Author and conservationist Paul Bannick is on a mission, and this is “the most exciting place in the world” to help fulfill it, he told a group of 16 people Saturday on a visit to Madera Canyon.

A former computer software manager from Seattle, Bannick is now a master bird photographer, conservationist and author seeking to help preserve natural habitats for generations to come and educate others about why that's important. He visits the area yearly to conduct research in Southeastern Arizona, but usually for spring migration. He was here now helping raise funds for Tucson Audubon Society work and promote his new book, “Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls,” an undertaking eight years in the making. It focuses on the four seasons, touching on all 19 North American species, with sidebars on stewardship and conservation issues.

He is the epitome of patience — one shot in the book took him 10 years to snare, that of a Great Gray Owlet leaping from its nest.

Southeastern Arizona, including Madera Canyon, is “an incredibly rich area for owls and woodpeckers” and is tied with Bannick's home state of Washington for hosting the richest diversity among woodpecker species. Of more than 20 in the United States, more than half live between there and Arizona.

Why? Transition habitat zones, for the Ladder-backed, Arizona Juniper, Hairy Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker and Acorn varieties, to name a few. All other things being equal, every 1,000 feet in elevation gain is the biological equivalent to moving 300 to 500 miles north, Bannick said, referencing a rule well-known in research circles.

The group in Madera Saturday got to hear a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, although a sighting was elusive.

It was possible but improbable to see any owls in the morning, Bannick said. While they're not exclusively nocturnal, they're mostly out in low light conditions when their prey are most active.

Ironically, the Arizona Woodpecker is the hardest to find here, as its brown color is easily camouflaged, and its call, almost silent, Bannick said.

Nicole Hamilton, visiting her father in Tucson from Virginia, said she has learned about key birding sites from experienced bird watchers and bird magazines.

"It's so important to know how special these places are," she said.

The bird walk and Bannick's presentation reinforced the canyon's value for David Cowan of Green Valley.

"I've encountered people at Madera from England who flew in for the day to view birds here," he said, noting he meets people from many countries there.

Years of research

Bannick is a wealth of information on owls, having searched them out for almost 20 years. Even when you're concentrating, they're difficult to spot.

“I didn't find a single owl the first year I looked,” he said. “If you want to see owls, learn about how they live,” their food, shelter and water sources.

Depending on the species, that can be underground, on the ground, on a platform such as trees or cliffs, or in cavities of trees, tree snags, fallen logs, cactus and other protective structures.

Bannick believes the key to preserving biological legacy is taking the long view of natural habitats, he said. In his day job at Conservation Northwest, a non-profit organization focused on connecting and protecting wild lands, Bannick researches lynx, grizzlies, gray wolves and more.

He picked Arizona as a frequent visitation site when he realized early on that he couldn't go everywhere. “So I chose places by the value of habitats and partners,” such as Tucson Audubon Society, whose work he supports and which helps get the message out of what TAS Resource Development Director calls “this incredible treasure.”

This is ground zero, the most biologically diverse, important place in the Southwest, Bannick said.

“A lot of us are drawn to nature because of the mystery. It's like love, when you first meet somebody, they're perfect, then you start to see the complexities.”

He is hopeful his work can help demystify it. Describing what it was like to select the photographs for his latest 223-page book from many thousands he's captured over the years, he laughs.

“My editor requested 400; I narrowed it down to 4,000.”

There's not that quite that many in the book, but those that are put you right there in the tree tops, trunk cavities, in flight and with the babies in their nests, views we'd rarely see otherwise. He saves others to freshen up each presentation he makes to audiences at festivals, conventions and fundraisers.

The book is “a place to start, and not the answers we get, it's the questions we ask,” Bannick said.

Kitty Bottemiller | 547-9732