Rare Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl chicks sit on limb in southern Texas near the Rio Grande river. In spite of their size, they’re known to take down animals larger than themselves.
Rare Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl chicks sit on limb in southern Texas near the Rio Grande river. In spite of their size, they’re known to take down animals larger than themselves.
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Paul Bannick received late word that an explosion of Great Gray Owls was spotted flying across Northern Minnesota. It was a random event and rare opportunity to document the birds, so he hastily got on a plane and flew to Minneapolis. When he got there, he found another surprise.

The cold.

The mercury had dropped out of the thermometer at 30 degrees below zero, and to get a good picture of the majestic owls, the nature photographer, who lives in Magnolia, would have to trudge in predawn darkness through thigh-high drifts of snow, get out and assemble his equipment and then sit. And sit and sit. He waited, unmoving, in the stinging snow for more than four hours, gradually losing sensitivity in his toes and fingers.

The moment is documented in his new book, "The Owl and the Woodpecker" for which he is currently on a West Coast signing and lecture tour. Bannick writes: "From that moment on I struggled to hold my arms up and my finger poised in the fierce cold. To poise my finger, my whole hand had to be exposed to the icy wind-how could a finger feel so heavy?"

A Great Gray Owl did appear and Bannick summoned his strength and snapped pictures. For weeks after, all of his toes were numb. Two toes remained numb for a year.

Bannick's book encapsulates two year's work, traveling with his Canon digitals to the Carolinas, down to the Mexican border at Texas and Arizona and as far north as the Boreal Forest in Manitoba and well into the Arctic tundra of Alaska. When Mountaineers Books agreed to publish his idea, Bannick set out for Barrow, Alaska, to take pictures of the tundra's yearly denizen the Snowy Owl. But he was worried about other residents, namely, polar bears. So he asked some locals if he'd be safe from the bears if he were to head out alone into the foggy tundra.

"Let the bear decide," a local Inuit told him. Unsatisfied, Bannick asked somebody else who told him, "It's up to the bear." Not exactly endorsements for a safe photo shoot. But Bannick went anyway and saw no bears. He did get some great shots of the Snowy Owl in its natural habitat. (He's also seen the Snowy Owl and several other owl varieties in Discovery Park).

"Most of the [Snowy Owl] pictures in the book are from that one trip," he said.

Bannick, 42, grew up, one of 13 kids, in Bellevue, and fondly remembers the days before the big city got big. The sound of birds and animals were everywhere. They excited him and he documented them through drawings. He saw birds, frogs and salamanders. But he wasn't much of an artist so he tried his hand at photography. His dad had been a communications guy at Boeing and used a camera all the time.

Bannick, a fourth-generation Seattleite (his great grandmother lived in Magnolia) worked at Microsoft and Adobe in the meantime, but wildlife and nature photography had always captivated his heart ever since grabbing the camera as a kid. He has since been published in magazines such as "Sunset" and "Seattle Northwest." He lives now within walking distance of Discovery Park, which he said is a feast of photographic opportunities.

"There's meadows, the shoreline, old-growth. I was drawn to the park," he said. "I spent five years trying to find the right place so I could walk to the park every day. That's what keeps me in Seattle. I'm glad we've kept it whole."

Bannick is now the development director for Conservation Northwest, an organization dedicated to protecting old growth forests and other wild areas along the coast of Washington and up to the British Columbia Rockies. The organization is co-sponsoring the book tour.

After the tour, Bannick will begin work on another book, the content of which he didn't disclose, except saying that it will take him to other places in the country.