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Across Austin Boulevard, due east up Jackson Boulevard, past the Chicago Park District golf course, and behind the Refectory in Columbus Park is a "secret" bird sanctuary.
This is one of the three places where veteran Oak Park birders Eric Gyllenhaal, and his two teenage sons, Ethan and Aaron, officially monitor the ebb and flow of local and migrating birds for the Bird Conservation Network, a group that taps the efforts of citizen scientists to record information about distribution and abundance of birds in the Chicago region.
What they see and hear in these avian habitats is tallied and posted on a family blog called "Neighborhood Nature," http://neighborhoodnature.wordpress.com.
In five years' time, the Gyllenhaals have IDed 182 different kinds of birds in Columbus Park. On a recent, chilly afternoon in late April, they spotted 34 separate species foraging for food in two small patches of meadow and tall grass prairie; perching in a grove of low, fruit-bearing trees; and flitting about the lagoon and ecosystem.
So far, the biggest local bird census haul came during Spring Bird Count 2011 last May 7, when they counted 82 different species at Columbus Park. This year, for reasons unknown to Eric, only 78 varieties of birds showed up, and a few of the regulars played hookie for the annual count, including Killdeers, Solitary Sandpipers, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Kestrels, and Red-tailed Hawks, according to his Spring Bird Count 2012 (May 5) online report.
"These habitats [in Columbus Park] are probably twice the footprint of an average Oak Park house," says Eric, who began birding himself as a teenager in Ohio, later rekindling his passion in order to participate with his bird-loving boys.
In this bastion of birds on the West Side of Chicago, the Gyllenhaals experience a cornucopia of color and sound. They see flocks of Canada Geese and Mallards walking the peninsula in search of sustenance; Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, and Louisiana Water Thrush as they fly through; and high up in the trees they spy a varied population of Warblers — tiny little things that mirror the colors of the rainbow, and weigh in at less than an ounce.
Adding to this cacophony of bird song are the more common species — American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays and several varieties of Sparrows and Swallows, the backyard birds people readily recognize.
Across the border in semi-urban Oak Park, birding also abounds, thanks in part to the canopy of mature trees that line the streets, and conservational-minded homeowners who incorporate a range of shrubbery and bird-attracting flowers in their front and backyard landscapes to encourage local biodiversity.
"It also provides good cover and ample food for birds," says Eric, the paleontologist and museum consultant who is developing children's programming for Wonder Works in Oak Park (www.wonder-works.org).
Seven years ago, Gyllenhaal and his boys became serious birders when they began breeding and hatching batches of domesticated parakeets in their south Oak Park home.
Their interest in birds snowballed and since then, the boys have each racked up 10,000 hours pursuing their special interest, viewing birds in the field, researching them online and attending far-away junior birding immersion camps.
They also chimed in on the chatter of their dad's virtual birding "family," via IBET.org. (Illinois Birders Exchanging Ideas).
With all this experience and knowledge under his belt, last month in Douglas Park it was Aaron, 15, a freshman at OPRF, who spotted and identified the elusive and rare Elaenia, a South American species that landed where it shouldn't have. When the news became public, the birding community started to "tweet." [OPRF teens discover another rare bird, News, April 25].
They also set off a small sensation last November when they discovered a wayward Rufous hummingbird from the Pacific Northwest [A rare bird visits the Gyllenhaals, News, Nov. 23]. The Gyllenhaals keep their hummingbird feeder filled with nectar late into the fall.
Brother Ethan, 17, a junior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, can ID birds by sight, but he prefers sound, having learned to identify most Northern and Eastern American birds by ear (songs, call notes and chips), which isn't easy, he says.
"I can do call notes on a lot of them," says Ethan, vocalizing a common chip note, a short high or low-pitched call a bird uses to communicate with other birds. Also in his repertoire is the swooshing alarm (pishing) of a tufted titmouse. It is a call that Ethan uses to flush out Yellow-rumped Warblers, chickadees, and other tufted titmice, as well as birds who might just be curious, he says.
"Call notes for birds such as warblers are difficult," he adds, "because so many can be very similar. But you can get a basic ID for a bird from one little call note it makes, which is why birding by ear is so powerful."
May is looking up
The month of May, they say, is a great time to see a bevy of fly-by birds, as it is the height of spring migration season.
Summer settles into more natural sights and sounds.
"In June, if you take a walk through Thatcher Woods, you might see a Red-eyed Vireo and such, breeding," says Ethan. "But the Palos area, which is south from here, has a big clump of woods, and is the best place for free-spotting breeding birds."
"Putting peanuts in a feeder attracts Blue Jays and Woodpeckers and things like that," Eric adds.
Seeing a Northern Parula, a tiny and colorful warbler who was probably wending its way to Northern Wisconsin or southern Canada, via Columbus Park, was the highlight of a recent outing for Ethan.
"That Northern Parula, we don't see them everyday. They are beautiful things, really. Birding isn't easy, but birds are everywhere, and there are so many of them, and so many different kinds that can be identified relatively easily — as compared to a butterfly, dragonflies, salamanders and snakes."
But birding is also about those spontaneous moments of pure bliss in the early a.m. in or around tall neighborhood elm trees.
"Two days ago, there were 25 Yellow-rumped Warblers flying over our house, and at least a couple of them were calling at a time," Ethan noted. "So it is a really good time of year to learn the songs to be able to bird by ear."
Bonding through birds
Even though Eric's wife, Gail Fisher, isn't a birder per say, but she's proud of her birding brood.
"Mom isn't really involved that much with this, but there are a fair number of female birders. For me, my brother and my dad, it's like fishing, but with birds."
For Eric, who has always been drawn to the world of natural sciences, the act of birdwatching is a "flow experience," a moment in time when a person is completely and totally absorbed in an activity and everything else evaporates.
"Birding is usually mostly sight and sound, but as you're walking along, there are the smells, the textures of the leaves and especially as you are pushing your way through the brush, you're listening for everything that's going on, as well as constantly scanning the trees, the sky and the ground, trying to take in everything around you," he says.
Since the age of 8, Aaron has spotted 814 species in Costa Rica and North America, including the 343 he has documented through his intergenerational birdwatching collective in Illinois.
"The first time I went out birding, I came to a place like Columbus Park and just looked up," he says. "You keep on going and going, and eventually you know how to focus on and track moving objects, and things like that. For me, studying and memorizing the field guide was great and all, but you never really get an appreciation for how hard it is to spot these birds until you actually do it."