What does the Owl say?

Please excuse the break from the urban lifestyle while we take a brief nature break.

One of the joys of moving and getting to know a new part of the country/planet is the ability to be exposed to new and different things, especially in the natural world. This winter, one of those things here in the Mid-Atlantic is the Snowy Owl invasion! I've always been interested in owls, and have only seen one or two in real life--one was an unforgettable moment in the High Sierra, right at duck, as an owl silently flew into a tree above our campsite at South Lake below Bishop Pass. I admit that I'm fascinated by these creatures.

The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is one of the largest owl species, and is a beautiful,      amazing sight. Adult males are virtually pure white, although young and females have black  tipped feathers (the black goes away with age) and striking, yellow eyes. It is well-adapted to life in the Artic Circle, where they live in the endless summer sunshine and perpetual winter darkness of the high Arctic. One of my favorite Snowy Owl facts: like many other birds, they swallow their small prey whole. Strong stomach juices digest the flesh, while the indigestible bones, teeth, fur, and feathers are compacted into oval pellets that the bird regurgitates 18   to 24 hours after feeding! But the Snowy Owl is somewhat of a mystery, and there is a lot      that we don't know about this elusive species.

A male Snowy Owl.
Check out the warm, padded feet on this beautiful juvenile Snowy Owl!
What's all this have to do with DC?

Each winter, Snowy Owls migrate south, primarily to southern Canada and the northern      United States.  But some years, for reasons that are only partially understood, snowy owls    come flooding down from the north in a phenomenon known as an irruption (yes---that's       "irruption" with an "I").  Smaller irruptions happen every few years, but once or twice in a lifetime a "mega-irruption" occurs, when snowy owls show up much farther south, and in         vastly greater numbers, than usual. This is one of those years, and Snowy Owls have been    reported all over the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and throughout the Southern US. Snowy Owls have been reported in northern Florida, and even on the island of Bermuda!

We've had a number of very visible sightings in and around DC, including one that spent        several days in downtown DC, centered around McPherson Square, a few blocks north of the White House.  The owl became a minor celebrity on social media, and the Washington Post    ran daily stories about our avian visitor. But this bird wasn't adapted to the urban                   environment, and was eventually hit by a Metro bus on 30 January. Don't worry, the story  has a happy ending...she was captured, taken to the National Zoo for treatment &                    rehabilitation and was later released after she had been nursed back to health. (You can read one of the stories here).

A Snowy Owl in downtown DC, early January.
There have been other sightings--at the airport, a local mall parking lot, and abandoned stretch of waterfront. They prefer open areas where they can hunt remain unmolested by people or city buses. I've yet to see one in person, but I would love to, and have started slinking around town in the gray half-light of twilight hoping to spot one.

A Snowy Owl at the construction site at the Springfield mall. Can you spot the Owl in this photo?
Although you might think that owls come south due to a lack of food, it's actually just the opposite. A summer breeding season that has plenty of food (mainly lemmings, voles and other small prey) leads to an abundance of baby owls--with some females having 10-12 young. This baby boom has simply produced more owls than normal, and they have spread out more than usual.

The owls have also been the motivation behind"Project Snowstorm", a scientific effort to 
capture migrating Snowy Owls, equip them with a tiny GPS transmitter, then release them   in an effort to get a better understanding of their behavior and travel patterns. The website has online maps that shows the current location and status update of many of the tagged Owls.  

A snapshot of recent Snowy Owl sightings.

Scientists fit a GPS transmitter on a captured and hooded Snowy Owl.

If you'd like to know more about Project Snowstorm, check out their website: 

Here's a link to a great NPR story about the Snowy Owls.

Finally, just to complete the loop to the DC area.....if you make it to DC and the Snowy Owls  are gone, we'll make a trip to the famous Hotel Belvedere in downtown Baltimore. The           historic old hotel (opened in 1903) has hosted Presidents, royalty, foreign dignitaries,             entertainers and celebrities from around the world. Most importantly (to this post), it is the home of the Owl Bar, named for the two wooden owls that sit high above the bar. The carved owls are flanked by two stained glass windows that read "A Wise Old Owl Sat On An Oak / The More He Saw, The Less He Spoke". During Prohibition, the owl served a useful purpose: the bar's owner kept barrels of whiskey in the basement, and if you saw the owls' eyes          blinking, you knew it was safe to order a beverage.

CityLife: Christmas in the city

You can fairly accurately judge how busy life is by the frequency of blog posts.  Since there hasn't been anything added here since early November, you can safely assume things have not been slow and quiet.

Back in October, I was fortunate to get a job working at the Washington Patagonia store. Those in the outdoor world know that Patagonia has long been a recognized leader in the outdoor industry and is one of (if not the best) producer of quality outdoor clothing and equipment.  Their retail stores are few are far between (DC is the only store between Atlanta and New York) and it's been great fun working in the store. The local store, an old rambling brick building covered in ivy, sits on the banks of the C&O Canal in Georgetown. I've recently started a different full-time job and ended my time at Patagonia, but I really enjoyed my time there.

I extended our pedestrian lifestyle to my Patagonia commute.  Over the span of 4 months, I only drove to the store two or three times, choosing instead to Metro and walk (about 15 minutes, either through historic Georgetown or across the beautiful Francis Scott Key bridge) there, then walk the entire distance back home.  It was slightly over 4 miles, took about an hour, and was a beautiful walk past the Georgetown Waterfont and down the length of the National Mall. I truly enjoyed my time there and I'll miss it as I transition into a new job.

We rolled straight into Christmas and the Holidays.  DC is a fun place to be during the Holidays, as there are a plethora (Ginger's word) of activities, concerts and events to engage in.  Some of this year's highlights include the Navy Band Christmas Concert at Constitution Hall, the National Christmas Tree (not to be confused with the Capitol Christmas Tree) and the incredible Nativity collection at Washington National Cathedral. Check out some of the pictures below (and full disclosure--I didn't take all of these.)

The National Christmas Tree is located on the "Ellipse", the large open space just south of the White House.  It is surrounded by 56 smaller trees, one for each of the 50 states and territories.

The U.S. Capitol Tree is much taller than its cousin across town (I'm sure that isn't an accident.) A tradition since 1963, the Capitol tree is always D.C.’s tallest. This year, Wyoming contributed its first Capitol tree—an 83-year-old Engelmann spruce described by one local reporter as the tree “you’d want for your living room—if you had 70-foot ceilings.”

We discovered a fantastic seasonal exhibit at the Washington National Cathedral. The Cathedral has a collection of over 500 Nativity scenes from around the world, and each year, they place a small selection of them on display.  Here are a few photos of the 100+ that were displayed this year.

Inside the National Cathedral.
One of my favorite Nativity scenes, this scene was made from cut and soldered nails and washers.
This Italian creche is made with hand blown glass.
The scene was made in the Philippines from thin rolls of newspaper.
With both of us having to work the days immediately before and after Christmas, we spent a quiet Christmas in DC, and were able to head to the Carolina's for a few days around New Years.

This year, 142,000 wreaths were placed on graves across Arlington National Cemetery.

So that's a quick recap of the last few months in the city. The spring promises lots of new adventures, and we'll be seeking out the best that city life has to offer. If this blog doesn't get updated as much, it's because we are out and about in the city.  Come for a visit and we'll explore it together.