Just Another Small-billed Elaenia

Amy Davis

Recommended citation:
Davis, Amy. 2021. “Just Another Small-billed Elaenia”. <https://wp.me/p8iY2g-bZI> North American Birds.

On 26 Nov 2021, Susan Zelek photographed an unusual bird at Waukegan Beach on the shore of Lake Michigan in Lake Co, Illinois, and posted her photos to the American Birding Association’s What’s this Bird? Facebook Group, where the bird was identified as a Small-billed Elaenia. It continued at Waukegan Beach as of 7 Dec 2021 and was seen by hundreds of birders as it perched deep in junipers and yew bushes.

Above: Susan Zelek’s photo of the Small-billed Elaenia she found at Waukegan Beach, Lake Co, Illinois. The telltale hint of a third white wingbar is visible here.

Amazingly, the Waukegan Beach Small-billed Elaenia was the second for the ABA Area this fall, the third for 2021, and fourth overall. However, it was not a first for Illinois—it follows the state first from Chicago in 2012! Other records from 2021 include a Small-billed Elaenia reported via iNaturalist in Corpus Christi, Texas on 17 May 2021, and another captured and banded at the Observatoire d’Oiseaux de Tadoussac in Québec on 26 Oct 2021. An elaenia at Cudjoe Key, Monroe Co, Florida on 30 May 2021 was not identified to species. Prior to 2021, the only ABA Area Small-billed Elaenia was also in Illinois, at Douglass Park, Chicago, Cook Co 17–22 April 2012. An elaenia sp. photographed at Trustom Pond NWR, Washington Co, Rhode Island on 10 Nov 2008 was likely a Small-billed as well, but photographic evidence was not conclusive.

Above: Video of the Small-billed Elaenia. Waukegan Beach, Lake Co, Illinois. 3 Dec 2021. Video by Alex Eberts.

Small-billed Elaenia is not on version 8.0.7 of the ABA Checklist but will be added soon (see the 32nd Report of the ABA Checklist Committee in the fall issue of North American Birds). The species was accepted by the Illinois Ornithological Records Committee in Mar 2020 on the basis of the 2012 record. Specific identification within the genus Elaenia is notoriously difficult. Gorleri and Areta published a paper on the (mis)identification of Small-billed and “Chilean” White-crested elaenias in Jun 2021; they assert that the presence of a third wingbar is diagnostic for Small-billed. The third wingbar, a row of white spots formed by the tips of the lesser coverts, was present (although not always visible) on the 2012 Chicago bird, as well as the ones seen this year in Waukegan Beach, Tadoussac, and Corpus Christi.

Above: The Waukegan Beach Small-billed Elaenia, with the white tips of the lesser coverts almost entirely hidden.

Small-billed Elaenias are long-distance austral migrants. Their wintering grounds stretch from northeastern Ecuador and Peru to Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, north to Trinidad and the Netherlands Antilles. Their breeding grounds are in Paraguay, extreme southern Brazil, Uruguay, and northern Argentina. The Waukegan Beach and Tadoussac birds should have been headed south, but instead seem to have become misoriented and engaged in reverse migration, heading 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

eBird range map of Small-billed Elaenia. Purple and lavender show records of the species. The yellow line shows a possible “normal” migration route between the northern wintering grounds and southern breeding grounds. The red line shows where a misoriented bird engaging in reverse migration might end up. Map images provided by eBird and created 30 Nov 2021. Possible migration lines added by Josh Engel.

Gorleri and Areta (2021) found that community scientists systematically misidentified “Chilean” White-crested Elaenia as Small-billed Elaenia during migration, when the species’ ranges briefly overlap. Identification of out-of-range elaenias must be done with great care, especially as both Small-billed and “Chilean” White-crested have now both been well-documented in the ABA Area. “Chilean” White-crested Elaenias turned up in Grand Forks, Grand Forks Co, North Dakota on 24 Oct 2020 and at South Padre Island, Cameron Co, Texas on 9–10 Feb 2008. An elaenia at Fort Pickens, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Escambia Co, Florida on 28 April 1984 was thought to be a Caribbean Elaenia (in the genus Elaenia), but photos could not rule out White-crested, and no audio recording was made of its song.

A Greenish Elaenia was banded at High Island, Galveston Co, Texas 20–23 May 1984; it should be noted, however, the Greenish Elaenia is in a different genus (Myiopagis), and looks quite different to the trained eye in both structure and plumage pattern.

The Waukegan bird remains as of this writing (7 Dec 2021), and its long stay has allowed its vocalizations to be recorded. They are, unsurprisingly, consistent with Small-billed Elaenia.

The above records have been gleaned from eBird and other social media; not all have been vetted by state/provincial records committees.


Pranty, Bill. 2009. “Annual Report of the ABA Checklist Committee 2008–2009.” Birding. Nov 2009: 38–43. https://www.aba.org/birding_archive_files/v41n6p38.pdf

Pyle, Peter. 2020. ABA Checklist Committee Mid-Year 2020 Report. North American Birds. https://www.aba.org/aba-checklist-committee-mid-year-2020-report/

Alvaro Jaramillo on Elaenia identification, accessed 30 Nov 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5SAAu5iNi0

Texas Rare Birds Committee Accepted Records, accessed 30 Nov 2021. https://www.texasbirdrecordscommittee.org/texas-review-list/accepted-records

Gorleri, F. C., and J. I. Areta. 2021. Misidentifications in citizen science bias the phenological estimates of two hard-to-identify Elaenia flycatchers. Ibis in press: doi: 10.1111/ibi.12985.

Howell, Steve N. G., Ian Lewington, and Will Russell. 2014. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

No stranger to ABA publications, Amy Davis has served as Sightings department editor at Birding and technical reviewer at Birder’s Guide. She was also photo editor for Pennsylvania Birds. Amy loves citizen science and volunteered extensively for breeding bird atlases in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia. She resides in Forked River, NJ, and recently broke her home county’s big year record. When she’s not birding the Barnegat Bay, Amy studies nursing and plays classical piano.