Bird man | February 20, 2019 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

Cover Story - February 20, 2019

Bird man

Woodside photographer stalks perfect avian shots

by Barbara Wood

Marquis Kuhn listens intently as he scans the cloudless blue sky above Half Moon Bay's Wavecrest Open Space on one of those perfect spring-like January days that make the residents of the rest of the country hate Californians.

With both hands Kuhn grasps a 500mm camera lens that dwarfs the camera body attached to it. The lens, weighing in at more than 9 pounds and 16 inches in length, requires the support of a monopod to stabilize it. Slung over Kuhn's shoulder is a second camera with a smaller 70-to-200 mm zoom lens, in case he needs to grab a closer shot. Attached to his waist and filling his pockets are other necessities: a water bottle, a phone, a spare camera battery. He's wearing knee pads over jeans and a dapper brown fedora, while the camera lens wears its own camouflaged jacket.

Kuhn, a longtime Woodside resident, moves quietly and deliberately through a meadow of dead grasses and dormant vegetation, frequently stopping to share what draws his attention with his companions.

Movement catches his eye, and birdsong his ears.

"There's a white-tailed kite in the top of that pine," he says, pointing at a tree at least a hundred yards away. He remarks on the sounds of a hummingbird's wings moving almost too fast to see and the song of a golden-crowned sparrow.

"There's a red tail there, hear him?" he asks.

Periodically, Kuhn stills himself, focuses and shoots, then — moving nearly silently — edges closer to his subject and triggers another burst of camera shots.

Self-taught expert

He notes a harrier hawk flying toward a stand of trees on the meadow's boundary.

"The harriers are beautiful," he had observed earlier, upon glimpsing one from the car near the Wavecrest parking area. Harriers fly low and so silently that some call them "the gray ghost," Kuhn says. Like owls, their feathers are arranged to enhance their hearing so they can easily zero in on prey. The male is predominantly gray, and the female brown.

Kuhn sees a raven follow the female harrier, who has something captured in her claws.

"Ravens pair off," he says, "they mate for life." Crows hang out in families, he adds, noting that a group of those birds is called a "murder of crows." And that reminds him of what a group of another, much more eye-catching bird is called.

"It's an ostentation of peacocks," he says.

Then he notices a phoebe, also called a flycatcher. "They grab flies right out of midair," he says.

Kuhn apologizes to his companions for what he says is a dearth of bird life that day, but the list of birds spotted (many in multiples) in less than half a day included: great egret, great blue heron, harrier, white-tailed kite, Anna's hummingbird, golden-crowned sparrow, house finch, kestrel, red-tailed hawk, raven, nuthatch, cormorant, phoebe, warbler, vulture, ferruginous hawk and sharp-shinned hawk.

Favorite spots

In additional to Wavecrest, some of Kuhn's other favorite local bird spots include Shoreline Lake Park and Adobe Creek Trail in Mountain View, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Elkhorn Slough Estuary in Moss Landing.

Kuhn is not a naturalist by profession — he worked as a mason for many years — but he has become a bird expert by avocation. Now semi-retired, he spends as many as 30 hours a week photographing birds. Sometimes he hunkers down on a tiny portable stool, covers himself with a camouflaged poncho and waits hours and hours for the right shot.

"I've been out for 10 hours and come home with about 1,200 photos," he says.

"Time just goes by so quickly" while he's in the field that he's content to sit for hours "listening and watching," he says. "I'll hear other birds moving about. I'll see mice. There's always something happening."

He's also seen foxes, coyotes, bobcats, lizards, butterflies and snakes while stalking the perfect shot.

"To capture that fraction of a second — it makes me happy," he says.

To appear less the predator behind the camera, "I'll put it right in front of my eyes and pull my hat down," he says. "We (humans) have predator eyes."

A book of birds

Many of Kuhn's trophy photos can be seen in his recently released book, "Stuff that Birds Do." The photos range from the sublime to the silly: a cedar waxwing, translucent wings fully opened as it hovers above a buffet of red berries, a red-tailed hawk resting on top of a "no trespassing" sign. A flock of Foster's terns sharing a twilight perch with a great blue heron, a snowy egret appearing to yawn as it fluffs up its wings and settles in for a one-legged rest.

The book is available in hardcover or softcover on the Blub.com website and can be found by searching for Marquis Kuhn.

Kuhn also posts many of his bird photos on his Facebook page (facebook.com/marquis.kuhn) and on the Birding California group Facebook page (facebook.com/groups/BirdingCalifornia).

The photos often reflect the quiet, concentration and focus required to capture the images, and some see them as a perfect antidote to fast-paced lives and partisan politics.

Lifelong love

Kuhn says that growing up in Ohio he was very interested in art, with cartooning and sculpture capturing his attention along with photography.

"I've always loved photography," he says, adding that he got started by using his father's Brownie, a basic inexpensive box camera that was ubiquitous in its day.

Kuhn received grants to attend two art schools, but his parents couldn't afford the additional costs, so instead he joined the Navy. After a tour of duty that included being stationed in San Diego, Kuhn returned to Ohio. There he studied engineering, working as a mason to pay his expenses.

But the weather, and the fact that he made more money as a mason than he would as an engineer, sent Kuhn back to California without graduating. He lived in Los Gatos, starting his own masonry business before relocating to Woodside in the early 1980s after getting a big job there. Kuhn later worked for 21 years as an estate manager for a local family as well as taking care of their properties in other locations, including Park City, Utah, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

"When I would get minutes, I would take the time to get out and get lost and find things to photograph," he says.

"The first time I really got interested in birds, I was up at Lake Superior and I saw a pair of balds — a mated pair of bald eagles," he says. He found out where they nested and returned the following year with a better camera lens. After photographing the fledgling eaglets leaving the nest, he was hooked.

Kuhn says he trained himself by reading, experimenting and watching YouTube videos.

He once asked a friend, a former commercial photographer who teaches photography at San Jose State University, to give him lessons. After looking at his photos, however, she told him to just keep doing what he had been doing, he says.

"I think I keep learning continuously," he says.

Putting together his book placed him on a big learning curve, Kuhn says. Suzzanne Connolly at Picturia Press served as his book coach, but he still made three prototypes before publishing it.

Kuhn also does sports photography and has posted some of those photos on websites for the teams. In addition, he shoots family portraits and animal photos, including show horses and dogs.

Renaissance man

Kuhn's longtime good friend Karen Peterson says she's known him for nearly three decades, since he coached eighth-grade football at Woodside Elementary School, where she was a teacher and an administrator.

Kuhn is a Renaissance man, she says, and "is always learning" new things and doing research.

Birds are far from Kuhn's only interest, Peterson says. He's coached many youth sports teams, worked as a personal trainer, and played for decades in the Woodside Recreation softball league. He also plays the violin and sings.

Peterson says that he's also a great "problem solver and fix-it man," and that he volunteers or donates to many causes ranging from the Woodside High School Foundation to Angel Food and the Woodside Community Theatre (where this year he painted scenery, built sets and helped to install and tear them down). He also has done the artwork for Woodside High theater productions' program covers.

And, in what may seem an anomaly for someone so entranced by birds, Kuhn also loves cats. Along with his parents, he dedicates his bird book to his big Bengal, Calvin.

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