated hummingbird.
May 6: Summer tanager.
May 7: Common grackle.
May 9: Brown-headed cowbird.
June 27: Mississippi kite.
July 4: Eastern towhee.
Aug. 7: Wood stork.
Aug. 22: American crow.
Nov. 17: Bald eagle.
Nov. 26: Yellow-bellied sapsucker, hermit thrush