The return of bone-chilling temperatures to the mid-Atlantic this week brought with it a nice surprise to Washington, D.C.: a snowy owl.
The bird, normally found in the northern circumpolar region, delighted bird-watchers and commuters in the nation's capital on Wednesday, perching itself atop an awning at 15th and K streets.
"It appeared from seemingly out of nowhere," the Washington Post reported. "Pedestrians at rush hour stopped in their tracks. Was it some kind of omen?"
“What in the world?” one man said, according to the paper.
The owl stared back, yellow eyes against perfect white feathers. “What in the world?” its annoyed look said.
Dozens of passers-by stopped to snap photos of the snowy owl's rare D.C. appearance.
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) January 23, 2014
Other commuters, though, apparently did not notice.
I was fascinated by the commuters not knowing they were walking right under a snowy owl pic.twitter.com/qCyGDvoAQ1
— The Birdist (@TheBirdist) January 23, 2014
As it turns out, the sight of snowy owls in United States is not so rare. According to eBird, a bird-tracking website operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the arctic fowl has been spotted as far south as Jacksonville, Fla., in recent months. Several reports of snowy owls had already been made in the D.C. area.
According to ecologists, snowy owls have flown south in record numbers this year.
“Nobody knew this was coming, that’s the amazing thing about it,” Scott Weidensaul, director of Project SNOWstorm, a research group recently launched to track the influx of snowy owls, told CBS-DC. “The magnitude of the irruption this year took everyone by surprise.”
That's a great thing for people interested in the owl, Kevin McGowan, a biologist and ornithologist at the Cornell lab, told National Geographic. "This is an unprecedented opportunity to understand the owl's migration patterns," he said. "The snowy owl normally lives way the heck up north, which makes it difficult to tag and study them." Snowy owls are not easy to miss as birds go, with a wingspan of up to five feet and a fighting weight of more than 5 pounds.
Weidensaul said he expects the birds to head back north in March or April.
And if you're hoping to see one, “this is going to be the best chance [you] have in [your] lifetime," Weidensaul said. "If you see one in the wild, it is something you will remember for the rest of your life.”