The great gray owl, the largest owl in North America, glides in on wide striate wings. You look up and see it coming toward you from across the room at the Burke Museum, where it's part of a new photographic show, "The Owl and the Woodpecker," which opened last weekend.
“I didn't hear [the owl] until it was two feet from my camera,” the photographer Paul Bannick told me. Bannick explained that the Great Gray hunts by sound and has the second lightest wing loading of any owl on the continent, so it's very silent. It's also curious. “You don't find owls,” he told me. “Owls find you.” More than once, stalking Great Gray Owls and finding none, he has set his camera down, walked away, and come back to find one of the birds actually sitting on the camera.
Bannick, who serves as development director for Conservation Northwest, has been a serious photographer only for the past half-dozen years. He has obviously come a long way. His book, The Owl and the Woodpecker, published three years ago by the Mountaineers, is still the best-selling owl book in the country, he said. The Mountaineers wanted the book finished in a year, so he spent “every night, every weekend” on the project. Photographing birds remains a passion, but he no longer spends every spare moment on it.
Some of the images are arresting — a short-eared owl standing one-footed on the edge of a drift log conveys the balance of a Degas dancer — but Bannick says that he hopes the images will lead people to the relationships, to the ecological interconnections in which woodpeckers and owls play key roles. He said that a woman in the audience for one of his readings told him ”those are both macho birds.” Maybe so, he told me. Macho or not, “woodpeckers change things.”
And cultures all over the world have invested owls with spiritual significance. He has gotten interested in the birds' more prosaic roles. They play key functions in ecosystems all over the continent; for example, he explains in his book, a British Columbia study of a Douglas fir ecosystem found that the familiar Northern Flicker was “the keystone species in this ecosystem.” All over the rural and suburban west, “a range of animals, including Douglas squirrels, flying squirrels, short-tailed weasels, American kestrels, black-capped chickadees, western bluebirds, tree swallows, buffleheads, Northern Saw-whet Owls, and Western Screech-Owls, nest in vacated Flicker cavities.”
On one wall at the Burke, a hairy woodpecker is excavating a cavity in a white-barked tree, wood chips flying. On the adjacent wall, a northern pygmy owl looks out of a cavity that one of the woodpeckers has dug from a similar tree. (The birds were photographed very near each other near Yakima, where Douglas fir mingles with Ponderosa pine.) The hole is just big enough for the owl. This is no coincidence, Bannick explained. Most owls are just the right size to fit the cavities dug by woodpeckers where they live.
Look at some of these photographs, and you may reflect not only on the photographer's patience and eye, but also on his equipment. Yes, Bannick said, he has bought himself some expensive lenses. But the lenses don't substitute for knowledge and patience. He said some people figure that if you have an 800 mm lens, you don't have to get very close. Wrong. He still has to sneak up on the birds, lie in wait for them, balance the low light of daybreak and dusk against the shutter speed necessary to catch a bird on the wing.
That hairy woodpecker's flying wood chips are silhouetted against a visually flat background of rusty red. The background looks artificial. It's not. “I never edit photographs,” Bannick told me. For that shot, “I found a beautiful big Ponderosa pine.” Then, he used a very shallow depth of field, which made the rough pine bark look flat and red.
Bannick said he likes the close observation that wildlife photography demands. That narrow focus has forced him to see more detail. And the basic task of locating the birds has forced him to learn about habitat.
Along the way, he has also learned things about the birds that no one seems to have known before. Take that little northern pygmy owl peering out of the hairy woodpecker's handiwork: Accepted wisdom held that the little owl — it's only about 5 inches long — hunted only little things, such as field mice and chickadees. But, staking out a next, Bannick “saw this pygmy owl with a hoary bat with a 15-inch wingspan, trying to stuff it into a cavity.” The bat was fighting to get free. The little bird won. It brought back little things, too, but it was willing to make exceptions. Later, Bannick saw it come back with a 15-inch green snake.
No one had seen hawk owls south of Canada, except for rare sightings in Minnesota, until Bannick encountered one in Glacier National Park. Now, he and others have seen them in Washington, as well. He says the owls, which hunt by sight, are attracted to open burn areas where they can perch on snags and survey a lot of ground. (They don't like fresh burns; they show up a few years later, when vegetation starts to grow again and rodents move in.)
He figures that generations of fire suppression, coupled with salvage logging after fires got out of control, may have kept them away. More burns (and less salvage logging) mean more habitat, which may be why the owls have showed up here again. How adapted to burns are they? Bannick told me he had seen owlets running along a charred log in a burned area, flapping their wings and learning to fly.
Unlike the northern spotted owl — which, famously, needs old-growth conifers — many owls prosper in burns or rangeland, or along the edges, where open land and forests meet. Bannick said he once told an expert he wanted to see burrowing owls in an undisturbed environment. There are no burrowing owls in undisturbed environments, the expert said. Bannick says he realizes that's an exaggeration, but the point is clear: Burrowing owls do better when, say, grazing sheep or cattle keep the grass short. And other owls do just fine in or at the edges of traditional working landscapes — not strip malls, but range or farms.
Washington has more owl species than any other state except Arizona, with which it's tied for number one. And the area of northern Washington, for which Conservation Northwest is pushing a Columbia Highlands Initiative, probably has the highest owl density in the state. The Columbia Highlands project would create new wilderness and other protected areas, accelerate thinning of some forests, and preserve existing ranches. The mix of undisturbed and thinned forests, trees and open grazing lands would be good for most of the owls, Bannick said.
One picture at the Burke shows a pileated woodpecker with its characteristic prehistoric-looking red crest blasting horizontally out of her tree-trunk-cavity nest. Bannick's book describes the pileated as the continent's largest woodpecker, and the northern flicker as number two. I said that implied he didn't believe the reports that people had sighted even larger ivory-billed woodpeckers — long thought extinct — in the southeastern woods. No, he said. He'd love to believe that ivory bills were still around, but he doubts they are.
The pileated woodpecker excavates even larger cavities than the northern flicker, providing homes for northern hawk owls and other large critters. Conservation Northwest has worked with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, and a number of other agencies to reintroduce fishers — think of them as small wolverines or big weasels — to the Olympic Mountains. (Washington's fisher populations were largely trapped out around the turn of the 20th century. These new fishers came from British Columbia.) In choosing specific areas for the fishers, Bannick says, one criterion was the presence of pileated woodpeckers. The big woodpeckers excavate the cavities in which fishers live.
I described some of this conversation about interconnectedness later that same day to a friend who grew up in India. Of course, my friend said. Why should anyone be surprised? Growing up in a Hindu culture, the idea of interrelatedness — and the complementary idea that human beings aren't all that special — had been drilled into him from an early age. Years ago, when he moved to Seattle and learned more about Northwest, he had been impressed by how similar the native cultures' world view was.
But of course, that is not the prevailing world view in 21st-century America. Most people have to learn about those relationships from scratch. Or not.
Bannick hopes his images will help get them interested. One of his photographs shows a barred owl, one of the hardy generalists that has made its way across the continent from the other coast and is now displacing the iconic northern spotted owl from the old-growth habitat that has been preserved after so much political and legal conflict. I suggested that the whole saga of the barred owl was pretty depressing. Bannick agreed. It's depressing, but . . . “Most people in Seattle will never see an owl” of any other species, he suggested. “But they may see a barred owl.” Maybe that will pique their curiousity.
“Owls are mysterious,” he said. “People want a story” to explain their presence. He hopes he can start the story with a bit of solid information. Then, he can “let them finish the story.”