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By Ken Trainor
Eric Gyllenhaal and his sons, Aaron and Ethan, who live on the 1000 block of South Elmwood in Oak Park, are avid birders. Gail Fisher, Eric's wife and the boys' mom, not so much, though she admires their, well, obsession. But that obsession seems to have been rewarded with a first state of Illinois sighting of the rare Broad-tailed Hummingbird in their backyard on Monday.
Here's the account that Ethan, 16, a junior at OPRF High School, posted on a birding blog:
"I was putting the finishing touches to a rough draft of a literary analysis of The Scarlet Letter this morning, and my dad called out a hummingbird from the kitchen. I went over there, with thoughts of a Rufous Hummingbird streaming through my mind. My dad described it as looking fairly Ruby-throated-Hummingbird-like, with not too much noticeable rufous coloring. My brother, however, said it looked like a Selasphorus, maybe a Rufous. This instantly set off alarm bells because that made me think of Broad-tailed. I saw some very dark photos my brother got, which showed the fairly thick outer tail feathers, which supported my guess. Then I saw the bird, got some photos, and was pretty much sure it was a Broad-tailed (the size, throat, and tail all seemed perfect). I had to leave for school and shower in 15 minutes, though. I multitasked like crazy and ended up barely getting to school on time, and forgetting an egg drop project for physics (which my mom was able to bring in). So, hectic morning, and great bird!"
Eric reports he saw "a flash of green and white at the sugar-water feeder hanging near the back door. At a glance it looked like the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that visited the yard late last summer. But it had been almost two months since the last Ruby-throat headed south, and a close look at the photos revealed differences. Ethan said it first. "It might be a Broad-tailed Hummingbird." That was a daring thing to say, since this species had never before been seen in Illinois. So the boys quickly posted an invitation and a few blurry photos on Internet forums frequented by birders, then left for OPRF.
"The first outside expert to arrive was Nick Block, an Oak Parker who works at Field Museum. Standing on the back porch Nick saw the hummer from 4 feet away, and he was convinced. He argued his case online, but demanding birders needed better photos to confirm. Greg Neise of Berwyn arrived with a high-powered lens and got the first clear close-ups. When Greg posted his photos, birders knew for sure that the bird was a new state record. Broad-tailed Hummingbirds nest each summer in the American West and usually migrate south to Mexico and Central America. But this one somehow found its way to south Oak Park.
"The hummingbird returned to sip sugar water throughout the day. Between feeder visits, it caught small insects and rested in neighbors' trees. More birders kept arriving, about 40 in all, driving from as far away as Rockford. Between hummer sightings the humans discussed fine points of hummingbird identification and told stories about their recent birding adventures. For some birders the Broad-tailed Hummingbird was a "lifer" — the first time they had ever seen this kind of bird. Others were working on "big years" for the state of Illinois, trying to see more birds than any other birder in the state. For everyone, it was a "state bird" — a valued addition to their life lists for the state of Illinois. (Some birders' Illinois lists hold more than 400 birds.)
"But why was Oak Park the site for this rare find? Many birds pass through Oak Park during spring and fall migrations. The Gyllenhaals have seen more than 120 bird species on their block. And every year, at least a few Western kinds of hummingbirds head east when they should be migrating south, showing up at feeders east of the Mississippi River. That's why the hummingbird feeder was still filled with nectar in late November. They were hoping that someday a rare hummingbird would visit their yard, and on Monday it finally happened."
By the way, the bird was back on Tuesday, as were the birders.