Growing up in Westport in the 1960s and early ’70s, Jeff Marks played plenty of sports. He hunted and fished.
But he was particularly interested in reptiles and amphibians.
He has no idea where the passion came from. He discovered — and studied — it on his own.
Jeff caught snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs in the woods and ponds near his home off North Avenue. He played hooky from Coleytown Junior High, riding his bike to the Saugatuck Reservoir in Easton.
“My friends were not interested,” he says. “But no one ever gave me crap about it.”
Jeff headed to Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, to study forestry. But he’d always been drawn to the west. He hitchhiked to the University of Montana, applied, and entered the forestry school.
He took other classes — zoology, wildlife biology, mammalogy — but was especially intrigued by ornithology.
“All I’d known were ducks,” he says. “I’d never paid attention to all the interesting birds around me. But 2 weeks in, I said, ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to do.'”
Jeff got a job with the Bureau of Land Management on Idaho’s Snake River. He clambered over cliffs, studying birds of prey. In his spare time, he went birding.
Long-eared owls became the subject of his master’s degree — and an object of fascination and research for the next 4 decades.
Jeff’s career took him back to the University of Montana as a BLM research biologist. He turned a field study in the tropical Pacific into his Ph.D. project. He examined birds that bred in Alaska, then flew all the way to coral sand atolls.
He married, and — around 50 years old — had 2 children. Though Missoula is a great college town, his wife found the winters rough. In 2006 they moved to Portland, Oregon.
There — and on frequent trips back — he co-wrote “Birds of Montana”: a comprehensive guide to the state’s 433 species.
These days he leads birding tours to places like Ghana, Senegal and Peru. And he’s deeply involved in a non-profit he developed, the Montana Bird Advocacy. It provides information on the status and biology of poorly known species, focuses attention on critical habitats under threat, and promotes conservation efforts.
Jeff graduated from Staples High School in 1973. He cannot point to any moment in his youth that led to his life’s work with birds and wildlife.
His ties to Westport today are few. But in some way, he is where he is today because of his hometown.
“Growing up where I did, when I did, gave me the intellectual freedom to immerse myself in fascinating things going on in the natural world,” he says. “Everything I’m doing now was grounded in what I did then.
Jeff knows that many wetlands he roamed as a kid now have houses on them. He hopes that some are untouched.
He has another hope too: That some youngsters growing up in Westport today can “be in touch with a place that a lot of people don’t think is wild. And it isn’t — compared to Montana. But there is still a lot of amazing life to see and do, anywhere you look.”