The owl as icon, and the charisma of the woodpecker

In his groundbreaking first book, wildlife photographer Paul Bannick offers a bird's-eye view of the Northwest.
Crosscut archive image.

Snowy female owl landing at its nest.

In his groundbreaking first book, wildlife photographer Paul Bannick offers a bird's-eye view of the Northwest.

The Owl and the Woodpecker — the first book from Seattle-based wildlife photographer Paul Bannick — combines detailed natural history, first-hand observations, a field guide, map, and CD of birdcalls to create a thorough portrait of these iconic birds. But it is the plethora of eye-popping photographs that elevate this volume toward the majestic. Spanning the continent from the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest to the arctic tundra to the pine forests of the southeast, Bannick's wide-ranging travels — not to mention his seemingly-limitless patience and fortitude — allowed him to locate and photograph all 41 North American species of owls and woodpeckers in their natural habitats.

And the accolades for Bannick's groundbreaking work, published locally by the Mountaineers Books, are already rolling in. "The Owl and the Woodpecker is a monumental work of photojournalism by one of North America's top wildlife photographers," crowed Audubon Magazine's editor Ted Williams. "The images you'll encounter in this book are the result of an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and their habitats, an intense love of nature, and endless patience. For anyone who appreciates wild things and wild places, each of Bannick's stunning photographs is worth ten thousand words."

Bruce Barcott, contributing editor at Outside, agreed: "Paul Bannick's photographs reveal the startling beauty and complex survival strategies of the owl and the woodpecker, North America's most charismatic — and crucial'ꀔcavity-nesting birds. These are images to savor again and again."

Many readers of Bannick's new book will be surprised at the elegant interconnections between owls and woodpeckers, and birders will wonder why they hadn't recognized them sooner. I recently had the opportunity to ask Bannick a few questions about photography, ecology, and birds in anticipation of a slideshow and reception November 6, hosted by the North Cascades Institute in Bellingham at the Whatcom Museum of History & Art.

Christian Martin: How did you get started with photography, and photographing birds in particular?

Paul Bannick: I have always been fascinated with nature. My earliest memories are of frogs, salamanders, and birds, and I have always been concerned about the health of wildlife populations. It was clear to me early on that the demise of habitat was leading to a loss of biodiversity — this was brought home by the loss of wetland creatures near my childhood home. It is sometimes easy for folks to miss the important variables in habitat and fail to see how unique each place is. Variations in animals and plants, particularly varieties of closely related animals, signal that something about the habitat is different. The variety in color, shape, size, and niche of birds gives us perhaps the greatest sign of the unique variables in each habitat.

When we walk a landscape where only northern flickers are native, for instance, and suddenly red-breasted sapsuckers appear, we should ask, "why?" The answers to this question allow us to see the habitat variables we might miss if the fauna was uniform.

Ultimately, I hope that my work will motivate us to protect the most important elements of the natural world.

CM: Why "owls & woodpeckers"? Why not "coots and falcons" or "warblers and swans"?

PB: The most obvious reason is that there are 19 species of owl and 22 species of woodpeckers in North America, and each has specific habitat needs. By looking at their habitat requirements, we can see the most important factors delineated in many of North America's ecosystems.

Adding weight to this great diversity is the fact that members of these two families are often indicator species — both owls and woodpeckers are species whose presences attest to the health of a particular habitat.

Woodpeckers are also keystone species who change the habitat for the benefit of a great number of species.

Finally, these species are iconic and charismatic. Their songs, calls, and drummings add to the spirit of wild places and tug at our hearts and imaginations. As a result, these places play a role in our culture, history, and folklore.

CM: How in the world did you get such photographs as woodpeckers stuffing acorns into a granary tree or catching a moth on the wing, or an owl feeding her young? In other words, how do you find yourself so frequently in the right place at the right time?

PB: I work full-time as a director for (environmental non-profit) Conservation Northwest, but when I am not at work, I am usually out hiking, kayaking, or snowshoeing in the wild. I do a lot of research before embarking on my excursions: overlapping habitat, topographical and trail maps, and paying attention to the seasonal patterns and behaviors of wildlife to give myself the best chance of encountering wildlife.

My number one rule is to not change the behavior of wildlife. When I come across species of interest in natural behaviors, I stop and become part of the scene: wait, watch, and photograph. I thus put myself in the best situation to let the drama of their lives unfold. I want to capture behaviors that best tell how these birds interact with each other and with their environment in the hopes that folks will feel empathy and protect these places.

CM: What do you want readers to get from this collection of photographs and essays?

PB: Empathy for the wildlife, appreciation for the importance of every element of the web that nature is and motivation for doing what they can to protect our natural world and all of its diversity.

CM: If you were going to try to photograph, or even just observe, bird life in Whatcom County, where would you go and what time of day?

PB: Folks in Whatcom County are blessed to live in an ecologically rich area. From saltwater beaches to estuaries to rivers to dense forests to subalpine zones, many of the habitats of the Northwest are within easy reach. People can also steward their own land to draw birds in, like landscaping with native plants and leaving snags (dead trees) to create habitat.

The best photographic advice I can give is to get up early, get out in the field as the sun is rising and be out when it sets. These hours of low light are the most productive times to find, photograph, and observe birds.

Finally, slow down, wait, watch and don't disturb the behavior that is often unfolding as we hurry by.

Paul Bannick will be presenting slides and stories from his work at more than a dozen stops throughout the Northwest, including November 6 at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Nov. 12 at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Nov. 18 at the Tacoma Public Library, and Nov. 22-23 at the Wild Arts Festival in Portland. Full tour information, mailing list, and online slideshow can be found at Paul Bannick's Web site.


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