Nature photographer lives a year with the owls of North America

A family of Barn Owls peer from the entrance of their nest in a cliff-side cave.

Perhaps no other creature inspires a more instinctual and visceral connection with human beings than owls.

Silent, predatory masters of the night, owls return our curious gaze from within their darkened roosts with an enigmatic and confident stare, one that does not so much sparkle with a hint of intelligence as it blazes with seemingly otherworldly wisdom. They do not flinch.

Owls are secretive and alluring. They’re also really popular, with their visage gracing trendy clothing, merchandise, housewares and even our very skins owls reportedly being one of the most popular animal subjects in the tattoo world.

And it’s not a recent infatuation, either.

“If you look throughout human history there has not been a culture or people that have had an ambivalence toward owls,” said renowned nature photographer Paul Bannick, whose latest book, “Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls,” follows four of the 19 species that call this continent home as they move from one seasonal rite to another throughout a single year and amid changing conditions.

“Owls always elicit deep feelings, and I think it’s a combination of the familiar and the mysterious.”

The awesome avians are familiar, Bannick said, because they kind of look like us. We can’t help but anthropomorphize the owl, what with their expressive, forward-looking eyes and relatively flat faces.

“They remind us of ourselves,” he explained. “Baby humans have large heads, large eyes. Owls also have large heads and large eyes. So part of me wonders if it isn’t a paternal or maternal instinct that they get our attention.”

But the winged denizens of the dark are also quite mysterious.

“Owls linger,” the photographer said. “They appear at times that scare us and I think that gives us a sense that they’re supernatural. That they’re fearless or that they’re all knowing or even from another world.”

They’re not, of course. Owls are as intricately tied to their environment as any other animal perhaps even more so. And that’s the point of Bannick’s book, the follow-up to his acclaimed, “The Owl and the Woodpecker.”

“There is a message the owl invites us to pay attention to, but it’s not a simple message,” Bannick said.

Though all 19 of the owl species that were here when Europeans first arrived are still here today, many are currently suffering precarious declines due to habitat destruction, agricultural conversion, timber harvesting and salvage logging. That may not be a surprise, but as Bannick learned during his year with the owls, the solutions are not as drastic as many would think either.

“In one hand it’s not simple, [but] in the other hand it does not require as much sacrifice as people expect,” he said. “It just requires knowing what they need at what time of the year and then we can live with them.

“I think part of the message I want to get across is that in today’s world conservationists have to include hunters, fishers and forestry,” he added. “We have to be willing to welcome parts of those camps among us as allies in our efforts to conserve the biodiversity and the ecosystems in the Northwest and on the planet.”

Conservation purists, the photographer said, are not a broad enough base to affect true change and they, “often don’t recognize some of the realities of living in the modern world.”

It’s no longer a question of hippies vs. loggers in the arena of environmentalism. Collaboration is the order of the newly dawning day. That collaboration, and other lessons Bannick learned studying the owls of North America as well as a whole bunch of images which offer viewers a peek into the lives of the world’s wisest birds will take center stage when Bannick visits the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art auditorium at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct 30.

Seating is limited, though the event is free and open to the public. Those who preorder or buy the book from Eagle Harbor Book Company at the door will receive priority seating. Others will be allowed in on a first-come, first-served basis as long as seats are available.

Visit www.eagleharborbooks.com to learn more and to purchase.

“The primary focus of the book is following the owl through four seasons and seeing how in each season it struggles to reach the next step,” Bannick said.

“From courtship and nesting to raising young and leaving the nest and gaining independence, to surviving through competing with other animals and the elements in the winter, each owl in North America faces different challenges in each of these stages and those challenges really define the critical elements of habitat we need to consider as we live alongside owls.”