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"Birders" belong in Belleview.

OMG, it's the most amazing dull grey bird I've ever seen! I'm literally vibrating. I can't wait to call all my friends.

Birders rush to Waukegan after rare South American bird spotted over the Thanksgiving weekend



NOV 29, 2021 AT 5:00 AM

Birding field guides describe the small-billed elaenia as a “very dull-looking flycatcher.”

But it has been anything but dull at Waukegan Municipal Beach for the past three days as birders from Chicago, Downers Grove and as far south as Belleville, Illinois, came to view a bird that should be snatching insects in a Brazilian rainforest.

Audrey Carl, of Chicago, left her parents’ home in Champaign early after the Thanksgiving holiday to drive north to see the bird. She hoped they understood.

She belongs to a rare bird chat list and as soon as the elaenia was announced, “everybody went nuts,” Carl said. “November is a special month. Anything goes,” she said, referring to the fact that the most rarities discovered in the state are usually in November.

Carl has been driving all over Illinois this year trying to collect 300 different species of birds in one year in one state. The elaenia is No. 296, she said.

“It’s amazing. You think about how long it took to get here,” she said.

Audrey Carl, left, of Chicago, joins other birders searching for the rare short-billed elaenia at Waukegan Municipal Beach on Nov. 28, 2021.

Audrey Carl, left, of Chicago, joins other birders searching for the rare short-billed elaenia at Waukegan Municipal Beach on Nov. 28, 2021. (Sheryl DeVore)

Standing on a conifer-lined sidewalk east of the city water plant on Sunday, up to 20 birders at a time squinted through a chain-link fence and tried to see the nondescript bird. Some of them held cameras with lenses four times as long as the bird is tall.

Though the Illinois Ornithological Records Committee hasn’t officially declared this bird a small-billed elaenia, the committee’s head, Geoff Williamson, of Chicago, said, “It certainly appears to be one.”

According to Williamson, “It would be only the fourth record for North America — and interestingly — nine years ago the first North American record of this species also occurred in northeast Illinois, in Chicago’s Douglass Park. To find another one in the same state and the same part of the state is remarkable.”

The bird has all the telltale signs that it’s a small-billed elaenia, and not the closely related white-crested elaenia, also from South America, and also hardly ever seen in North America. Both are small flycatchers that eat insects.

“One of the salient features is that it doesn’t show a crested appearance on its head that the white-crested has. The small-billed also has three wing bars,” which Williamson said he saw in photographs taken by birders.

The small-billed elaenia breeds in southern South America including Bolivia, the northern half of Argentina and the southern tip of Brazil. It migrates north to winter in most of Brazil as well as countries along the Caribbean coast including Colombia and Venezuela. The seasons in South America are known as austral seasons because they are the opposite of the seasons in North America.

A short-billed elaenia, which typically lives and breeds in South America, visits Waukegan Municipal Beach on Nov. 28, 2021.

A short-billed elaenia, which typically lives and breeds in South America, visits Waukegan Municipal Beach on Nov. 28, 2021. (Steven D. Bailey)

“It gets complicated to figure it out,” Williamson said, but it’s likely this bird started flying north and just kept going — in other words, it didn’t know when to stop.

“A lot of birders like to collect species on a list and travel great distances to see these out-of-place individuals,” Williamson said. Indeed, more than 150 birders came out Saturday and Sunday to add it to their list.

Sean Kennedy, of Chicago, was one of the birders who came to see the flycatcher. “It’s not exciting like a macaw. It’s kind of bland, but from a nerdy aspect, it’s so great to see because it’s so far out of its range,” he said.

Dan Kassebaum drove from Belleville to see the bird, which was the 400th species he’s recorded in the state.

Susan Zelek of Steger, Illinois, discovered the rarity Friday when looking for a harlequin duck at Waukegan Beach. “It wasn’t there,” she said. But an even rarer bird was.

She noticed a group of birds with some kind of flycatcher among them. “A flycatcher shouldn’t be here this time of year, not at all,” she said.

She took photos, posted it on a rare bird webpage — and soon the birding community had determined what it was.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said.

Seeing the bird is bittersweet, Williamson said. The chances that it will make it back to South America are slim.

Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at The Field Museum remarked that this is likely the coldest temperature any small-billed elaenia has experienced. Right now, its subsisting on red berries from yew shrubs.

“You have to give props to this particular individual because it flew so far, and it survived at least three days in the environment in which it now is,” Williamson said.

Aaron Gyllenhaal found the state’s and North America’s first small-billed elaenia in April 2012 at Douglass Park in Chicago. The Illinois Ornithological Records Committee accepted the record.

Meanwhile, the American Bird Association has yet to add this bird to its checklist of birds seen in North America. But with the 2012 and 2021 birds in Illinois, another photographed in Texas this year and another caught in a mist net in October in Quebec, of all places, that soon may change.

While all the bird gurus are sorting it out, birders remain confident they can add a new bird species to their Illinois list — one that likely flew more than 5,000 miles from South America to Waukegan.

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