Aaron Gyllenhaal has his eyes set on a 23-year-old record and to get it, he has spent all year with his gaze fixed on the trees and open skies.
The avid birder is two away from the record for most species of birds spotted in Cook County in a calendar year. Eric Walters set the record in 1990 with 274.
Gyllenhaal, 16, a junior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, set out this year to break the record, going out as many as five times a week, sometimes in cold or rainy weather, in search of birds.
He doesn't need luck on his side for these fleeting encounters. He embodies the adage that "chance favors the prepared."
He developed a spreadsheet ranking all the species in order of how likely they are to pass through the county. Then there is his field experience. Birding since the second grade, Gyllenhaal knows his birds by sight and also their songs.
"In Cook County, there are these isolated patches of green where birds are likely to concentrate," he said. "The best preparation is my field experience. I already know most of what I can see and what I can't."
Gyllenhaal has tapped into a very dedicated birding community and receives alerts on his phone when certain species are spotted. There are four possible species left, from which he needs two.
"There are so many beautiful things in nature, and birds are really spectacular creatures," he said. "The challenge is seeing them. They almost never stay in one place for more than a second."
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