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Eric Gyllenhaal at the Gull Frolic
Eric Gyllenhaal at the Gull Frolic

Columbus Park, Chicago

Eric Gyllenhaal has an intense interest in the natural world and has been birding on and off since college. A few years ago, after one of his “off” periods, his two sons took up birding and pulled him back into it. They pushed him into becoming a monitor. With his kids he’s now keeping track of the birds in his yard, in his Oak Park neighborhood, and at Columbus Park. Meanwhile, his sons Aaron (14 years) and Ethan (16 years) are now chasing birds and keeping records on their own. Aaron  has been interested since he saw some monk parakeets. Ethan will take a train to Montrose Harbor or join twitching expeditions every chance he gets; recently he has become bird monitor at Miller Meadow.

Columbus Park was created 1n 1912 out of farmland on the western edge of Chicago by landscape architect Jens Jensen – an early attempt to restore natural areas. Jensen designed “glacial ridges” and a wet prairie with a stream and waterfalls over rock outcroppings, areas currently being managed by the Chicago Park District’s Natural Areas Division, using prescribed burns, clearing of invasive brush, and plantings. In addition to lawn and playing fields, there is a lagoon and some small ponds. The park’s golf course, part of the original design, has Audubon International certification.

GRHE Green Heron, by Aaron Gyllenhaal

In three years at Columbus Park the Gyllenhaals have tallied 164 species of birds, including about 20 species that nest there. Nesters have included Baltimore orioles, wood ducks, barn swallows, rough-winged swallows, song sparrows, common yellowthroats and green herons, probably also indigo buntings, and red-eyed vireos. Caspian terns show up regularly. Migration brings a few shorebirds and substantial numbers of warblers – 33 different species so far. And there have been surprises: merlins, an osprey, woodcock, snipe, and greater white-fronted geese.

CATE Caspian Tern, by Ethan Gyllenhaal

Eric walks Columbus Park more than once a week on average, winter and summer, following the same route each time, making notes on the birds he sees, often carrying a camera. He reports his observations to BCN eBird and also maintains a blog, “Neighborhood Nature,” which is viewed and praised by Chicagoland birders and Park District officials alike. Of course, birds aren’t the only things he finds. Depending on the season, there are golfers, walkers, runners and fishermen. One day last March he found golfers and cross-country skiers at the same time! He has also encountered a wedding in progress, soccer games, and preparations for an outdoor party. Since he’s there so often, he has become well-known to the park’s users as (naturally) the “bird man of Columbus Park,” and they sometimes report observations to him (“green birds on the lawn”) or ask questions. That’s okay with Eric.  He views the park as an ambassador for nature in the city. And he has established himself as its promoter and patron.