Julien Amsellem: Birdwatcher, Entrepreneur, and only a Sophomore!


Kaylee Oppenheimer, Editor-in-Chief

Julien Amsellem, an avid birdwatcher, entrepreneur, and sophomore, has recently found ways to share his passion and knowledge with the larger Hastings community in hopes of transforming the way people see Hillside woods and most importantly, birds. 

It all started with a nature walk along the Southern Waterfront parcel with leaders of the Audubon Society. Julien and other Hastings conservation members were trying to show two representatives of the Audubon Society the vast diversity and beauty of bird populations in this largely unknown part of Hastings, in hopes of sealing the place as reserved for conservation. Julien, among many other birdwatchers, was nervous that the area would get rezoned or that the Hastings town government would  try to flatten the area for residential buildings or commercial buildings. 

At the conclusion of this discussion, Julien was encouraged to lead his own nature walks because of his enthusiasm and excitement that he had shown that day, as well as how much he knew about the topic. Word spread quickly, and within a few hours all ten spots for the first of his guided walks were booked. Encouraged by the success, Julien set up another walk the following week. Again, within an hour, it was booked. Sensing the community’s immense interest, Julien decided to complete nine walks – in which each participant pays 10 dollars – and in the course of a month he made 480 dollars. 

“I was surprised that these walks got so much attention… when there were no birds at times on the walk it became a live dissertation and I got to answer everyone’s questions…it was really cool to watch people learn knowledge on the spot and I think people left not only with a greater appreciation for birds but also birds in their backyard and how climate change is affecting the birds in Hillside woods and how human interference is affecting hillside woods. [The walk] was also about what people can do to help keep the woods healthy and help ensure that the birds come back.”

Julien also saw an impact on peoples’ behavior because of the walk: “I feel like I saw such a change. Before, I would always see people walking through any part of the woods they wanted, disregarding the trails or any of the markers and after I led the walks I think people got the message or spread the word that it would be really helpful if we stayed on the trails instead of trampling in whatever minimal undergrowth we have.”

For Julien, birdwatching has been his passion for almost a decade. “I started bird watching at about six years old. I saw this massive bid called a pileated woodpecker outside of my house and I was like ‘oh my god look at these birds – they live right in my own backyard and I know nothing about them, and if there’s one like this there’s bound to be plenty like this’ and I was right, there were so many amazing birds that I got to discover that were literally sitting in trees growing in my front yard and in my backyard, and so that’s where my passion for birdwatching started.”

When he was younger his birdwatching was more sporadic and mainly centered around watching the birds at his bird-feeders, but as he grew older he started to go out into the field and to various places to document birds. Over time as he completed checklists for a database called eBird he began to see various trends and species diversify, helping provide concrete evidence for the “conservation side” of birdwatching. Sites and large databases such as eBird catalog species information from different states, counties, countries, and hotspots/specific birding locations (Hillside Woods is a hotspot in eBird). 

Julien added: “In terms of what I’ve done with eBird, I’ve turned in lots of checklists mainly in the Southern Westchester area, especially in areas that don’t have as much information on birds, and I’ve helped filled in these areas with this information – so that’s let the Audubon society add data to an area that they don’t have a ton of data in, especially in places like Hillside woods where I’ve been able to bird a lot.”

His checklists help to elucidate the times at which birds come during the year and which species appear to come more frequently. The Southern Waterfront parcel in Hastings, which is “this gorgeous grassland area that is on the southside of where the water tower is near the waterfront” has “unmatched habitat to anywhere else in westchester, maybe the possible exception of Croton Point park.” Julien and a birding friend of his were able to confirm a rare  sighting of confirmed Bobolink breeding. 

Julien adds, “Bobolinks are a grassland bird species that are in steep decline because of change in habitat, global warming, and human interference overall with their habitat, so we don’t have many breeding populations in Westchester County. Croton Point Park has a nice stable population there, but people all over Westchester were hoping there would be confirmed Bobolink populations in other places, and because of our findings the Southern Waterfront parcel is now being known and recognized as a place where these birds are breeding and it’s an overall great place for grassland birds.” 

His largest eBird-related accomplishment has been that he confirmed the first NY State record of a bird known as a tropical king bird, which is rarely found farther north than the most southern tip of Texas. In fact, it’s main range is in Mexico and Central America. Julien saw this bird close to his home in Dobbs Ferry, and by using photos from his friend as well as audio recordings he took he was able to confirm this first NY state record which was a “really big deal – we had about 100 people in the homeowner’s association complex where I live looking at this bird, and for birders it was one of those really amazing moments.” He added, “most of the time when you have this first NY state record, the bird either flies by really quickly or it’s seen for a short time during the day without people getting to see it but it stayed for at least three days. We were all having a blast because a state record really only happens once or twice a year.”

Looking forward, Julien is very excited to resume his birding walks through Hillside woods during the winter season! Sign up if you want to be inspired!