On a chilly morning, Taos photographer/birder John Lay and I trailed along the edge of a string of ponds, each made possible by acequias and small irrigation ditches, which thread through the valley's vegas, our precious meadows and agricultural fields. Taos Mountain loomed, blanketed with new snow.
And then we spotted it, a snowy egret, as beautiful and white as the mountain's peak. The Spanish name is garceta nívea. Last time I saw one I was in Florida, though they do make an appearance from time to time at the Ohkay Owingeh lakes outside Española.
We watched the egret pick its way along the bank and noted the black legs and yellow feet that are diagnostic for the species: "yellow slippers," as they're known in the birding world. For most of the year, though, the egret has greenish feet. They take on a rich golden hue during breeding season.
Quietly observing the egret felt special: There'd been only one previous recorded sighting of a snowy egret in the county.
In our valley, the end of April through mid-June marks the annual spring migration of birds. And while the egret is a new arrival, there's another rarity to tell you about - a duck.
We're all familiar with mallards -- they hang out along our waterways all year long. By the end of April, most of the winter ducks have headed north, but you'll still find northern shovelers (cuchara común), blue-winged teal (cerceta aliazul), and cinnamon teal (cerceta colorada) lingering along the acequias, ríos and ponds.
These three species are closely related -- a bit like distant cousins. Their black bills are wide and "spatulate," a term that means the bills are like, well, a spatula.
The bills of northern shovelers are particularly wide. They use them to filter out small invertebrates from the water's surface.
The rare duck (discovered, again, by Lay) took some time to identify. Lay sent around his digital images to local birders and, after consulting the available literature, it was determined that what he'd discovered was, in fact, a hybrid.
This duck had the deep, red breast of a cinnamon teal, the wide-facial crescent of a blue-winged teal, and the bill of a northern shoveler: a cinnamon teal x northern shoveler hybrid.
Never before recorded in the county. And only twice before in the state: both times on a golf course in Silver City.
As this column about Taos birds makes its debut in Taos News, we'll bring you news of rare sightings and also what you can expect to see in your own backyard.
For instance, hummingbirds are now arriving. So put out your feeders! The first to show up are most likely broad-tailed hummers (colibrí coliancho). Don't let their bright rose-red throats (their gorgets) fool you into thinking you've got the eastern variety -- ruby-throated hummingbirds -- in your yard.
Our next column will focus on the western tanager (tángara capucha roja). Be on the lookout for these striking black-orange-yellow gems! You can let us know what's happening in your backyard by contacting me at email@example.com. We'll be publishing common names for birds in both English and Spanish. And we're also interested in finding out any local names for our birds you may have heard.
Until next time, happy birdwatching!