Sunday, January 26, 2014

LOOK FOR: Snowy Owls

I think I passed into a new realm of birder geekdom yesterday. I went out specifically looking for a single bird. And I have to say, it was pretty cool when it actually worked.

snowy owl at Reagan National Airport
Snowy owl at Reagan National Airport by Viola Aragon
Snowy owls are two-and-a-half-foot-tall birds that spend their summers breeding in the arctic tundra. For the winter, some (usually younger birds) will migrate south. But "south" for these cold-tolerant birds usually means balmy Canada, or maybe the very northern tier of the US. Once every few years, they show up further south, a phenomenon ornithologists call an irruption.

Photo credit: pe_ha45
This year is one of the biggest snowy owl irruptions in decades. Apparently, 2013 was a summer of abundant lemmings (aka baby-owl food), and as a result there are lots of healthy young snowy owls looking for someplace to spend the winter. They've been spotted as far south as Florida and Bermuda.

How can you see a snowy owl? We went to Gravelly Point in the late afternoon on Saturday. There were several birders already there, and they'd already spotted the owl just behind the fence at the airport. A few of them had scopes trained on it, which made for a much better view of a pretty distant bird.

(Birding tip: whenever you see people with tripod-mounted scopes looking at something, it is always worth asking what they're looking at. I've never met someone who wasn't thrilled to share their find.)

People have also been seeing a snowy owl right downtown, around 14th and L Streets NW.

And how do we know about these hotspots? There are two great resources to check.

  1. The Maryland and DC Birding Group has a website where people post notable sightings. It's full of talk about the snowy owl these days and possibly your best source for real-time updates about whether someone has seen an owl today.
  2. If there isn't a recent post on that website, you can go with the most common locations people have been seeing the owls. For that, your best resource is eBird, which collects data from millions of people about bird sightings and compiles them into searchable maps. Here's the map as of today for snowy owls in DC. See why we went to Gravelly Point? (For an updated map, click on the picture to go to eBird.)

Whether you find an owl or not, enjoy the hunt!