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.