“Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls,” by Paul Bannick of Seattle, is at once natural history, wildlife primer and love letter.
“You do not find owls,” writes Paul Bannick in his new book, “Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls.” Instead, “owls find you.”
Bannick, a Magnolia resident and “fourth-generation Seattleite,” is a wildlife photographer whose work has won many awards and appeared in numerous books (including his own previous book, “The Owl and the Woodpecker”), newspapers, magazines and calendars. And he’s long been captivated by owls.
“They’ve been with me my whole life,” he said, in an interview last week. As a child, he’d hear noises at night, “subtle sounds, almost like moans or the laughter of nature itself. I had no idea what they were — I thought all owls just went ‘hoo-hoo.’ ” But those sounds, the nighttime soundtrack of his childhood — “the cackles and the whistles and the bubbling sounds in the forest” — turned out to be owls.
The author/photographer of “Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls” will appear at 7 p.m. Oct. 26 at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; 206-652-4255 or townhallseattle.org. Tickets are $5 general; $35 for admission/reception; $40 admission/signed book; $65 admission/reception/signed book.
Just ask any kid who’s fascinated by Hedwig in the “Harry Potter” series, or by wise Owl from “Winnie-the-Pooh” — there’s just something about these wise-looking birds. Bannick, who’s now been watching and photographing owls for 15 years, has some ideas why: the distinctive voices, and the way that they remind us of ourselves — “the forward-facing eyes, the relatively flat face. In some ways, the exaggerated eyes and long flat head are like human young — almost instinctively, we feel protective of them.”
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But though owls seem familiar, “they also venture out into places and at times that scare us. That, I think, makes them both inspiring and ominous.”
For his new book, which came out in September from local publisher Mountaineer Books, Bannick wanted readers to begin to see and love owls as he does, and to be aware of conservation issues affecting them.
“We protect what we love, and we love what we know,” he said. “There are 19 species of owls in North America, and they are found in every habitat type except the alpine tundra. Every place they exist, there’s a conservation message, a message of stewardship. The future of owls is really in our hands.”
“Owl” features 200 beautiful color photographs of owls from all over the continent, taken across all four seasons. It’s the product of nearly a decade’s work. For most of the photos, Bannick said, he used a 600 mm lens with a 1.4 extender, and situated himself perhaps 30 to 60 yards away from the owls.
“I arrive before they arrive,” he said. “I set up a blind, I’ll wait in the blind, and I’ll let the owls come to me.”
Some of the photos are a result of immense patience. “I had very specific behaviors that I want to photograph, and some of them took me many years,” Bannick said. For example, a midflight shot of a short-eared owl performing a brash “sky dance” (a courtship display) took six years to capture — it’s a behavior performed at night, with “maybe two minutes” after sunset with enough light for a photograph.
Another shot, a striking image of a great gray owl fledgling leaving the nest with its wings spread wide, took 10 years to find just the right moment. “When they jump out of the nest, it’s usually in the dark — it’s safer for them,” Bannick said. “Even though I was there on many occasions, I wasn’t able to get them leaping from the nest toward me, which would allow for a photograph.” He finally captured the image last year, “on the last day that I could possibly take photos that could get into the book and still allow me to write.”
If Seattleites, inspired by the book, want to head out to see some owls for ourselves, Bannick says we needn’t go far: Barred owls — a medium-sized brown owl with a streaked breast, common to the Pacific Northwest — can be found in many of the city’s larger green spaces, such as Discovery Park or Seward Park. “They are fairly tolerant,” Bannick said of the species.
But still, caution is advised — don’t practice your owl imitations around the real thing. “Avoid the temptation to call owls,” Bannick said, “because No. 1, it’s not going to work very well, and No. 2, you risk interfering with their behavior.”
Amateur watchers should avoid looking for owls during the nest season (most species, Bannick said, nest between May and July), unless accompanied by professional researchers. Most owls are sensitive and “you could cause them to desert the nest.”
But even from the non-wild confines of an armchair, it’s easy to become captivated by the owls in Bannick’s book; their unruffled gazes peering out from the page. It’s at once natural history, wildlife primer and love letter.
“People always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite owl?’ ” Bannick said. “I always say ‘the last one I saw.’ ”