For Morro Bay photographer Marlin Harms, few experiences are more thrilling than capturing a peregrine falcon in mid-flight.
“There’s a certain appeal to raptors,” he explained, a fierce demeanor that sets the predators apart from seed-eating sparrows and other, more mild-mannered birds. “We hold them in a different esteem.”
Harms is among the hundreds of birders flocking to the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival this Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. The eco-tourism event, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2016, is sponsored by the Morro Coast Audubon Society in collaboration with State Parks, the Central Coast State Parks Association and the city of Morro Bay.
In store for festivalgoers are four days of field trips, workshops, presentations and keynote addresses by husband-and-wife hummingbird experts Sheri Williamson and Tom Wood. (Harms will lead or help lead four of those outings.) There’s also a bazaar featuring bird-related vendors.
In celebration of the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival, the Morro Bay Art Association is presenting “For the Birds,” a group exhibition featuring paintings and photographs inspired by humankind’s feathered friends. The show runs Jan. 12 through Feb. 6 at Art Center Morro Bay.
Participating artists include Cayucos photographer Ralph Wessel, a Cincinnati native who’s been snapping pictures since the Great Depression. Although he doesn’t exclusively photograph birds, Wessel said, “They’re beautiful, and they’re just an interesting subject.”
He particularly likes California brown pelicans, which he can spot from his home overlooking the bay.
“I see these pelicans skimming along just the top of a wave,” Wessel said. “That’s a beautiful shot.”
Harms, whose photos are also featured in “For the Birds,” is likewise drawn to birds’ dynamic quality.
“So many of them are amazingly pretty,” he said.
Images of birds dominate Harms’ Flickr feed, although there are photos of wildflowers, insects and assorted sea creatures as well.
“I’ve been a member of the local Audubon Society longer than I’ve been married, and that’s a long time,” quipped the Morro Bay man, who’s been hitched 34 years.
Harms moved to the Central Coast from Fresno in 1973 to work at Atascadero State Hospital. He retired in 2008, and has dedicated much of his time since to photography.
He’s been shooting birds for about a dozen years. (A lack of proper equipment — such as a suitable long-focus lens — prevented him from hatching his hobby sooner.)
His subjects include cheeky songbirds (chickadees, goldfinches and warblers), wandering waterfowl (ducks, teals), and soaring seabirds (cormorants, gulls and terns). They range in size from majestic bald eagles to tiny blue-grey gnatcatchers.
Last spring, Harms watched, mesmerized, as a pair of ash-throated flycatchers brought butterflies, crickets and even a couple of praying mantises to their hungry chicks nestled in a nest box.
“It was an education for me,” said Harms, who studied biology at Fresno Pacific University. “A lot of times, when I see things, it leads me to learn a little more about them.”
After all, he noted, many aspects of birds’ lives go unnoticed by the general public.
“When we can take a picture with a telephoto lens, it opens up a (world) that we don’t normally see,” he said.
Harms hopes to make more discoveries during the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival, where, according to organizers, birders usually sight more than 200 species. More than 5,200 acres in and around Morro Bay — a designated state and national estuary — have been identified by the Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area, making it an ideal spot for birding.
Even if he doesn’t take many photos, Harms will be happy to soak in more of Morro Bay’s beauty.
“You have to enjoy the birds and setting to make it worthwhile,” the photographer said. “Being there is part of the reward.”
Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival
Various times, Jan. 13-16
Festival headquarters, Morro Bay Community Center, 1001 Kennedy Way
$15 to $40 daily, $75 full festival