Fun birds seen elsewhere, by other people
Oh hey, look at this bird. It’s only the most exciting thing going in North America at the moment.
It’s an Elaenia, from a genus of Neotropic flycatchers that make look Empids look as easy as a child’s block puzzle. This one is not in the neotropics though, it’s in Illinois, where it obviously shouldn’t be. The consensus among both the neotrop experts and those who would be seems to gathering around either the highly migratory chilensis race of White-crested Elaenia and the Small-billed Elaenia, birds that, as it is helpfully noted in several guides, can’t always be identified in the field. Fun!
Both are austral migrants, meaning they’re migratory species of the southern hemisphere, so they head north for their winter rather than south, with doesn’t make a whole lot of intuitive sense until you realize everybody just goes to the equator. Though there’s the occasional overshoot, like this wayward bird which ended up in a city park in Chicago-land.
I’m not even a pretend expert when it comes to this genus. I’ve seen a couple Elaenias, in Costa Rica and again in Guatemala, and those identifications has been made easier by the limited number of choices available. For many of these birds range is one of the best, if not the best, field marks. But for a bird as wrong-headed as this one that’s chucked right out. But that hasn’t stopped me, of course, as I wouldn’t expect it to stop any of us terribly curious and ambitious birders, from trying to make sense of it in my own mind.
One of the nice things about this bird is that several excellent photos were taken, but here’s what gets me. Thanks to the internet, I’m now more or less versed in the appropriate field marks for these two species. The amorphous “third wing bar” of the Small-billed. The primary projection differences, the head shape, the extent of black at the base of the secondaries and white in the crown. All of these and more are pretty well visible in multiple photos. Or not. Because depending on the photos, I can convince myself that it is either bird, and what I’m reading from actual factual experts, they’re going both ways too. Meanwhile, the smart ones are staying out of it, but we armchair birders are too foolhardy (read: stupid) for that. And so the psychology of this exercise is amazing to me. This thing is like the Everest of birds. It’s just there, taunting us in those tack-sharp and perfectly exposed photos. Potentially a first ABA-area record and at least a second, and for all intents and purposes the identification should be cut and dried. And yet? No way, man. Good luck.
Gawd, birds. They’re mind-blowing sometimes.
But here’s a theory I’m just throwing out there. There’s two of ‘em. One of each.