Bats for Birds: Sam Baxter-Bray ’20 Brings Passion for Birdwatching to Andover

Birdwatching helped Sam Baxter-Bray ’20 adjust when he moved to Hong Kong.

While on the Malaysian side of the island of Borneo, Sam Baxter-Bray ’20 encountered the rarest bird he has ever seen: the Bornean Bristlehead, classified as a near-threatened species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Since discovering birdwatching in the eighth grade, Baxter-Bray has developed his hobby into a passion, which has been enhanced by his family’s affinity for the outdoors. Born in London and having lived in New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Hangzhou, and Savannah, Ga., Baxter-Bray has seen birds all across the world, which has contributed to his love for birdwatching.

“My family has always been very into nature and we have a house in Georgia that is surrounded by nature. Birds are kind of just everywhere, so no matter where you go, you can find birds. That’s kind of what sparked it,” said Baxter-Bray.

“I think when I moved to Hong Kong, it was kind of a difficult move because I went there in eighth grade and everyone kind of already had their friend group. So I just got into bird watching because it was something to do on the weekends,” he added.

At Andover, Baxter-Bray has shared his love for birdwatching as Head of Andover Birdwatching Club. Last Sunday, he and a group of students travelled to Parker River, a national wildlife refuge in Newbury, Mass. According to Baxter-Bray, Parker River, which is located on Plum Island, is the best location for birdwatching during the winter and spring, while Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary is best for the fall.

Nino Stuebbe ’20, an attendee, said the snowy owl was the main attraction of Parker River, but strong winds prevented any potential sightings.

“We left at 8:30 a.m. from campus and we got there at 9:00 a.m., and then we just kept going around to different places all over Plum Island…We saw a couple gulls here and there. We saw a peregrine falcon, which was the highlight, [but] we didn’t see any snowy owls, which is what we wanted to see,” said Stuebbe.

According to Stuebbe, Baxter-Bray’s skills and experience in birdwatching was evident throughout the trip, especially when he was able to point out where a certain bird call was coming from when the rest of the group was unable to do so.

“We were walking on this boardwalk, and then there’s trees all around us that had lost their leaves and we can hear the birds, but we can’t really see them. So then, we’re like, ‘Where is it?’ and [Baxter-Bray’s] like, ‘Oh, it’s just over there,’” said Stuebbe.

Christopher Jones, Instructor and Chair of History and Social Science and Faculty Advisor of Birdwatching Club, also noted that Baxter-Bray helped the group spot and identify birds such as the peregrine falcon, harriers, and sea birds.

“Sam is the expert birder of the group and the chief recruiter as well…[his] enthusiasm and energy for birding is infectious. It’s important to have that kind of optimism, especially when the weather’s cold. Following Sam’s lead, I think everyone had an upbeat attitude and enjoyed the chance to be in nature,” wrote Jones in an email to The Phillipian.

Before Baxter-Bray came to Andover, his older brother William Baxter-Bray ’18 ran the Birdwatching Club on campus. Now, Sam Baxter-Bray hopes to expand both the membership of the club and the general interest on campus for birdwatching.

“There has actually been a Birdwatching Club at Andover for a while. It has been much more lowkey… I inherited it and my brother [didn’t] talk to that many people, so the most people that went on his trip was three. It was me, him, and one other person. So I just spread it to more people to see the birds,” said Baxter-Bray.

Baxter-Bray keeps a “life list” in order to catalogue all of the birds he’s seen throughout his life. However, he advises that beginner birdwatchers try and practice birdwatching for the joy of the activity instead of in the pursuit of filling up the list.

Baxter-Bray said, “It can be difficult at times, but I think that you shouldn’t look for birds to just put on your life list. You should look at birds just to enjoy them and then have a life list as a secondary purpose.”