By Caryn Schutzler
Seattle is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own unique flavor—from the Scandinavian enclave of Ballard to bustling South Lake Union, from funky Fremont to vibrant Columbia City, and everywhere in between. This is a series for the blog, Birding My Neighborhood, with volunteer, writer, and amateur photographer Caryn Schutzler. After her adventure in Seattle's Rainier View community, she heads to Magnolia to bird with award-winning author and wildlife photographer Paul Bannick.
I was walking in Discovery Park with naturalist, photographer, and author Paul Bannick—appropriately dubbed “The Owl Whisperer”—and he asked, “What are your hopes and expectations?” Within the park’s 534 acres and nearly 12 miles of trails, nestled between Elliot and Shilshole Bays, I naively assumed prospects would abound. It was hard not to imagine seeing at least one owl.
Perhaps my copy of Paul’s most recent book, OWL: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls, encouraged this optimistic imagining. Hopeful but realistic, I surmised we wouldn’t be able to cover much ground in an hour or two, so I said, “Let’s just walk and see what we see.”
Entering the park, I heard a Spotted Towhee’s che-wee—my good omen bird.
Hearing the incessant cawing of crows our pace quickened trying to locate a culprit instigating the ruckus. But as soon as we arrived the crows began to depart. Paul thought there might have been an owl or raptor in the cedar being harassed by the crows, but that would have been, well ... just too perfect.
As we padded along, Paul told me, "I am less of a birder and more of a naturalist who tries to make art to motivate conservation.” And, indeed, he finds art in the forest. Paul said on weekly jaunts through Discovery, only five-minutes from his home in the Magnolia neighborhood, he is looking for photographic opportunities. Sometimes he’ll hike up to twenty miles and not see anything worthy of a photograph. But he also said he rarely has expectations.
Farther down the fern and snowberry-flanked trail I heard Song Sparrows. Seeing a pair in the tangle, I noticed one with leg bands. Hoping for a photo, Paul kindly set up his camera, but they disappeared.
We stayed there beneath husky Bigleaf Maple and lichen-encrusted alder releasing their few remaining leaves. Overlooking the treed meadow, a golden carpet at our feet, the gray day seemed brighter—and quieter. “Deeper in the forest, further from the city,” Paul said in nearly a whisper, “the sounds of nature will dominate.”
Joggers and dog-walkers passed by. When a pair of Brown Creepers caught my eye, Paul said, “Your creepers!” remembering I’d mentioned it’s one of my favorite birds. We watched them twirl around the trunk to the base of the tree and skitter back up, inspecting the bark for their morning arthropods. Zipping away before either of us could snap a photo Paul quipped, “Once you see them, they’re gone.”
Hearing the unexpected call of a loon, I tilted my head, trying to find it. Grinning, Paul said, “It’s me!”
Much less a distraction than blaring wild rock tunes or chiming bells, his phone’s ringtone plays native birdcalls more suited to the environment. When it “rings” Paul said it’s sent many a birder in his proximity in search of an owl or loon convinced they are hearing a real bird. But Paul offers a cautionary reminder: “Never use apps during nesting or courtship or in places where many others are likely doing the same thing.”
Still at the same place, two women stopped, curious what we were doing. Both interested in birds, one shared photos of a Cooper’s Hawk who shows up occasionally on her deck.
Almost like two trees, I felt like we were elements in our surroundings. In his book, Paul says, “Wildlife photography has taught me to slow down and pay greater attention—to learn about each plant and animal I encounter and what each needs to survive...I understand that even if species share that same landscape, each has unique needs within that common landscape.”
I asked Paul what he finds unique about his Magnolia neighborhood. He answered simply, “the diversity.” He explained that this older urban park offers meadow, wetland and marine habitats with possibilities to see (or of seeing?) loon, osprey, and owls all within close proximity. Often working from home, Paul said, “I am pleasantly surprised by annual visits of Pileated Woodpecker, Western Tanager, Bullock's Oriole and was enchanted to have a Snowy Owl on my street.”
Though Paul offers sunflower seed and suet, he’s planted tapestry-style hedging woven of evergreen huckleberry, pacific wax myrtle and tall Oregon grape. A mosaic of native trees and shrubs including red-flowering currant, mahonia, snowberry, thimbleberry, and hemlock provides food and shelter. He once saw a Great Blue Heron visit his three ponds.
Enjoying the quiet, Paul told me he has seen and photographed several species of owl in Discovery Park, including Northern Saw-whet, Barred, Long-eared, Great Horned, Barn and to his delight a Snowy Owl, but emphasized they are not a daily occurrence. Even the most common Barred Owl is only seen every 10-20 visits.
Here are a few of his striking owl images:
Still at our same spot, we heard the bubbly trill of a Pacific Wren and spotted it darting in and out of leaf-speckled ferns. Then, this tiniest of wrens lit on a mossy log just a few feet from us and stood motionless and silent, as if waiting.
I was thrilled—and grateful—Paul captured this endearing photo of our mighty Lilliputian, tail erect, an exclamation point on this extraordinary moment! I even think I can see us reflected in that mirror of an eye.
Having walked less than a mile, Paul told me we saw more than he’s experienced on many longer treks. Had we wandered any farther down the trail, we would probably have missed seeing the wren. But what else might we have encountered? It is impossible to know.
We may not have seen an owl, but my good omen towhee revealed much more. Spending time with Paul in his neighborhood, I was reminded we are all part of a common landscape. And I understood that without expectations sometimes other moments of synchronicity—right time, right place—offer us a startling glimpse of nature staring back at us—perhaps with an upright tail. Sometimes all we need to do is stand still.