A year ago in pre-COVID times, a small cruise ship paused in one of the first locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, its passengers waving and sipping refreshments from the two-tiered deck.

On a metal platform overlooking the canal, a group of birders (including this Taos News reporter) showed but mild interest in the ship passing through the famous locks.

Instead, their binoculars were focused on an exotic-looking bird perched on a chain-link fence – the great kiskadee, a species at home in the tropics.

Jump forward a year and 2,500 miles north to the village of Valdez in Northern New Mexico.

In mid-October, another group of birders -- each wearing a face-covering and standing on the wooden deck of a home along the Río Hondo -- were focused on an exotic-looking bird, this one snatching berries from a shrub.

Turns out, it was the same species -- a great kiskadee, appearing as much at home in an orchard at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as along the Panama Canal.

What was this boldly patterned bird, with a bright yellow breast, chestnut back and dark mask doing so far north of its range in México, Central America and South America?

Part of the answer involves global warming and climate change.

In New Mexico, it had already been a weird fall migration season. By September, wildfires in the northwest region of the United States, drought and an early cold weather snap may have caused the deaths of thousands of migrating songbirds.

At Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Cimarron, a rare sighting of a European golden-plover brought birders and conservationists from across the country to the state.

And a recent report published in Journal of Animal Ecology provided more evidence of a link between the warming trends of long-term weather patterns, or climate change, and migration.

Researchers found that many migratory birds synchronize their movement north to match "green-up," or the emergence of leaves. If vegetation emerges earlier and farther north, birds may likely follow northward, too.

Other scientists suggest that if the synchronization gets out of whack, migrating birds may miss out on important food sources and suffer disastrous consequences.

Joy of birdwatching

But for birdwatchers, the first-ever sighting of a great kiskadee in Taos County brought only joy.

On Oct. 15 when Taos News arrived to see the bird, about a dozen birders were already aiming their binocs, scopes and cameras into the orchard.

They were shortly rewarded. After sounding its characteristic call – kis-ka-dee – the sought-after bird flew nearly overhead and landed in a Virginia creeper along the wall of an outbuilding where it remained for several minutes, soaking up all the attention.

One of the first birders at what came to be known as the Great Kiskadee Stakeout was Bob Friedrichs, an avid birder and photographer who spends part of each year in Costilla. On the day of his visit, he documented 18 different bird species, including a rare appearance of an eastern bird, a rose-breasted grosbeak.

Within five days of Friedrichs's report, some 23 bird lists of the Valdez backyard birds were submitted to eBird, an international electronic database of bird sightings managed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The lab's compilation and analyses of these sightings inform the public and scientific community alike about important trends in the population and whereabouts of birds.

In this new era of COVID-19 infections, the residents of the Valdez property asked not to be identified for this story. But in October, when numbers were down, they hosted birders from across the state.

They last spotted the kiskadee on Nov. 15.

For them, birdwatching deepens their experience of nature.

"The pandemic was responsible for our increased interest in birdwatching," they wrote in an email. "We spent more time in the mornings and evenings relaxing and observing what was going on in our neighborhood."

They'd spotted the kiskadee in July but didn't know what it was. And while they could identify goldfinches or hummingbirds, they've only recently learned how many more bird species are in their garden and orchard, including a small falcon called a Merlin; Lewis's woodpeckers; and Townsend's solitaires.

"We saw (birds), but didn't really see them if that makes sense," they said.

According to Sandy Williams, secretary of the New Mexico Bird Records Committee and editor of New Mexico Ornithological Society Field Notes, there have been 14 additional sightings of the great kiskadee since the first one was reported in 1984, all in southern New Mexico.

And while the species is widespread south of the border, it's also a resident in South Texas.

"In recent decades, there have been increased reports north in Texas," said Williams, "and the increase in New Mexico seems to be part of that pattern. This increased presence north of the historic range may be part of a general pattern of warm country species spreading northward, perhaps resulting from the warming climate."

Yard birds

Although the great kiskadee is the most unusual backyard bird (so far) in Taos County, other birders are enjoying their "yard birds" more than ever.

Ann Ellen Tuomey, who resides north of Taos, spotted birds in late summer that had not previously shown up at her feeder: scaled quail, pinyon jay and green-tailed towhee.

For Tuomey, watching birds is a source of endless fascination.

"I've often thought how lucky I am to have this interest in birds during the pandemic and long periods of staying home," she said by email.

South of town, Taos artist Valerie Graves recently reported, "We are inundated by (evening) grosbeaks. I am buying bags and bags of sunflower seeds these days. Counted over 40 this morning at the feeders."

Taos birders join more than 45 million people across the country who watch birds, according to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, produced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This number is up by five million from the previous report in 2011.

And birders and other wildlife watchers contribute a total of nearly $80 billion to the U.S. economy.

Scientific research supports what many birdwatchers already know -- people are healthier and happier when they spend time in nature. Even if it's only in their backyards.

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