In 45 years of birding in the Chicago area I had never been to Douglas Park, one of the large and elegant parks on the city’s west side. Fortunately, however, the Gyllenhaals (dad Eric and the family’s two birding dynamos, Aaron and Ethan) do cover it on occasion. One such day was April 17. Aaron and Ethan encountered and photographed a small bird in some willows on the shore of a small lake. The most likely possibility was an Empidonax flycatcher, probably a least given the early date. But it just did not look right and so the photo was posted on the Illinois Birder’s forum. Another young birder, Nathan Goldberg, had just returned from a birding trip to Ecuador and thus was emboldened to suggest, “How about an Elaenia?” This is another genus of nondescript flycatcher, but one that resides in South America and only one species of which has ever been recorded in the ABA area (and that single record was from Texas). Then the experts weighed in and there was unanimity that it was indeed an Eleania. I asked my longtime friend Tom Schulenberg, an expert on neo-tropical birds at Cornell, what he thought of the photos. His reply: “F’ing obvious its an Elaenia.” And so began “Elaenia Mania”, as local birder Jeff Skrentny called it.
The bird was first seen on a Tuesday, and it took all day Wednesday for word to spread, so by Thursday people were primed. I arrived first, a half-hour before sunlight. (In answer to the obvious question, the best I can come up with is I wanted to beat the rush hour on the region’s most notorious expressway, the Eisenhower.) More and more people began to show up. My friend Andy Sigler was there. David Scott introduced himself: he was in a birding course I had taught in the early 1980s and he had recently sent me a Facebook message thanking me for introducing him to birding and local natural history. Notes like that keep you going, and I was so very touched. It was nice seeing David after all these years. Then another young man, Sean, said hello. He is a playwright and actor I met at Montrose last spring. He is dating a fashion model, and since I don’t know anyone who makes their living being good- looking, it was a unique opportunity to learn something about a foreign realm.
And of course we were birding. After hours covering the same small area with a large crowd of people, there is a tendency to chat. But Sean, David, and I had an unexpected vesper sparrow fly up out of the cattails and provide us with a good view. The horned grebe that had been lazily floating in the center of the pond since at least first light apparently did not like the changing neighborhood and took off, flying low over us. There was also my season’s first solitary sandpiper and a common snipe. A sharp-shinned hawk darted across the lake and one of the birder’s found a Cooper’s hawk nest. Plenty of reasons to explain why the Elaenia might not be around.
After five hours or so, no one had even glimpsed a candidate so I headed back home, as did Andy. Not too long before we left, Doug Stotz and Nick Block arrived, which would be akin to moving big artillery into range of a fort that mere mortals can not breach. Not too surprisingly, I was home for about thirty minutes when Andy called that Doug had relocated the bird. So I was about to make my second visit to Douglas Park.
Upon arriving, there were many more birders but alas no bird. A few people had seen it after Doug, but an hour or so had elapsed since the last sighting. Looking for a bird like this is really not that much fun: there is a lot of dead time, as you stay in a very small area within sight of your colleagues. Larry Balch made the mistake of being ambitious and wondered off to check a few areas slightly more remote, only to look back where the group was and found we were gone. He hurried back frantically and finally found everyone looking at the bird.
The bird mostly stayed in the canopy as people clustered around a given bird trying to get a view. Andy, birding tactician par excellence, tried to move away from the birder clots so he could be in a better position to follow the bird when it continued on its way. The bird was followed for quite a while, allowing everyone to eventually see it. It would have been amusing if an aerial movie could have been taken showing all these people scurrying about in a seemingly random way.
Our local Elaenia hung around for several more days, and most everyone who made the trip during that period apparently saw it. National media outlets reported the story. Numerous photos of every part of the bird’s anatomy were taken by the legions of photographers. And yet a big question remains: was the bird a small-billed elaenia or a white-crested elaenia? The former breeds from southern Brazil to Argentina, while the latter has a broader range going all the way to Tierra del Fuego. The small-billed has never been recorded in the ABA area before and the white-crested was documented once from Texas. I would encourage interested readers to check out the 17 page discussion on the Illinois Birders Forum. Opinions have been proffered by experts and non-experts alike, including South American ornithologists who submitted thoughtful comments in Spanish. As far as I know, as of this moment there does not seem to be a definitive answer. The possibility of netting the bird has passed as the visitor seems to have departed.