A snowy owl apparently touring iconic buildings of the nation's capital is captivating birdwatchers who manage to get a glimpse of the rare, resplendent visitor from the Arctic. Far from its summer breeding grounds in Canada, the snowy owl was first seen on January 3, the day a winter storm dumped eight inches of snow on the city. Since then, it’s been spotted in the evenings flying around Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood, landing on Union Station, the National Postal Museum, various Senate buildings, and Capitol Police headquarters, the AP reports. Late last week about three dozen people in thick coats trained their binoculars on the football-sized bird with bright yellow eyes as it perched on the stone head of Archimedes, a famous ancient Greek mathematician, carved above the train station entrance.
The nocturnal hunter appears to be targeting the city’s plentiful downtown rat population. "Snowy owls are coming from a part of the world where they see almost nothing human, from completely treeless open Arctic tundra," says Scott Weidensaul, a researcher at nonprofit Project SNOWStorm, which tracks snowy owl movements. Some owls migrate south out of the Arctic every winter, but the number fluctuates, he says. About every 3 to 5 years, a spike in the population of lemmings, their chief food source, results in a larger number of surviving owl chicks. In those "irruption" years, more birds migrate and head farther south.
"A lot of the snowy owls we’re seeing now in the East and Upper Midwest are young birds, on their first migration," he says. "In these irruption years, they tend to go farther south than they usually would." After decades studying snowy owls, Weidensaul still feels awe: "This is a piece of the Arctic in downtown DC—you’re not going to see a polar bear walking in front of the White House," he says. The onlookers have included new birdwatchers and those who have been doing it for decades, like Swiss ambassador to the US Jacques Pitteloud. Many are hoping for a “lifer"—the first time a birdwatcher has seen a particular bird. (Read more owls stories.)