Monday, February 06, 2006

Snowy Owl!

As I have mentioned on this blog before, there has been a snowy owl hanging around Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Yesterday afternoon I decided to go out and see it for myself. Now I do not have a car, so twitches like this can pose transportation challenges. In this case, there is a bus running from downtown out to the airport, so I was set. When I arrived at the airport, I immediately found about a dozen birders gathered on top of the parking garage that is at right angles with the main terminal.

I initially started scanning with my binoculars, but then a birding couple standing nearby suggested that I look through their scope, since they had already found it. I peered through the scope and saw the owl sitting on the grass far across the runway. Through the scope, it looked like a white sack of flour with a leak on one side. That distinctive silhouette, though, was enough to identify the lump as a snowy owl. I do not think there is anything else quite like it in North America; certainly nothing commonly found around here has that appearance. With a look through a different scope, I could see the black flecking on the wings and body. The distance was a bit too far to distinguish facial features. Once I knew where it was, I was able to watch it through the binoculars. The view through the binoculars was only enough to check up on its location. For the entire time I was there, the owl sat in the same spot. Using Google Earth, I later estimated the viewing distance to be a little over 2,000 yards (about 1.2 miles).

Unfortunately the owl never came anywhere near close enough for me to get a picture. On several occasions in the past week, it did fly in and perch on the light posts across the street from the parking garage, and on the tail of the UPS plane parked a little farther away. Several people who were there on those occasions were kind enough to share their pictures. Several photographs can be found here.

One birder thought he spotted a short-eared owl, an open-country bird that was reported at the airport last week. I did not get a look at it since it disappeared into the brush too quickly. Someone else saw a harrier cruising over the treeline, and I did spot that one before it was obscured by the sun.

While hardly idyllic, this was still a wonderful spot to watch a rare owl. Across the runways there was a treeline composed mainly of conifers; beyond the treeline I could see the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. The sky above glowed with the setting sun in a changing variety of golds, reds, and blues. To the left I could see the airport terminal, which was designed by Eero Saarinen, an important 20th century architect who also designed the TWA building at JFK Airport in New York. The swept-up roof looked weightless and the windows reflected the golden light of the sunset.

Finally, some credit is due to the security staff at the airport. For the past several years this country has been in a state of concern over fears of terrorism; in the Washington area, one of the two places hit on 9-11, the tension has run especially high at times. In many cases this has caused problems between birdwatchers and law enforcement. The Dulles staff, however, recognized that the birders coming to see the snowy owl were not a threat, and have not attempted to stop birders from visiting and watching the owl, despite the sensitive nature of the area and the curious sight of large numbers of people with spotting scopes and binoculars scanning the runways for hours at a time. While I was there, a few staffers stopped by to check up on us but stayed low-key; some even took a look through the scopes.

A recent article quoted one of the birders as describing the sighting as "a life bird for $5," the cost of parking in the garage. In my case, it was a lifer for $6, the cost of taking the express bus to the airport and back. Either way, the bird was a bargain.

Anyone from the area who is interested in looking for the snowy owl should check for updates on va-bird. See especially the original directions to the parking garage.