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Originally published March 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 2, 2009 at 11:04 AM

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From owls and woodpeckers, an indication of our future, and inspiration to fix it

Seattle photographer Paul Bannick, in his new book "The Owl and The Woodpecker," offers both an indication of our ecological future and the inspiration for changing it.

About this story

The following piece is excerpted from the introduction to "The Owl and the Woodpecker," by Paul Bannick (The Mountaineers Books, $24.95).
Paul Bannick will talk about his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, at the Seattle Public Library, Central Branch, the Microsoft Auditorium; 1000 Fourth Ave.; 206-386-4636.

For information about other events and author appearances, see www.paulbannick.com.

While teaching a snowshoeing-navigation class one winter afternoon in Washington's Cascade Mountains, I decided to investigate a silver fir at the edge of a forest opening. Prying back a heavy, prickly branch, I stepped inside the skirt of the tree and saw a pair of bright yellow eyes staring at me from the catlike face of a small brown owl. My heart raced; I did not know what to do. I felt almost giddy to see a creature from my dreams, at eye level, his face less than three feet from my own.

As I moved closer, the owl's eyes grew wider and his body lengthened. What species was he? Would he attack? Would he flush and be eaten by a raven or hawk? Why was he here?

I thought I should leave him alone, but first I tried to commit to memory every distinctive feature — the triangular white eyebrows, the soft, cream-colored streaks, the golden eyes and the sharp talons — before carefully backing out on my snowshoes. I nudged the branch back around the tree and opened a new chapter in my nature pursuits.

I would never venture into the wilds again without my camera.

I later learned that what I had seen was a northern saw-whet owl. This bird was the first new species of owl I had seen since I was a young boy. Back then, I had found the diversity of life in the fields, willow thickets, ponds and streams near my suburban Pacific Northwest home fascinating. Discovering and learning about a species that was new to me provided my greatest joy and inspiration.

While walking or running home after observing animals, I tried to remember their key markings and behaviors so I could identify and read about them. When my efforts to memorize features proved unreliable, I tried drawing the critters, and even went to the extreme of housing them in cages and aquariums, observing their behaviors while studying them in every book I could find.

I was simultaneously saddened to see that much of the land on which I was finding these creatures was being bulldozed. I wondered if the development might be halted if people became aware of the wildlife living there. I showed my drawings to anyone who would pay attention, expressing my concerns about the destruction of the animals' habitats, but I felt that my hand-drawn pictures weren't compelling enough to motivate people to take action.

Photography seemed like a better option, so when I was 12, I began using a camera instead of drawing to show people my favorite animals and places, hoping that someday my images might inspire protection of wild lands and wild creatures.

Birds were a big draw for me. While watching them in the field or at our backyard feeder, I wondered why I saw specific birds in certain seasons, where they came from, and what made their times of arrival so unpredictable. Flickers and downy and hairy woodpeckers drew my undivided attention. I loved the flashes of red feathers, the maniacal calls and the demonstrative drumming.

On the other hand, owls were enigmas, with mystifying nocturnal lives and spirit-like calls.

The first owl I ever saw, a snowy owl, appeared and disappeared quickly and without warning. To me, owls and woodpeckers were dramatic, mysterious and distinctive, inspiring both deeply felt emotion and quiet contemplation. In short, they were nature's poetry.

While perusing my field guides, I would pause at pages of owls and woodpeckers, and marvel at the variety of their colors, shapes and sizes, while daydreaming about what it would be like to find some of them.

In my imagination, the colored areas depicted on maps to show their distributions had to be the wildest, most wonderful places. At the time, I could not imagine getting to those locales or actually seeing the birds. But the seeds of a journey had been planted.

I have since developed my photography and learned more about traveling in the wild. I took up backpacking, snowshoeing, sea kayaking and navigation to get me to remote places where I could observe new animals. I learned to identify native plants and their habitats, and compared topographic maps with distribution maps to locate specific plants and animals. Until five years ago, amphibians were my primary focus — I had observed only four species of woodpeckers and had had brief glimpses of only two owl species. That all changed when I encountered that Northern saw-whet.

As often happens when I discover a new animal, I began to research intensively — first owls, then woodpeckers — and I realized I might be able to photograph the birds I had marveled at in my youth. By studying the needs of individual species and talking with knowledgeable folks, I learned to identify habitats, as well as the time of year, time of day and locations where each might be found.

In 2005 I upgraded my photo equipment and began a quest to photograph every species of owl and woodpecker in the West. In my research, I noticed how the habitat requirements of birds often included the most unique and threatened components of their environments. Then I learned that many woodpeckers and owls are considered indicator species, a species that is dependent upon critical elements of a natural system and is the species most sensitive to degradation of those elements. Because of this, the health of an indicator species population can be used to monitor the health of a natural system. Realizing this, I broadened my mission to photograph all the woodpeckers and owls of North America in hopes of drawing attention to the challenges facing these birds and their ecosystems. I explored the continent habitat by habitat, using most of my weekends and vacations to do so.

In my travels, I photographed at the very first and very last light of day, when the light was best and most of the birds were most active. I sometimes stayed up all night, taking photos until the early hours of the morning.

I strove to capture a sense of intimacy with my subjects without disturbing them or changing their behavior. Sometimes I spent hours moving inch by inch into the right position while I watched a bird's behaviors, movements and the path of the sun. Once at my ideal location, I often waited hours for the right moment. Many of my photo trips did not yield any worthwhile images, but I always gained knowledge about the birds, their habitats or my photographic technique.

While studying owls and woodpeckers, I have been struck by the diversity within these two iconic groups and the ways in which their presence both defines and enriches their habitats. The owl adds weight and spirit to wild places, and is an apical species, requiring healthy populations of many species of plants and animals beneath it in its food web to survive. The woodpecker infuses bright colors and boisterous sound to the landscape, while serving as a keystone bird in that, relative to its abundance, it exerts a disproportionately large influence on the structure and function of its ecosystem.

These two bird groups are linked by the fact that more than half of the owl species in North America rely in some part upon woodpeckers for their nest cavities. Almost all the continent's terrestrial habitats host an owl, a woodpecker or both, and in some complex landscapes several species of each can be found. It is understandable, then, why owls and woodpeckers have been studied and even revered as icons by many individuals and peoples, from Great Plains tribes to explorer Meriwether Lewis to the Inupiat of the Arctic.

But these birds also serve a practical role in humans' lives as natural pest-control agents. Most owls feed on rodents, including rats and mice that might otherwise consume crops or invade homes. Woodpeckers and some owls consume prodigious quantities of insects, including such banes of homeowners as carpenter ants and termites, as well as adult and larval beetles and moths that wreak havoc on certain trees and forests.

My goal with the photographs and writing in this book is to increase awareness of these birds and their habitats, which in many cases are at risk. I hope the images and narrative presented in this book will inspire appreciation for the diversity of North America's owls and woodpeckers and for the extent to which they depend upon one another and the other animals and plants of each habitat.

Information in this article, originally published March 1, 2009, was corrected March 2, 2009. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Paul Bannick is speaking Thursday, March 11, 2009. The correct date is Wednesday, March 11.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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