For about a month now, a snowy owl has been spending its daytime hours on several rooftops in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. Prior to that, there were sightings of the iconic bird in West Seattle and Burien.
The bright white plumage and striking yellow eyes of these birds make them one of the most easily recognized owls in North America. Yet, they’re also the most misunderstood. That’s according to award-winning nature photographer Paul Bannick, who lives in Seattle. His latest book, ”SNOWY OWL: A Visual Natural History,” documents how the owls nest, hunt and breed in the Arctic tundra.
In this interview, Bannick describes his experience capturing images of rarely seen behaviors and mating rituals in the Arctic – and how the sound of a territorial male was the clue that helped lead him to key scenes in the book. He also talks about the rare visits of snowy owls to cities of the Pacific Northwest, such as the current visit in Seattle.
"It's a gift. Because through that owl, more people are going to be curious about the natural world around them and about the Arctic tundra, which so much needs our concern and attention right now," Bannick says. And he says seeing one in the city is also rare. Coastal sightings are more common.
"In more than 20 years that I've been studying owls in North America, this is only the fourth time that I can remember having a snowy owl in Seattle."
The birds come in years when their populations boom, typically when there's an abundance of lemmings, which they prey on. The owls perch atop buildings near wide-open expanses so that they get sightlines for hunting that are similar to what they would have on the mounds where they nest in the Arctic tundra.
Bannick says it was a snowy owl in Bellevue that he saw when he was a kid that got him hooked on the birds and the way they represent the need to protect their unique habitats – in order to protect the birds themselves.
He hopes the experiences that many in the Seattle area are having during this rare sighting will stick with them the same way.
"It's interesting that in the Harry Potter books and movies, the owl is a messenger. And to me, owls truly are messengers, because when they give us that opportunity to see them, those opportunities cause awe and inspiration to us," Bannick says.
"We protect what we love, and we love what we know. And my hope is this owl sitting on that house in Queen Anne will create the desire of many to know it, to love it, protect it and its home."