The snowy owl, apparently traveling through the iconic buildings of the country’s capital, charmed birdwatchers who managed to spot a rare, magnificent guest from the Arctic.
Away from their summer nests in Canada, the snowy owl was first seen on January 3, the day a winter storm poured eight inches of snow onto the city.
Since then, he has been spotted in the evenings, flying over the Capitol Hill area in Washington, DC, landing at Union Station, the National Postal Museum, various Senate buildings and the Capitol Police Headquarters.
Late last week, about three dozen people in thick coats pointed their binoculars at a soccer-ball-sized bird with bright yellow eyes, which sat on the stone head of Archimedes, the famous ancient Greek mathematician, carved above the station entrance.
The night hunter appears to be targeting the large rat population in the city center.
“Snowy owls come from a part of the world where they can barely see humans, from a completely treeless open arctic tundra,” said Scott Weidensoal, a researcher for the non-profit project SNOWStorm, which tracks the movements of snowy owls.
Some owls migrate south from the Arctic every winter, he said, but numbers fluctuate. Approximately every 3-5 years, a surge in the population of lemmings, their main food source, leads to an increase in the number of owl chicks surviving. In these “invasion” years, more birds migrate and fly away further.
For most of the winters, North American Snowy Owls do not descend much below the Great Lakes or Cape Cod region, Widenseal said.
However, “in years of invasion, they tend to go farther south than usual,” he said. “Many of the snowy owls we see now in the East and Upper Midwest are young birds on their first migrations.”
EBird, a non-profit platform used by bird watchers, reported snowy owls in Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina and Maryland this winter.
Since it was first seen, the owl on Capitol Hill has attracted dozens of bird watchers every night in hopes of spotting the same species of owl that delivers messages to Harry Potter.
Among the spectators were both new bird watchers and those who have been engaged in this for decades, for example, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, Jacques Pittelou. Many hope for a “lifelong” – the first time a birdwatcher sees a particular bird.
Last Thursday, the owl mounted a bronze eagle on a flagpole. It then took off, its 5-foot white wings silhouetted against the dark night sky, and landed on a large stone ball held by carved birds as part of an ornate fountain.
Pittelaud grabbed a camera tripod and ran across the grass for a better view. In a Facebook post, the 50-year-old veteran bird watcher wrote, “Union Station superstar! Snowy owl, my savior in a very, very unexpected environment! ”
Kerri Snyder, who lives in Washington, DC, said that she recently became an avid bird watcher. “I took up bird watching during the pandemic, which is a great way to communicate with people outdoors when it was the safest place.”
She reminded other viewers not to use the flash or get too close to the owl, lest the bird get scared or feel threatened – good practice for viewers watching any bird of prey.
Scientists consider snowy owls “vulnerable” to extinction and estimate the total world population at less than 30,000 birds.
Weydensall said threats to snowy owls include urban hazards such as vehicle collisions and poisons used to kill predatory animals like rats, which can also kill predators, as well as climate change.
“The climate in the Arctic is changing more dramatically than anywhere else on Earth,” he said, and this could make such observations even more rare. In parts of the Arctic, thinning ice is already cutting off boom years for lemmings.
After decades of studying snowy owls, Weidenseal is still in awe: “This is a slice of the Arctic in downtown DC – you won’t see a polar bear walking in front of the White House.”