It’s been a year of firsts, and for the residents of Queen Anne, Washington, it seems this year has one more surprise in store: a rare snowy owl making a surprise appearance in the bowels of South Seattle. This marks the first time a snowy owl has been spotted wintering in the urban Seattle area since 2011 when several were spotted on rooftops, Discovery Park, and the Paccar center. This year, it seems this (supposedly) female snowy owl is the only visitor.
Being the newfound bird guy in the house, I decided to pay a visit. Or two. The first time we didn’t see it, despite the multitude of birders young and old, $5 binoculars or $30,000 cameras, marching around looking for the owl. Of course, we tried again a few days later. Lo and behold, we walk out for 5 seconds, and there it is.
My experience with the snowy was basically what others described: she seemed to be relaxing there, taking refuge from the bright sunlight behind a chimney, posing for the 20-some crowd, and occasionally making a grumpy face. Although it was not quite a transcendent experience, and oftentimes annoying thanks to the low-lying sun frequently putting glare in my lens, it was definitely once in a lifetime. I was enthralled, watching this marshmallow-like bird do basically nothing, alongside a host of other birders looking for an experience of a lifetime.
It was kind of a shock. This pristine, speckled, snow-white owl perched out in open daylight, apparently not minding the gaggle of drooling ornithologists, birdwatchers, and joggers barely 100 feet away. I’d always thought owls to be secretive, hard-to-find creatures of the night, then there was this beauty queen throwing disappointed glares at the camera and trying desperately to catch a few z’s, despite being a diurnal (daylight) hunter. It was quite a contrast to my previous owl encounter, from which I gained but a memory and a fuzzy photo taken via phone camera and $30-dollar spotting scope.
The celebrity’s life isn’t an easy one, and the bird experts know this. Onlookers have been advised to keep as quiet as possible and stay at least 100 feet away from the owl. As per usual, much of this protocol fell on the honor system, and was surprisingly well-upheld. Most of the watchers kept their distance, took turns at the spot that approached the invisible barrier, and everyone resisted the urge to shine a mirror in the owl’s eyes (if you do that for a cheap shot, I will strangle you, social distancing or no social distancing). The only ones who broke the distance rule were a jogger, a couple of kids, and the owner of the house the owl perched on.
As she seems to be wintering here, please go take a look-see. This rarity won’t stay forever and may not come back ever (thanks, climate change). Just remember the number one rule of birding: don’t be a jerk. Don’t hog the best spot, don’t litter, share bird sightings, don’t be loud, and DON’T SCARE THE BIRD AWAY. Beyond that, knock yourself out!