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New photography books document the lives of 2 mysterious owls

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: November 1, 2020
  • Published October 31, 2020

"Snowy Owl: A Visual Natural History,” by Paul Bannick

Mountaineers Books, 2020. 128 pages. $18.95

Great Gray Owl: A Visual Natural History,” by Paul Bannick

Mountaineers Books, 2020. 128 pages. $18.95

Who doesn’t love owls? We hear them softly hoo-hooing at night or catch a glimpse of silent flights at dawn. It’s always a thrill to encounter any one of the 10 species that inhabit Alaska.

Seattle photographer Paul Bannick has long been fascinated with owls and has traveled widely to study and photograph them. To accompany his previous owl books — "The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters with North America’s Most Iconic Birds” and “Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls” — he has now published volumes specific to two of the largest and most intriguing species native to our state. Although the two books are most impressive for their outstanding photographs, they incorporate natural history information, first-person accounts of the author’s owling experiences and sections on the birds' conservation statuses and what we can do to help.

’Snowy Owl: A Visual Natural History,” by Paul Bannick

Of the two species, snowy owls are perhaps the more mysterious and offered significant photographing challenges. As Bannick explains in his preface, he spent “tens of thousands of hours in the field in an effort to better understand these owls.” He made more than a dozen trips to the Arctic and photographed during all 12 months, dealing with frigid temperatures, wind, fog, technical difficulties and storms that kept him stuck in airports. His photographs include the birds at all ages and in multiple behaviors, from chicks in tundra nests to mature adults hunting, courting, roosting on graveyard crosses and wooden sleds, and in full flight. The portraits distinguish between males and (the larger, browner) females, capture details of feathers and feet, and showcase the birds' hypnotic yellow eyes. The final photo in the book, of a pure-white owl staring out from a pure-white background, is a stunner.

The photos also include the larger environments in which snowy owls live. We learn about their preference for nesting on tundra mounds, which are blown free of snow earlier than the surrounding land and serve as vantages for watching for predators, and their reliance on lemmings. We see them in altercations with jaegers, hawks, ravens and Arctic foxes and in proximity to other species that share their northern landscapes.

Some years large numbers of snowy owls migrate south of their usual territories in what are known as irruptions. Bannick discusses this phenomenon with attention to two recent irruptions, in 2011-12 and 2013-14; in the first the owls showed up in 35 states and all 10 Canadian provinces, and in the second in large numbers from New England to the Great Lakes. As he explains, these irruptions used to be thought to relate to cyclical declines in lemmings and the threat of starvation. Researchers now believe that the irruptions are more connected to prey abundance and breeding success, resulting in a surfeit of young-of-the-year moving south for the winter.

The second book, “Great Gray Owl,” follows a similar format, with equally fabulous photographs accompanied by natural history facts and Bannick’s own storytelling. Great grays inhabit a very different environment than snowy owls — dense forests with access to open edges like meadows for hunting voles and other small mammals. They nest on the tops of broken trees and in the stick nests of ravens and raptors. The young leave the nest before they’re able to fly, and they depend upon leaning trees and snags to climb their way, using beaks and claws, from the ground to heights where they can safely roost.

Great Gray Owl: A Visual Natural History,” by Paul Bannick

Among the fascinating facts about this species is their winter hunting technique. The great gray’s exceptional hearing — facilitated by a facial disk that concentrates and amplifies sound to asymmetrical ear openings — helps it hear prey under as much as 18 inches of snow. Several photos document face-first dives into snow, in which clenched feet are thrust forward at the last second. This technique, Bannick says, allows the owls “to break through snow and ice that could support the weight of a 180-pound person.” The same ability allows them to break through turf to reach prey beneath it.

Bannick makes a point in both books about his adherence to ethical photography practices. That is, he uses long lenses for close-up shots and does not interfere with the normal, natural behavior of his subjects. He does not use lure or bait, edit out unwanted elements from an image, or create composites. This is, as he says, “nature as it is rather than as we wished it appeared.”

The final sections of the books address the future for the species. In both cases, habitat loss, often connected to climate change, is the major concern. In the case of snowy owls, permafrost thaw and decreased snow depth threaten their main source of food — lemmings — and the loss of sea ice reduces their ability to hunt sea ducks in winter. The need of Great Gray Owls for mature forests with dead trees and snags is threatened by timber harvesting, forest thinning, and wildfire. Both species are considered indicator species; that is, their condition indicates the general health of their entire ecosystems.

To help these amazing animals continue to contribute to the world and our lives, Bannick urges that we not only act individually — as in protecting private properties where owls may live and avoiding rodent poisons — but be willing to advocate politically and economically.