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Updated Friday, November 30, 2012 at 07:38 AM

Snowy owls visit again, turn heads wherever they're spotted

By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times staff reporter

Exotic visitors from the far north, snowy owls are back in Seattle, thrilling birders, stirring up crows in North Seattle and even taking out a seagull in an alleyway brawl on Capitol Hill.

With their glowing golden eyes and plumage that lives up to their name, snowies turn heads. Their recent arrival is thought to be an echo of the irruption of snowies last year, when the birds, usually denizens of the arctic, arrived in droves across the northern tier of the country, from the Great Lakes to the West Coast.

While it's still too early to say for sure, this echo probably won't build to the widespread sightings that spell an irruption, said Matt Mega, conservation director at Seattle Audubon.

While present in smaller numbers, that snowies are here at all in Seattle, the Stillaguamish delta in Stanwood, Ocean Shores and other open, coastal locations is a special treat to enjoy all winter, with the owls expected to remain through February.

Since about early November, snowies have been seen drawing a flock of alarmed crows in Crown Hill; spotted on a housetop between Greenwood and Phinney, and most spectacularly, captured on film nailing a seagull in an alley on Capitol Hill.

That owl was reported injured to the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington, which collected the bird Nov. 13, and checked it for injuries when it was unable to take flight, said Suzanne West, executive director for the nonprofit. The bird, a female, has been recovering in an outdoor cage and was well enough to hunt live rodents in its cage Thursday.

Emaciated when it arrived, the owl has been fattening on rats and quail, and will soon be released, West said.

It's food that brings the snowies here. When lemmings, the owls' main food source, are abundant in the Arctic, females will keep laying eggs. The snowy-owl population builds to the point that snowies disperse, heading south in search of snow-free terrain and food, said Paul Bannick, author of "The Owl and the Woodpecker," and winner of several national and international awards for his nature photography.

Even for people who have seen snowies many times before, every sighting is a thrill, Bannick said. Part of it is the meditative act of being still, focusing intently with all the world narrowed to the view of a wild animal through a spotting scope, camera or binoculars.

"It forces me not to think about the day-to-day stuff, and to think about the mysteries that are in the natural world all around us," Bannick said. "Where did this owl come from? What landscapes has it flown over?

"I love it because it reminds us how small and interconnected everything is. It is a reminder that what happens in the Arctic is relevant to us. The inspiration we find here is influenced by places far away, and decisions that impact those places."

With feathered legs to fight the cold of their northern homeland, snowy owls have a pantalooned, old-world elegance. They cannot move their eyes in their sockets, and the swiveling motion of their head is one of the owls' engaging qualities.

With an up-to-52-inch wingspan, and standing more than 2 feet tall, snowies also are a big dazzling presence, brilliant in golden beach grass, or aglow against the dark green of a fir tree.

Adults can tip the scales at 5 pounds, but despite their size and power, snowies are silent in flight. They have specially modified feathers that enable them to stealthily snatch up prey from the open tundra, where they usually live.

Around here, they are the talk of the neighborhood wherever they are spotted, and not only among people. Crows mobbing a snowy are likely not only harassing the owl to get it out of their territory, but also teaching younger crows the hulking visitor is a dangerous bird, to be avoided.

"They are raising the alarm, calling in other, less experienced birds, teaching this is not a bird to be messed with," Bannick said.

As thrilling as they are in photos, nothing compares with seeing snowies in the field, Bannick said. "You can't get the feeling of what it is like to see the bobbing head of an owl with bright gold eyes, and the light reflected off those feathers as they move any other way."

Keep your distance though, Bannick cautions, at least 30 to 50 yards away, to avoid disturbing the owl. If the owl reacts to your presence in any way, you are too close.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.


MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A snowy owl is seen near Stanwood. While present in smaller numbers, the owls have also been seen in Seattle, Ocean Shores and other open, coastal locations and are expected to remain through February. Below left: The wing span of the snowy owl can be as much as 52 inches.




MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
With feathered legs to fight the Arctic cold, snowy owls have a pantalooned, old-world elegance. Several are appearing in the Stillaguamish River estuary near Stanwood.




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