Night has fallen in Washington, but they are a few dozen curious people to observe, binoculars or telephoto lens in hand, an extraordinary apparition: a sumptuous raptor from the Arctic, perched very close to the American Capitol.
The rumor has been circulating for a few days: a snowy owl is in town.
“He’s here!” exclaims one of the day’s birdwatchers, and the tripods gallop to find a better angle of view.
“It’s great,” enthuses Meleia Rose, bundled up in a large coat. “I’ve been bird watching for a long time, and this is the very first time I’ve seen a snowy owl! I’m going to put it on my list.”
Bird watching is a popular activity in the United States, and the presence for a week, in the heart of the federal capital, of this lord of the tundra constitutes an event for enthusiasts.
– Rare bird alert –
From here, “you can see the Capitol … It’s striking, this contrast between wildlife and the city, especially in Washington, with all these emblematic monuments”, she continues, her companion Alex at her side. The couple have offered themselves a babysitter for the evening in order to come here with their spyglass.
Like many evening curious, Meleia Rose was alerted by eBird, a network powered by amateur ornithologists who report the presence of rare birds to the community – 200 million observations noted in 2021 worldwide by 290,000 enthusiasts.
This time, the photographers are set up neither in the forest nor on the shores of a lake, but between the imposing facade of Washington’s Union Station and a busy boulevard, on this central reservation populated by homeless tents and infested with rats, prey to this snowy owl.
This one is identified, with its mottled gray and white plumage, as a young female. Perched from the top of a statue as if in the middle of the tundra, she scans the station esplanade with her white-rimmed yellow eyes, on the lookout for any rodent that might end up in her claws.
– An “Arctic visitor” –
Among the crowd of curious, these last days in front of Union Station, the Swiss ambassador in the United States, Jacques Pitteloud, passionate about ornithology.
“To see the snowy owl in such an unlikely setting was a very special pleasure,” the diplomat told AFP, who had “for a long time” had the snowy owl on his “list”.
With their huge white wings, these “birds of snow and ice” are “like creatures from another world”, marvels Kevin McGowan, professor at the ornithology laboratory at Cornell University.
The snowy owl nests in the Arctic areas of the Polar Circle in the summer and most individuals migrate south to overwinter – but usually stop at the Canada-US border.
His presence in such a southern area, “is like having a polar bear in his neighborhood”, continues the ornithologist.
– Harry Potter –
“It’s a fascinating bird, even more so for bird lovers in the Washington area, where its presence is really rare. It’s a hell of a thing!”, confirms to AFP Scott Weidensaul, co-director of the SnowStorm project, which lists its presence in North America.
In his black down jacket, Edward Eder is preparing his huge camera for this “Arctic visitor”. Already present the day before, the 71-year-old retiree remarked that the birdwatching community “has probably grown even more during the pandemic, because it’s a hobby where you can maintain social distancing, draw your own path…”
With their parents pointing to the statue-perch, a handful of children are also trying to catch a glimpse of a bird they may have seen in Harry Potter: the “owl” Hedwig, faithful companion of the sorcerer’s apprentice is a snowy owl.