Short-billed Elaenia

Small-billed Elaenia in Illinois: Chasing a Mega Rarity

In the birding world, one of the driving forces is rarity. When something shows up that is far outside its normal range it becomes a huge event that ripples through the community. Sometimes these birds come from teh other side of the country, but other times they come from an entirely different continent. This was the case when an unexpected species was found in Waukegan Illinois.

As far as rarities in the midwest go, few in recent memory compare to the small-billed Elaenia. The species lives exclusively in South America, and only a couple of individuals have ever been reported in North America; making it one of the rarest birds in the entire country. 
Joining me on this quest were my friends and fellow Wisconsin birders Rob and Eric.

We arrived at the beach where the Elaenia had been previously reported. The bird had been hanging out in a thick bunch of trees and shrubs consisting of yews and cedars. We located the spot and waited for it to make an appearance as birders from all over the country began trickling in. Soon we were joined by around 20 other people and the stake out was officially underway.

We watched and waited, without detecting any movement from the shrubs. We even took a few breaks to check the lake and other parts of the beach just in case the elania had moved somewhere else. We found American goldfinches, european starlings, and a double crested cormorant. but still had yet to see any traces of our target bird. 

It was starting to seem like the Elaenia may not show, nonetheless we settling back in to our stake out position with the rest of the group, when we started noticing some movements coming from the plants. To our chagrin, an American Robin popped out from the shrubs quelling any hope we had that the Elaenia was there. But then, we saw the Robin chase another smaller bird deep in the yews. Knowing that a second bird was present, we gained new resolve to find out what it was.

After a while, we decided that if the Elaenia was in fact in the thick yews, we would need to move closer in order to see it. When we got up to the fence directly in front of the thickets, we realized that the Elaenia was right in the middle of the branches, and had probably been there the whole time.

At first, it stayed concealed  allowing for only obscured and blurry views, but then, it moved toward us, giving us better looks than we ever thought we could get. 

The Small-billed Elaenia is a member of the flycatcher family with a light olive colored back, gray underside, and yellowish wash. It has a visible white eye ring and three distinct light colored wing bars which seperate this bird from other similar species. The small-billed elaena lives in woodlands and edge habitat in South America. They typically breed in the southern half of the continent and migrate north to Ecuador, Columbia, and Venezuela during the winter. Small-billed Elaenias are listed as a species of least concern in their native range, but this to North American birders, this small, dull looking flycatcher is a once in a lifetime find.

Feeling incredibly satisfied with our views of the Elaenia, we headed out. It’s funny to think about how much of an impact a missplaced bird can have on a group of people. Undoubtedly, the arrival of the Small-billed Elaenia has created a lot of excitment in the North American birding community, and like us, many people now have stories to tell about their trip to see this modest looking bird.

Click here to see the video version of this post.

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