UW Today

March 30, 2011

Owl, woodpecker photo exhibit tells of symbiosis, conservation at Burke Museum

News and Information

A Great Gray Owl flies within inches of Paul Bannick's camera without making a sound.

Photographer Paul Bannick stands among his extraordinary photographs of woodpeckers and owls, now on display at the Burke Museum, and energetically tells of one owl subject he almost didnt get — but which got him.

It was morning in Seattles Discovery Park. Hed been there for hours waiting for a barred owl, even calling for it with owl-like hoots, but to no avail.

“I have my flash and my big lens and my tripod and all this gear, and Ive been tromping through the park since early morning or late in the night. Nothing! So Im taking off my gear and getting ready to go, and — smack! — it smacks me in the head!”  A few seconds later, he set up again and got the shot he wanted.

At left, a female Northern Pygmy-Owl pops out from the depths of her cavity to trade calls with her mate outside. At right, Hairy Woodpecker excavates a cavity in a quaking aspen tree that will later become home to an owl.

At left, a female Northern Pygmy-Owl pops out from the depths of her cavity to trade calls with her mate outside. At right, Hairy Woodpecker excavates a cavity in a quaking aspen tree that will later become home to an owl.Paul Bannick

Bannick is at the Burke helping to set up the new exhibit The Owl and the Woodpecker, which is based on his 2008 book of the same name. The exhibit, which comprises 25 large-format framed color prints, will be on display at the Burke Museum through Aug. 7. Along the walls are his striking views of the two species that tell of the unique symbiosis they share.

“My objective is to take photos that capture behavior people would otherwise not see, and to create a sense of intimacy,” Bannick says. “Because we cannot value what we dont love and if we cant have the intimacy, we dont feel the love.”

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl chicks await their return to the nest box after being banded and weighed as part of a long-term research project.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl chicks await their return to the nest box after being banded and weighed as part of a long-term research project.Paul Bannick

Bannick definitely feels that love. He talks with affection about the “avid drumming” of the woodpeckers and eerie call of the owl, which are to him “the voice of the day and the voice of the night.” And even as he talked, the “hoo-hoos!” of owls and the quick rattle of woodpeckers at work sounded in the room, and audio background to the exhibit.

Owls are “indicator species,” he explains, meaning that they rely on the most sensitive aspects of habitat, “and so can be a barometer for us to measure that habitat.” Woodpeckers, on the other hand, are “keystone” species, or ones that alter the habitat for the benefit of other species. Thats where their connection with owls comes in.

“Essentially, the primary challenge for owls is that owls dont create nests, owls rely on other creatures to create their nests.” So they often inhabit cavities created by woodpeckers. The relationship is told in one striking photo of a Northern Pygmy-Owl peering out from a tree cavity likely created by a woodpecker. “That cavity is the perfect size and shape for the pygmy owls face to fill the entrance so that it can call for food but not so big that a predators going to be able to reach in” to attack.

Photographer Paul Bannick had a successful 15-year career in the software industry before turning his attention to photography and nonprofit work. He's now director of development for Conservation Northwest, dedicated to protecting wild areas from the Pacific Coast to the Canadian Rockies.

Bannick says wildlife photography involves bringing together three disciplines. First is the science, “understanding the animals enough so you can become a natural part of their lives and anticipate their behavior.” Then there is art, “so you understand whats going to be a pleasing image.” Third is technology, which he says, despite many years in the computer software industry, “is the part that comes least naturally to me.”

In addition to the photos, The Owl and the Woodpecker also features text descriptions of each bird pictured, written by Bannick, and several thematic text panels that highlight conservation issues affecting owl and woodpecker habitats across North America. Also on display are bird specimens from the Burke ornithology collection and an interactive study space called the Education Nest for students.

Throughout the exhibit and book is the underlying theme of conservation and of the interconnectedness of species who at first seem so different. Owls are innately mysterious, Bannick says. “What I am trying to do is present the mysteries and show parts of the answers in the stories — but a lot of the answers we have to fill in ourselves. And I think through filling in those answers we become stewards.”

For more information about the Burke Museum and its programs visit online.

  • Birds at the Burke: The museum will offer a day of talks and presentations devoted to the birds of Washington State from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, April 17. Learn more online.