Bird #450 — Small-billed Elaenia

Elaenia (olive) parvirostris (from parvus, small, and rostrum, beak)

Sunday, April 22, 2012 — 4:40 pm

Chicago, Illinois — Douglas Park

I was flipping through the Chicago Tribune this morning when I happened upon this article.

Having recently decided to actively pursue 500 (or more) birds on my life list, I was definitely interested. But first there were more important things to do:

  1. Go to church so my wife could sing in the choir.
  2. Stop at the new Mariano’s in Palatine to see if they had smoked string cheese. (They did, which made the day wonderful for my wife.)
  3. Eat lunch at Panera and buy asiago cheese bagels for our daughters.

By the time I got home, it was 12:30. I looked on the Internet and saw that the bird had been spotted again today, between 10 and 11. But I also saw that there was disagreement in the birding community about whether this was a White-crested Elaenia, as reported in the article, or a Small-billed Elaenia. Before that was an issue for me, I had to see it.

I located Douglas Park (I’d never heard of the place) on a map and took off. I told my wife I wouldn’t be gone long. “It’s easy. With a bird like this, you just look for a group of people staring through binoculars and look where they’re looking.”

The birders were there when I arrived, but they weren’t looking anywhere in particular. I’ve been in on enough rare-bird sightings that I can read birders’ body language. There was no elaenia in sight. About 10 people were standing on the shore of a pond looking across 20 feet of muddy water at a densly-wooded island, but by the time I parked and got my stuff and wandered over, they were beginning to disperse.

One guy told me he’d seen it around 11, but that nobody had seen it since then. I began to stroll around the area. I checked out the birds I saw, but they were all the usual suspects. I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I don’t have a bird book at home that includes elaenias and I hadn’t had much time to research on the Internet. I took a quick look at a couple photos before I left, so I knew it was a grayish-brown, flycatcher-looking thing that supposedly had a white stripe on the crown of its head and three white wing bars. But I had no idea how large it was or how it behaved.

The guy I talked with had driven up from Cincinnati on Saturday and had a five-and-a-half hour drive ahead of him. He left, as did several other people. This wasn’t a neighborhood in which I felt entirely comfortable walking around by myself with expensive binoculars and a camera around my neck.

It quickly began to feel like one of those rare-bird searches when I arrived just a little too late. I looked at my phone and saw that it was 2:30. I determined to stay for an hour. Here’s the approximate route I took looking for the bird.

There was an elderly gentleman sitting in a van near the bridge. As I walked by, he rolled down his window and said “Can I ask you a question? It’ll only take a minute of your time.” He spoke with a strong southern accent. The two or three remaining teeth in his lower jaw fit perfectly into an equal number of gaps in his upper jaw. When he smiled, which he did often, it was as though he had a complete set of teeth — but just one row.

I stopped, and we had the following conversation:

“What’s so special about this bird y’ll looking for?”

“It’s very rare. It’s from South America and has never been seen around here before.”

“That’s interesting. Let me tell you. Last fall, I was walkin’ by an empty lot near my house when I spotted two yellow birds. They were about the size of sparrows. I’m from Arkansas and we have sparrows down there, so I knows what sparrows look like.”

“Did they have black wings?”

“The yellow birds? Yup, they had black wings.”

“They were goldfinches.”

“Is that what y’all lookin’ for?”

“No, we’re looking for a little gray bird.”

“I can get where you’re coming from, let me tell you. Just the other day I was over there talkin’ to a fisherman when I felt something on my ear. I put my hand up, like this, and felt around, and it was a tiny gray feather. I thought to myself that it was too early for baby birds. I wrapped it up in a tissue and put it in my freezer.”

“Well, (smiling semi-sardonically) maybe you’ve got the feather of a very rare bird.”

We said our good-byes and I walked on.

It was getting close to 3:30, my intended departure time, when I ran into Charles Wescott. Back in the early 198’0s, I used to bird at Crabtree Nature Center several times a month. At that time, Mr. Wescott was on staff and often worked behind the desk in the visitor center. He kept a list in the spring and fall to record when various migrant birds arrived. I frequently reported my sightings and got them on the list along with my name. I was new to birding back then and had as many questions as I did sightings. Mr. Wescott was always very patient with me. He gave me a lot of great information on birding and local spots. He left Crabtree many years ago, and I hadn’t seen him since, but I recognized him right away.

When I introduced myself to him, he told me he’d requested copies of all his old migrant lists and had just been looking them over recently. He said he recognized my name. It’s probably true, although, like I said, he was always a very kind and gracious man.

All this time, birders were arriving and birders were leaving. As I was talking with Mr. Wescott, another birder walked up to find out if we had any news on the elaenia. He said that there had been a period of time on past afternoons (it was discovered on Thursday) when it disappeared, but it always showed up again around 4:00 and in basically the same area.

I asked if the bird was on Central Time or South American Time, but by then the guy was walking away. It was 3:53. I’d already invested more than three hours, but I didn’t want to get home and learn that somebody found it at 4;00. I decided to stay until 4:30.

Another local guy walked by and said, “You lookin’ for that bird from Africa?”

I said, “From South America, yes.”

He said, “Well tell me. What’s it doing all the way up here?”

I told him, “It got lost. Very lost.”

He laughed.

In all, I probably saw 40 birders in the time I was there. They were easy to spot. Besides the obvious binoculars and cameras (some with lenses the size of my leg), they were the only people around who were white.

There was a large-hatted birder who walked all around the area like he was competing in one of those speed-walking races that used to be in the Olympics.

There was a guy with a young son in tow. He said he didn’t really know much about birds, but he lived not far away and heard the report on the news and was intrigued. He didn’t stay long.

There was another guy who ran from spot to spot with two other birders in tow, always enthusiastic and always sure he was about to find the bird. He introduced himself to me, then took off running, tossing a “It’s here somewhere” back over his shoulder.

It was now 4:30. Part of me was still hoping, but most of me had given up. And then a guy who had been there as long as I had came running. “We’ve got it.” The six or so of us within earshot followed him rapidly to a patch of brush and small trees on the southwest side of the field house. I’d spent quite a bit of time looking for it in this very area because it was out of the wind and felt “birdy.”

It was big-hatted speed-walker guy who had found it. He was there with the running guy and several others. They were crouching down, looking up into a tree. People kept yelling “I’ve got movement over here,” “I’ve got movement on the left.” But it kept turning out to be Ruby-crowned Kinglets or Robins. I began to doubt.

And then from the other side of the tree I heard several people yell, “It’s here.”

About 15 of us gathered on a tiny knoll and looked into the tree. Others were seeing it and pointing out where it was, but I wasn’t spotting it. A guy standing right next to me leaned over and pointed.

The bird was hopping around near the end of the branches, just above eye-level and in the perfect spot to give us the best light for viewing it. It perched and looked around, then flitted to another branch and repeated it — over and over for the 10 minutes I saw it. It never stayed in one spot for more than two seconds. A few times it disappeared into the interior of the tree, but it would soon flit out again.

I leaned toward the guy who had shown it to me and said thank you. He replied, “Can I see it now?” I turned to look at him and saw that he had a camera with a big lens, but no binoculars. I took mine off my neck and handed them to him. He kept them for about two minutes while I took photos. The guy on the other side had one of “those” cameras.

It had a thin but distinct white line down the center of its crown that doesn’t show up in any of my photos. (It shows up nicely in photos taken by people with real cameras.) I couldn’t decide if I was seeing two or three white wing bars, but in two of my photos, you can see traces of three. The underside of its bill was pale orange. It was grayish-brown on top and a light, buffy white underneath.

One woman (who had come up from Florida to see it) had a South American field guide. I looked over her shoulder at the illustrations of the White-crested and Small-billed Elaenias, but they looked identical to me in the book.

And then the bird was gone. I heard someone say they spotted it in a tree about 30 yards away, but when I got there, they were shrugging their shoulders.

The red circle indicates the spot where it was seen this morning and where it was supposed to show up at 4:00 this afternoon. The green circle is where I saw it at 4:40.

So what was it? When I got home (around 6:00), I looked at photos of both species on the Internet and my completely uneducated vote is for Small-billed. The bird I saw just looks more like that one. I saw no hint of a crest. The white on the crown was very narrow. There was a trace of a third wing bar. And the contrast between the color on the upper-side and the underside was much greater than that shown on any photos of the White-crested I saw. Here’s a better photo of the bird I saw that I stole off the internet.

There’s talk now about netting it and finding out for sure. I should let them know they don’t need to. I know a guy who has one of its feathers in his freezer.

In case you’re wondering, I am allowed to list an unidentified bird if I’ve narrowed it down to genus and haven’t already listed any of the species it could be. But in this case, until I hear evidence to the contrary, I’m thinking I saw a Small-billed Elaenia — the first one ever discovered in the United States.

UPDATE: In 2020, the Illinois Ornithological Records Committee decided this bird was, in fact, a Small-billed Elaenia and added it to the state list. The American Birding Association voted not to add it because a few members wanted DNA or vocal records to support the identification. Personally, I was very sure before and am definitely satisfied now.

For the record, other birds hanging out in Chicago today included:

  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Palm Warbler
  • American Robin
  • American Coot
  • American Goldfinch
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Hermit Thrush
  • American Crow
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Pied-billed Grebe
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