CHICAGO — While Eric Gyllenhaal searched Douglas Park on Sunday morning for the latest rare bird to travel there, he heard a round of gunshots in the distance.
Then he saw several police cars speed past on the streets surrounding the park, set firmly inside North Lawndale — one of Chicago's most violent neighborhoods.
"I don't fear for myself as much as I fear for the people there I know from the neighborhood," said Gyllenhaal, a member of the Chicago Ornithological Society who travels from Oak Park about four times a month to spot birds at Douglas Park.
In the years he's been birding Douglas Park as part of the Bird Conservation Network, he's seen 188 of the 191 species documented on the bird tracking site eBird. That includes seeing an Elaenia, a bird from South America that somehow wound up 7,000 miles from its home in the heart of the West Side in April 2012. It was the first time an Elaenia — which was first seen by Gyllenhaal's sons, Ethan and Aaron — was ever spotted in Illinois.
Gyllenhaal, a former South Loop resident who has a PhD in paleontology from University of Chicago, loves birding on the West Side, even with its challenges.
Besides the background shootings, Gyllenhaal must handle other situations. For example, he has a birding hot spot a few miles from Douglas Park where indigo buntings breed in the summertime. But if Gyllenhaal stays too long, he said prostitutes will wander over and proposition him.
Shootings in North Lawndale since Jan. 1, 2010. Red circles are fatal shootings. [DNAinfo]
Douglas Park is a great spot for birds, both ones that stay and others that migrate through, because of its diverse habitat. That space includes a meadow, prairie and woodlands with a lagoon surrounded by cattails and wildflowers.
What will become of the green space is a work in progress with the possibility of an outdoor music venue coming to the park, which would move the nature area elsewhere in the park.
Gyllenhaal recently started a website devoted to showcasing the nature and animals that can be found at the park. He hopes the site will be used by educators to take students on field trips to the park.
"Birds find what nature is there and they'll make sure of it if there's enough there," Gyllenhaal said. "Birds will find a habitat if you put it there."
Eric Gyllenhaal (right) with his sons, Aaron (center) and Ethan. [Provided]