Two snowy owls have taken up residence in the courtyards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture building near the Mall, much to the delight of the people who work there.
“I call them Thelma and Louise,” says USDA economist Teresa McKeivier, who spotted one of the Arctic birds for the first time on Jan. 8 while looking out a window of colleague Ronald Lord’s office.
“I don’t know much about owls, but I remembered the snowy owl from four years ago, so I knew what they looked like,” McKeivier says, referring to the avian celebrity that wintered in D.C. in 2014.
That snowy owl was part of an irruption — a temporary influx of a species into a region it doesn’t normally inhabit. Snowy owl irruptions tend to occur every four or five years, when the birds mysteriously migrate farther south than usual after a population boom. That appears to be happening again this winter, with snowy owls turning up as far south as Texas and North Carolina.
The snowy owl that visited D.C. in 2014 was hit by a bus, rehabilitated in Minnesota and released, and then hit by another vehicle. Thelma and Louise, in comparison, seem to have more street smarts, says Dan Rauch, a wildlife biologist with D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment. The birds — probably juvenile females — appear fat and happy, and they’ve found a safe, quiet place to roost, he says.
“Unfortunately, they’re in an area where there’s not public access, but the people who work there get to see an amazing animal that no one else can see,” Rauch says.
That’s frustrating for D.C. bird-watchers who have learned about the USDA owls from eBird, an online database where Lord has been reporting his regular office-window sightings. Some birders have taken to staking out the USDA building at dusk in the hopes of spotting the creatures as they head out for their evening hunt.
One such owl enthusiast is Scott Stafford, 39, a freelance computer programmer. On Jan. 26, he rounded up his wife and two kids and drove from their home in Friendship Heights to Southwest D.C. in the hopes of seeing the birds. They walked around in the early-evening cold for about an hour, craning their necks and squinting at rooftops.
“We were just about to leave and go eat when I saw a flash of white in the sky,” Stafford says. “It was just a fleeting glimpse, but I got so excited I was jumping around.”
Unfortunately, Stafford’s kids didn’t get to see the owl. If the family decides to try again, they’ll have to act fast: Rauch says the owls will probably return to the Arctic this month.
“There’s going to come a day when they’re not here, when they are really gone,” McKeivier says of Thelma and Louise. “I’ll miss them for sure.”