Tag Archives: ornithology

Jeff Marks’ Wild Montana Skies

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.

Jeff Marks in the East Pryor Mountains, Montana.

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.

Back in Montana Jeff served as managing editor of a scientific journal, taught as an adjunct professor, and worked for the Audubon Society.

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 Marks with a birding group in Portachuelo Pass, Peru.

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.”

Jeff Marks with Jackson Owusu, in Ghana.

Jory Teltser Is For The Birds

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 Teltser

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.

A red-breasted merganser (Photo copyright Jory Teltser)

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.

When Jory goes birding, he takes along a serious camera.

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.

Common loon. Cockenoe Island is in the background. (Photo copyright Jory Teltser)

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 has found plenty of friends in the Connecticut Young Birders Club. He’s in the front row, far left.

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.

(To donate to Jory’s World Series of Birding Smith Richardson project, click here. To see some of Jory’s many photos, click here.]