Jory Teltser is one of Westport’s most passionate birdwatchers.
He’s seen over 250 species in this town alone. He’s taken nearly 100,000 photos. He raises money to help keep the Smith Richardson Preserve, a critical habitat for migrating birds.
And he’s still only a Staples High School junior.
Jory is not just a birder. He plays French horn in the orchestra and band, and this summer will tour Australia with Staples’ elite Orphenians singing group.
But birding — spending hours outdoors, figuring out calls, finding new species, learning everything there is to know about these fantastically varied vertebrates — is what gets him up in the morning.
Often very, very early.
Jory’s interest was piqued more than 8 years ago. Tina Green — a photographer and patient of Jory’s internist father — took them both to Sherwood Island. Ten feet away was a saw-whet owl.
“It was the size of a fist, all brown with giant eyes, sitting on a cedar tree staring right at me,” Jory recalls. He was intrigued.
But he did not get serious about the hobby until 4 years ago. Tina took him birdwatching after school, and nearly every weekend. “I saw her more than my parents,” Jory laughs.
Ornithology hooked him for many reasons. The biggest: “It gets me out in nature. I experience things most people never see. It can be relaxing and meditative. It calms you down.”
For a while, Jory admits, he was a stressed-out “serious lister.” He raced all around New England, trying to see as many different species as he could. In middle school and freshman year, he skipped school every couple of months to see a new bird.
He does that far less often now. The most recent time was early March. The attraction: a varied thrush, in Simsbury. “It was an adult male, with very vibrant colors,” he explains.
But he focuses mainly on Fairfield County. There’s more than enough here to keep him excited.
Jory learns about new species and sightings in several ways. A statewide email listserv has about 1,000 participants. He’s one of 5 high school students (one other is from Staples).
There’s Cornell Ornithology Lab’s eBird database — with customized alerts about species he hasn’t yet seen — and several Facebook groups.
Jory is largely self-taught. He’s never read a field guide. But he can identify close to 2,000 species visually, and 1,000 by sound.
Being a musician helps, he notes. “I visualize and internalize notes, pitches, timbres, songs and calls.”
One of Jory’s favorite birding spots is Smith Richardson Preserve. “It’s small, but it might be the premier location in the state,” he says.
On May 12 he’ll raise funds for that site on Westport’s eastern border by taking part in the World Series of Birding. For the 3rd straight year he and 3 teammates (one is from Staples) will travel to Cape May County, New Jersey. Starting at midnight, they’ll spend the next 24 hours tallying as many species as possible, by sight or sound. Sponsors pledge money based on the total.
Last year Jory’s group — the Darth Waders — identified 162 species. That placed them 2nd out of more than 100 teams — beating out even traditional champion Cornell.
Jory also loves Sherwood Island. “We’re so lucky to have a state park in Westport,” he says. Over the past 60 years, more than 300 species have been seen there. That makes it one of the top 100 birding locations in the entire country — despite not being on an open ocean flight path.
Trout Brook Preserve in Weston is another favorite place. Jory calls it “a runway for birds.”
His favorite bird is the red-breasted nuthatch. It’s small and woodpecker-like, with a blue beak and white eyeline. Its migratory pattern, call, behavior and plumage all intrigue Jory.
Not many teenagers are so taken with anything. He may mention to a friend that he got up at “a godforsaken hour” that morning, but doesn’t often talk about it. When he brings friends along, they generally like the hiking and outdoor aspect. But many don’t have his patience, or ability to weather both the physical and mental stress of birding.
Jory is undeterred. He loves what he does. And he looks forward to continuing his work with the Aspetuck Land Trust (he’s on their land management subcommittee).
He may not pursue ornithology as a career. He’s considering science, particularly molecular biology.
But he’ll continue to look for — and listen to — the next species. There are 10,000 in the world.