Birdwatchers flock for glimpse of snowy owl in US capital
The appearance of a snowy owl in Washington DC, much further south than its usual habitat, has proven a magnet for birdwatchers
Far from its summer breeding grounds in Canada, the snowy owl was first seen in Washington DC on Jan 3, the day a winter storm dumped eight inches of snow on the city.
he white dome of the U.S. Capitol shines through the night, illuminating a small group huddled down the hill, bundled tightly against the winter cold and carrying long-lens cameras and binoculars.
The motley crew are not there to photograph Washington’s famous monuments, they have their sights set on a rare creature that flew in from the Arctic: A snowy owl. “There he is!” shouts one of the birdwatchers. The crowd shifts positions to get a better angle. “It’s amazing,” says an enthused Meleia Rose, 41. “I’ve been a birder a long time and this is my first time every seeing a snowy owl.”
Birdwatching, or birding as it is also known, is a popular pastime in the United States, with hobbyists typically hiking through forests or camping in rural areas to spot different species of birds.
So the majestic owl’s appearance a week ago in the city, much further south than its usual habitat, has proven a magnet.
“You can see the Capitol,” said Rose, wrapped in a big winter coat and accompanied by her partner. “It’s arresting to have the contrast, the wildness with the city, but especially DC where it’s so ... monumental and iconic.”
The couple, who hired a babysitter for the special occasion, got a good look at the rare bird, allowing them to mark “snowy owl” off their “life list,” a catalogue of every bird they’ve seen.
Users had pinpointed the snowy owl near Union Station, a bustling transportation hub just down the road from the Capitol, where a line of taxis curls around a grassy park, crisscrossed with walkways and spotted with tents set up by the homeless.
At the center of the park, on top of a marble fountain, a pair of yellow eyes peer out, searching for an evening snack, most likely one of the capital’s countless rats.
One recent visitor was none other than Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States and a passionate birdwatcher.
“The snowy owl has been on my list a long time,” Pitteloud told AFP. “But it’s truly extraordinary to see it in the middle of Washington DC. She was truly the superstar of Union Station!”
With broad white wings, these “birds of snow and ice” are “like a creature from another world,” explained Kevin McGowan, a professor with Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.
Snowy owls live a good part of the year near the Arctic Circle, but most migrate south for the winter, usually stopping near the U.S. border with Canada.
Its visit so far south to Washington is “like having a polar bear coming by your neighborhood,” said McGowan.
“Snowy owls are such a charismatic bird,” noted Scott Weidensaul, the co-leader of Project SNOWstorm, a group that researches and tracks snowy owls. “And particularly for birdwatchers in the Washington DC area where it is an unusual event to see one down there. You know, that’s a big deal.”
With their parents pointing the way, a small group of children attempt to catch a glimpse of the bird, which some may even recognize as kin to “Hedwig,” the snowy owl companion to Harry Potter in the cult book and movie series.