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A Hastings High School Student Makes History with Bird Watching Hobby

Woodpecker Julien Amsellem has recorded 173 birds in the area with more than 112 of those in Hastings-on-Hudson alone, a particularly impressive feat for a 15-year-old. In fact, his most recent accomplishment cemented his name in the history books.

The avid bird watcher recently had a rare encounter. After hearing rumors of a strange bird at Lenoir Preserve in Yonkers, he took a taxi to the preserve and was able to spot the bird easily. Recording the bird’s call, he was able to quickly identify it as a Tropical Kingbird, a breed of bird more commonly seen in Central and South America. Recording this specific bird’s song was a first for Amsellem but it was also a first for New York State.

“I was blown away and super happy,” he said. “It was so awesome because you rarely get first state records.”

Although the Tropical Kingbird has been spotted in the United States, it has only made it as far as southern states such as Texas and Florida; this was the first time the species had ever been spotted in New York.

Birdwatching has become a passion for Amsellem. A self-described “birder,” the 10th grader’s pastime goes back to a close encounter at the age of six.

“I was standing outside of my house when a bird called a pileated woodpecker landed on a tree in my backyard,” he said. “I was just so enamored by the beauty and the size and the majesty of this creature.”

His humble beginnings in his backyard developed into a full-time hobby. Starting a birdwatching club in first grade, he enlisted more than 40 of his classmates to join him on “birding” expeditions at recess. Although interest in the hobby died among his peers, it only grew for Amsellem.

Although many believe rare species are mostly found in exotic areas, Amsellem said the majority of his findings have been in the heart of Hillside Woods. Due to the seasonal migratory nature of birds, he has been able to find a surprising number of species only steps away from where he attends school.

“In May, there’s this high-density blast of tropical migrants that come through in the first three weeks and then in fall we get a trickle of different types of migrants that show up,” he said “It makes for really good birding in Hastings.”

For Amsellem, birding has proven to come naturally, with a ranking of 25th out of 100 in Westchester on the bird documenting site eBird for spotting the most species, he has been steadily climbing the leaderboard and plans to increase his count.

“I'm working my way up there,” he said.

Looking toward the future, Amsellem isn’t sure if he will pursue a career in ornithology but he doesn’t plan to stop bird watching anytime soon. Speaking on whether he would do a “big year,” a competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species of birds as possible, he said he wasn’t quite ready yet.

“I would say it will happen one day,” he said. “That day is maybe far off, but it's definitely going to happen.”

Hoping to spread his interest among classmates and community members alike, Amsellem has recently started doing public walks for birding and encourages all to try to spot species in their own backyards.

“We get our rare gulls, here and there, and all the typicals like sparrows and cardinals. But it makes for a nice wealth of species in Hastings,” he said. “Even now, in winter. You can see a decent selection of birds, but you have to know where to look.”