Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Most Americans have not seen all of the 41 species of owls and woodpeckers that share the North American continent with us, but not only has Paul Bannick seen them all, but he has photographed them all, too. And when I say “photographed”, I am not talking about those blurry snapshots that most of us snap, but instead, his images are big, sharp, clear and .. for want of a better phrase, absolutely stunning. Fortunately for us, Bannick’s images and writings have been collected into a newly published book, The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters With North America’s Most Iconic Birds (Seattle: Mountaineers Books; 2008) that everyone can enjoy.

After a one page forward by artist Tony Angell, and an introduction containing the book’s backstory by the author, the reader’s eyes will quickly wander to the images, which are striking, beautiful and often dramatic. Some of my favorite images in this book include the male yellow-shafted flicker frozen in mid-air as he returns to his nest to feed his chicks (p. 11), a Northern pygmy-owl that is puffed out to seemingly impossible proportions (p. 56), a dramatic picture of a soaring short-eared owl (p. 96-97), a male gila woodpecker feeding on saguaro flowers (p. 104), a gorgeous red-headed woodpecker sitting near the top of a scorched tree limb (p. 127), a breeding pair of Eastern screech-owls that beautifully represent both the “rufous” and “grey” color phases (p. 134), and a yellow-bellied sapsucker clinging to the side of a tree while tracking the path of a wasp flying in to sample its sap wells (p. 146; pictured below);

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius.

Image: Paul Bannick [larger view].

This oversized 200 page volume is divided into chapters based on the eleven different habitat types that these two groups of birds occupy, ranging from Pacific coast urban and suburban habitat to Western oak woodlands, from Northeastern forests to arctic tundra — all of which include at least one spectacular photograph of the habitat itself. The book is printed on heavy semi-gloss paper that shows off the rich detail and almost surreal colors of the photographs. The images are large: none is smaller than half a page in size, so the reader enjoys astonishing looks at the fine details of plumage textures and coloring — you can even see avian eyelashes! In short, this is an amazing work of art. I have but one complaint: the editor did not restrict the images to either one page or print larger images on a fold-out page, so some pictures have a really ugly seam from the binding in the middle of some images.

But why did the author focus his attentions specifically on owls and woodpeckers? Besides being impressed with these birds from his youth, Bannick chose to photograph them because they are often indicator species in their habitats. Indicator species are dependent upon critical elements within their habitats and thus, are generally very sensitive to habitat degradation, so monitoring these species is an easy way to track of the overall health of the habitats that they occupy.

To photograph these species, Bannick became a devoted student of these birds, and his knowledge becomes evident as he writes about the complex and often subtle interrelationships between owls and woodpeckers and how these birds typically utilize their habitats. He also mentions how other species of birds benefit from the normal activities of owls and woodpeckers, and he features images of some of these species, such as a very cute brown-headed nuthatch, in his book, too. However, this book is not meant to be a detailed and exhastive natural history of his feathered subjects, rather, it is the story of the author’s relationship with the particular birds that he photographed, so we learn how he caputured many of these stunning images. Bannick’s informative yet informal first-person written narrative creates an easy intimacy with the reader that is often lacking in many other more formal bird books.

At the back of the book, there is a brief 8-page field guide to all the owl and woodpecker species that appear throughout the book accompanied by a thumbnail-sized image, followed by a short bibliography and a useful and thorough index. The book also includes a CD of owl and woodpecker vocalizations created by wildlife recordist, Martyn Stewart.

While this lovely volume can easily serve as a “coffee table book” based on the quality of the images alone, the text is more informative than that found in the average book of photography, so this book will inform and captivate bird and nature lovers, photographers, and fans of both owls and woodpeckers. Highly recommended.

Paul Bannick is an award-winning photographer who specializes in natural history imagery. An experienced naturalist and outdoor educator, Bannick creates many of his images while kayaking, hiking, or snowshoeing in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in numerous books and magazines, including The Seattle Times, Sunset magazine, and PhotoMedia, as well as on interpretive signs in both state and national parks throughout the West. Bannick has been a guest on NPR’s phenomenally popular “BirdNote” program. Currently the Director of Development for Conservation Northwest, Bannick lives in Seattle, Washington.

Comments

  1. #1 John Callender
    October 21, 2008

    Hm. Ivory-billed woodpecker shows up on a single page in the index, though the Amazon preview doesn’t let me view that page. But my guess is that Bannick hasn’t photographed one of those. So your statement that he’s photographed all the North American woodpecker species either means that you overlooked ivory-billed, or that you are in the camp that views the recent “rediscovery” as representing some combination of wishful thinking, dishonesty, and/or misidentified pileateds.

    I’m curious which it is. Not trying to start a rumble or anything; I’m just curious.

    Thanks.

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    October 21, 2008

    i think the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct.Bannick limited his photography to living birds, although he could have gotten permission to photograph the prepared IBWO specimens in the AMNH, i suppose. In fact, that might be the one thing he should have done to make an even more powerful statement with his book — contrasting the living and the forever dead.

  3. #3 RM
    October 21, 2008

    The Ivory-billed woodpecker sighting in Arkansas was a wishful sighting of a pileated woodpecker, in my opinion.

  4. #4 John Callender
    October 21, 2008

    Yeah, I think I’ve gradually come to the same (disappointed) conclusion. After initially resisting, I think Sibley et al probably have a point about the Luneau video, and the main sighting (from the canoe, that started all the excitement) I think can maybe be explained as a pileated doing one of those weird escape maneuvers I’ve seen a startled bird do sometimes, where it almost-instantaneously twists its body in mid-air, such that what looked like it should have been a dorsal view was actually a suddenly-twisted ventral view, with the leading-edge white on the ventral view of the pileated’s wing being misinterpreted by the startled observers as the traling-edge white of an ivory-billed’s dorsal view.

    I hope I’m wrong about that. But I suspect y’all are right, and the bird’s extinct.

  5. If any of your readers live in the NW, Paul will be touring with a slideshow of his striking images. Conservation Northwest is co-sponsoring a few to get the word out about our vital work to protect and connect wild areas: http://www.conservationnw.org/calendar. Come say hi!

    Great review; I highly recommend folks check out the book; it is lovely. I can attest that Paul is definitely dedicated to his passion and knows his stuff!

    Can’t say much about the existence of the ivory-billed.; one can only hope…and help save habitat :)

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