'My heart melted when I saw it': People are driving hours to see rare hummingbird in Mundelein
A rare hummingbird, reportedly seen only once before in Illinois, was spotted at a Mundelein couple's backyard bird feeder.
Word traveled among the birding community that a Mexican violetear, or Colibri thalassinus, was hanging out in the yard of Jeanna Cristino, graphic designer and editor of Horizons magazine for the Lake County Forest Preserves.
She wanted others to have the opportunity to come and see the emerald green hummingbird, previously known as a green violetear, most often found in forested areas from Mexico to Nicaragua. And come and see they did.
More than 100 birders made their way to the Lake County backyard with viewing scopes and cameras with long lenses to catch a glimpse of the coveted vagrant hummingbird.
"My heart melted when I saw it," said Nicole Fuller, a Chicago middle school science teacher. "It made my year. I haven't seen a bird that blows my mind like this one just did."
"This species is not seen in this area," said Keith McMullen, who drove five hours with three avid birding friends for a chance to view the magnificent bird. He has been watching birds since he was in middle school. "This is a really big deal."
It was Jeanna's husband, Jason Cristino, who first saw the bird. Averaging 3.8 to 4.7 inches long, the Mexican violetear is much larger than the ruby-throated hummingbird species commonly found in this area.
Jason spotted the bird on his red feeder filled with homemade nectar on Friday. Referring to himself as a "casual bird observer," Jason knew there was something special about the hummingbird and did some research to identify it.
A longtime family friend who is knowledgeable about birds confirmed that it was indeed unusual to see the bird in Illinois and notified his birding network.
"This is a celebrity of birds. You are just so lucky to ever see it," Fuller said. "When the sunlight hits it, it glows with its blue, turquoise and deep violet colors."
The bird flew from nearby oak trees to Cristino's feeder throughout the day Saturday and was seen less on Sunday. The hummingbird has not been spotted since Sunday evening.
"We wanted to share the experience with those who would appreciate it," Jason Cristino said. A steady stream of observers lined the backyard fence waiting for the bird to fly into view.
Many noted it was a "life bird," meaning they had not seen one in their lifetime. Visitors ranged in age from 12 to 90.
"Everyone who has been here is so passionate, caring and kind," Jason Cristino said. "The outpouring of gratitude has been extremely eye-opening and refreshing. We have met so many people who share our same love of nature. What a wonderful thing to happen to us."
The only other time this bird was formally tracked in the state was 12 years ago when it was seen in Fayetteville in central Illinois, said Geoff Williamson, secretary of Illinois Ornithological Records Committee. The electrical engineering professor drove from Chicago to see the bird Sunday.
Avid birder Nan Buckardt, director of education for the Lake County Forest Preserves, stopped by Saturday to see the hummingbird. She said the species has been occasionally found in neighboring states.
"Many ask how this type of bird would end up here," she said. "Birds are sometimes displaced following storms with a great deal of wind."
Buckardt said this type of bird is more of a "wanderer," as it has been spotted in the Midwest before.
The Cristinos found that their human backyard visitors experienced an array of emotions over the weekend. Matthew Cvetas and his son, Jake, 21, left the backyard smiling before heading home to Evanston.
"Bird watching is something we have always done together," Matthew said, adding that his son is a founding member of Illinois Young Birders.
"It's just so rare to spot this bird in a suburban neighborhood," said Matt Misewicz, a wildlife biology major at Michigan State University. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
It was an important afternoon for Ben Sanders, 21, who spotted his 700th bird in a personal challenge and informal competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species as possible within a geographic area, known as the Lower 48 States Big Year. "This is a tremendous accomplishment," said Sanders, who had an eastern whip-poor-will bird tattooed prominently in black on his forearm.
"Bird watching is one of the most intimate ways to be in nature," Fuller said.
Buckardt agreed. "You just never know what you will see when you spend time out in nature."
In an effort to promote the mission of the Lake County Forest Preserves, the Cristinos set up a donation box for the Preservation Foundation, the charitable partner of the Lake County Forest Preserves. To donate, see LCFPD.org/donate.
"We thought this would be the perfect way to remember the importance of the natural world and support the foundation," Jeanna Cristino said.
• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.