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Preston and the Pipit

On a late October morning in 2016, a bird landed in the model airplane field at Sherwood Island State Park near Westport. At that time of year, this particular bird expected warm weather and the banks of the Mississippi. Here, it stood less than half a mile away from the cold Atlantic Ocean. It hid in the grassiest patch of the park among dried, golden reeds, far away from any of its kin. It had never been more lost.

The same morning, sixteen-year-old Preston Lust sat at one of the park’s picnic tables with his family, having lunch on his stepdad’s birthday. He lives ten minutes away from Sherwood Island.

Preston is one of Connecticut’s most skilled young bird watchers. He started birding with his grandfather at age nine, and he’s seen and recorded over five hundred species since, a number many adult birders hope to reach. He’s also too young to have a driver’s license, which means that he is an expert on his hometown’s natural habitat. Nearly half of his sightings have been in Connecticut. On eBird, the most popular website for birders to record their sightings, Preston submits checklists from his backyard almost every day detailing which birds he saw and how many. He’s a master of Sherwood Island, too—quietly, as if he were retrieving something familiar from a shelf, he knows in which trees he can find a saw-whet owl and which bushes are good for spotting warblers. Some competitive birders “chase” the species they want to see, buying plane tickets to Arizona and Alaska. Preston prefers his neighborhood.

Some competitive birders “chase” the species they want to see, buying plane tickets to Arizona and Alaska. Preston prefers his neighborhood.

Before the picnic at Sherwood that morning, he had already seen a rare red crossbill near his house. At the park, he and his brother Terry wandered over to the model airplane field after lunch to see if they could spot anything else. Here, the locals met the visitor.

After following a group of eastern meadowlarks into the reeds, Preston saw the bird. It crouched near a tall wall of grass, small and beige and shaped like an easy-to-miss songbird. The brothers first thought it could be a common American pipit. But, as they kept watching it, the bird didn’t bob its head as much as it should, and the umber feathers on its back glowed white around the edges.

Preston started taking field notes, and he recorded a blurry cellphone video. Then, he sent a message to the local birders’ email listserv.

“I alerted them to the fact that we potentially had a Sprague’s pipit,” he told me. This bird, blown wildly off its migratory course by wind and confusion, had never been seen in Connecticut.

“So, uh, this was a big deal.”

“Best bird I saw all year.”

“Best bird I’ve seen in Connecticut.”

At the January meeting of the Connecticut Young Birders Club (CYBC), club president Brendan Murtha and member Jory Teltser talked about the day Preston saw the Sprague’s pipit as they birded near the shore in Greenwich. Both boys rushed over to the park as soon as they heard, and Jory, one of Preston’s best friends at school, took photos and posted them online. “First state record found by my friend, and young birder, Preston Lust (only 15 years old)!” the caption reads. The first people to see the bird were all under the age of eighteen.

“A lot of the big-name Connecticut birders who keep really serious state lists dropped everything and got there as fast as they could,” Brendan said. The next morning, about thirty people showed up to get a glimpse, but the pipit had already left.

Connecticut is one of the states with the most bird watchers per capita according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, though most of them are adults. The CYBC, which welcomed its tenth member during the January meeting, tries to be as involved as it can in the larger birding scene. But compared to, say, New York’s seventy-member equivalent (whose president was recently profiled in the New York Times), it’s small. Plus, Connecticut itself isn’t exactly a birder’s paradise.

“It’s boring,” Jory told me, and Brendan agreed. It’s a small, developed state with no open ocean, and there aren’t many trees far away from a road. Jory remedies the problem by keeping as busy as he can—perhaps practicing for somewhere more exciting. He is mentored by the former president of the Connecticut Ornithological Association, and he once saw three hundred species in the state over the course of a year, putting him in the ultra-exclusive “300 Club.” Brendan, who will graduate from high school this spring, said he “has to get out of Connecticut.”

“A lot of the big-name Connecticut birders who keep really serious state lists dropped everything and got there as fast as they could,” Brendan said.

Preston Lust feels a little differently. He wants to live in Connecticut for the rest of his life, as does his brother. When I asked Jory about what kind of birder Preston is, he said that, despite staying outside the circle of competitive Connecticut birders and not being much of a “chaser,” he has a knack for encountering the birds that more goal-hungry watchers might overlook.

Recently, Preston put a high-powered microphone on the roof of his house that connects to his computer. Overnight, as birds fly over his house, the microphone records their nocturnal flight calls, which he listens to the next morning with sonogram software. This helps him recognize birds he can’t see.

“You’ll be birding with him, and he’ll say that he heard something fly over,” Jory said. “And it’s like, not only did I not hear that, how did you identify that?”

Preston, Jory, Brendan, and another CYBC club member are planning on entering a birding competition in New Jersey called the World Series, under the name “CYBC Darth Waders.” The last time Brendan competed, his car got stuck in a sinkhole, but he’s more confident about his chances this year. Preston, he said, is their “secret weapon.”

Preston and Terry walk along the paths on Sherwood Island a month after the Sprague’s pipit sighting. The brothers are silent as they bird, both dressed in black sweaters and black pants, hugging their binoculars to their chests. Every once in a while, they softly call out each other’s names, point at a branch, and stare.

When they get to the shore around dusk, Preston points at a gull standing near the water. Unlike the other birds on the beach, its back looks like smooth, grey slate. The lesser black-backed gull, as he calls it, is the only one of its kind on Sherwood Island. It has been coming back to this beach every year since he started birding.

Preston walks off the path and towards the sand.

“Do you see something?” Terry asks.

“No. I just felt like going on the beach.”

 

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