Rare snowy owl flies over Washington and thrills crowds
WASHINGTON (AP) – A snowy owl apparently visiting iconic buildings in the nation’s capital captivates bird watchers who manage to spot the rare and resplendent visitor to the Arctic.
Away from its summer breeding grounds in Canada, the snowy owl was first sighted on January 3, the day a winter storm dumped eight inches of snow on the city.
Since then, it has been spotted in the evening flying over Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, landing on Union Station, the National Postal Museum, various Senate buildings, and the Capitol Police Headquarters.
At the end of last week, about three dozen people in thick coats pointed their binoculars at the soccer-sized bird with bright yellow eyes as it perched on the stone head of Archimedes, a famous ancient Greek mathematician, sculpted above the entrance to the station.
The Night Hunter appears to be targeting the abundant rat population in the city’s downtown core.
“Snowy owls come from a part of the world where they see almost nothing human, the open arctic tundra completely devoid of trees,” said Scott Weidensaul, researcher at the nonprofit SNOWStorm project, who follows the movements of snowy owls.
Some owls migrate south out of the Arctic each winter, but their numbers fluctuate, he said. About every three to five years, a peak in the population of lemmings, their primary food source, results in more surviving owl chicks. During these “irruption” years, more birds migrate and migrate further.
Most winters, North American snowy owls don’t descend much below the Great Lakes or Cape Cod region, Weidensaul said.
However, “during the years of irruption, they tend to go further south than they usually would,” he said. “A lot of the snowy owls we see now in the East and Upper Midwest are young birds, on their first migration. “
On eBird, a non-profit platform used by bird watchers, snowy owls have been reported this winter in Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina and Maryland.
Since its first appearance, the Capitol Hill owl has attracted a few dozen bird watchers every night in the hopes of spotting the same species of owl that conveys messages to Harry Potter.
Viewers have included new bird watchers and those who have been doing so for decades, like Swiss Ambassador to the United States Jacques Pitteloud, many hoping for a “life sentence” – the first time a bird watcher has seen a particular bird.
Last Thursday, the owl perched on a bronze eagle atop a flag pole. Then it flew away, its 5-foot white wingspan silhouetted against the inky night sky, to land on a large stone globe held by sculpted birds, forming part of an ornate fountain.
Ambassador Pitteloud took his camera tripod and ran into the grass for a better view. When later posting on Facebook, the 50-year-old veteran ornithologist wrote: “Union Station superstar! Snowy Owl, a life sentence for me in a very, very unlikely setting!
Kerry Snyder, who lives in Washington, has been avid birdwatching during the pandemic. “It has been a great way to connect with people outside when it was the safest place to be,” she said.
She reminded other viewers not to use flash photography or get too close to the owl, lest the bird feel surprised or threatened – good practice for viewers observing a bird of prey.
Scientists consider snowy owls to be “vulnerable” to extinction and estimate the total world population to be less than 30,000 birds.
Weidensaul said threats to snowy owls include urban dangers – in particular, vehicle collisions and poisons used to kill prey like rats, which can also kill raptors – as well as climate change.
“The climate is changing more drastically in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth,” he said, which could make sightings like this even rarer. In parts of the Arctic, thinning ice is already reducing the number of years of expansion for lemmings.
After decades of studying snowy owls, Weidensaul still feels in awe: “It’s a piece of the arctic in downtown DC – you’re not going to see a polar bear walking past the White House. “