Aaron and Ethan Gyllenhaal, two OPRF students, are avid bird watchers, are always seeking a new adventure and always have had a fascination with nature. As such, they are frequent visitors of Douglas Park in Chicago, but on a visit last week, the brothers found themselves in the presence of one bird not many can claim to have spotted — at least not around here.
Ethan, 17, who is used to seeing unusual birds, encountered one that he and his brother thought looked strange. They grabbed their camera and started snapping.
Their instincts were correct, and they later identified what is an Elaenia — a rare South American bird that was about 7,000 miles out of its element.
“I was in disbelief,” Ethan said, after the picture went viral on a host of sites where other birdwatchers chimed in on the rare find. “I was shocked at how amazing it was. It may be the first ever found in [the United States and Canada].”
What was initially identified as a white-crested Elaenia is now thought to be a small-billed Elaenia, based on more expert reviews, Ethan said.
He noticed the posture of the bird, the white stripe on its crown and its odd behavior, so he knew he’d found something unique. What he doesn’t know is how it wandered so far.
“It’s still a question how a migrant can end up in Illinois,” he said. “Instead of ending in Ecuador, it completely overshot its destination by a few thousand miles.”
The Gyllenhaal brothers established their bird-watching fame in November of last year when they spotted a rare hummingbird in their backyard. In the case of the hummingbird it stayed around their yard for 7 weeks, but the Elaenia stayed only 6 days.
“I’m pretty much amazed by it,” Ethan said. “It’s incredible to see so many people coming to see what we found.”
This fascinating find for the Gyllenhaals has intensified a family passion for the hobby and has given them motivation to further explore the outdoors.
Ethan’s 15-year-old brother, Aaron, said they originally thought the bird was a strange looking Least Flycatcher commonly seen in the area, but he wasn’t content with that answer. When they received initial confirmation that the bird was likely an Elaenia, he started running around the room screaming.
“It was awesome. As I saw more reports I got more and more excited,” he said. “I’ve never been that excited in my life. I never expected it to be this rare.”
Aaron started as an official bird monitor at Douglas Park earlier this month, though he’s been a birdwatcher since he was 7. The only time he’s encountered birds comparable to what he and his brother found was on a recent trip to Costa Rica where they treated their eyes to a colorful selection.
The Gyllenhaals don’t know if they’ll find their rare discovery again, but until then, they’ll be on the hunt.
Where the small, rare bird is now is not known, but Aaron suspects it’s regained its strength and moved on. Initially when they discovered the Elaenia, it was sluggishly bouncing from branch to branch and was only about 10 feet off the ground.
“I’d be pretty exhausted after a 7,000 mile trip, too,” Aaron said.