Category: Species (Page 1 of 14)

Snowy Owl in Southern California

An Arctic resident basks in the sun, wondering if the journey north makes any sense

Snowy Owl in Southern California

In my 2020 5MR recap post, I listed Snowy Owl as a bird I might add to my 5MR life list in the coming year. It was funny because of how improbable it was. And while I haven’t yet seen a Snowy Owl in my 5MR, I got surprisingly close a few days ago. We in Southern California have been unbelievably graced by a Snowy Owl’s presence this winter. It started with a mid-November report of a Snowy Owl in San Pedro, California (a town right next to Long Beach harbor). It was reported in iNaturalist, where someone posted a photo “taken by a friend” of a Snowy Owl sitting on a house’s roof. Word didn’t get around to birders until the day after it was supposedly seen. The nerds were dubious, and went to work scouring google earth to find the exact house. Others combed the area. The roof from the photo was found, in the neighborhood where the owl was apparently seen, but no one ever saw the bird. More photos and videos emerged, providing strong evidence that there had, in fact, been a Snowy Owl in Los Angeles.

Fast forward to the day after Christmas. Word goes out that somebody on facebook posted a video of a Snowy Owl on a residential rooftop in Cypress, California. This is Orange County, not L.A. County, but just 16-18 miles from the first sighting. This time, birders were much more open to the possibility that this was real. But they were also prepared to be disappointed. Christmas had already come and gone. And this time, when birders raced there, a Snowy Owl was waiting for them. And ti kept being there, day after day in the same neighborhood, sitting on a roof all day long. I had just left for a winter vacation in New Mexico (rosy-finches!) with my family, so I had to cross my fingers from afar that the improbable visitor would hang around. 

As luck would have it, it did. Unsurprisingly, it has been madness. Birders and photographers (in a mega-city full of them) thronged to the residential address that had been shared online. That’s a very frowned-upon thing to do when it comes to owl sightings, because it brings lots of people and risks spooking or distressing the owl and causing it to leave. But most, thought not all of the owl-watchers, have been respectful in their ogling. There were so many of them that cops were out in the neighborhood over the weekend controlling the scene. I made my pilgrimage the day after we returned to town, and was rewarded with point-blank views of this tundra titan.

This is the kind of bird that attracts the attention of non-birders. The owl’s presence has been written-up in the NY Times and on HuffPost , it’s been on all the local TV news stations, and there are countless tik-toks and instagrams and whatnots about it. This attention brought out hundreds more looky loos. On the main, the inevitable attention of this spectacular absurdity is a net positive. Instead of a few nerds with binoculars appreciate a wayward individual, this wonderful bird had brought out the whole community to appreciate its stunning beauty. You can see pictures of the bird here.

Snowy Owl + palm trees = awesome start to 2023

The unanswerable question, the unknowable fact, the unfillable hole at the center of this donut, is how this Snowy Owl got to Southern California. Theories abound. There are three main possibilities. First one: it migrated here from the Arctic. This is, in my mind, unlikely. While Snowy Owls do regularly head south to the United States each winter, they don’t regularly make it much past the border. When they do, it’s usually in “irruption” years when the population booms and young owls spread further afield than usual. This is not an irruption year. Yet, this is the first Snowy Owl west of Texas and south of Las Vegas in recent memory. So the idea that this birds flew from Nunavut to La-La land is slim.

Second possibility – some buffoon had the bird captive, as a pet or curiosity, and it escaped or was released. The chances of this being true seems low as well. It behaves like a wild bird, perching all day on a chimney or rooftop (which is what Snowy Owls that show up in cities do), and departing at sunset to go feed. Besides, outside of Hogwarts, how many people have captive Snowy Owls? It can’t be ruled out, but it seems unlikely.

That leaves a third option – the bird hitched a ride on a tanker from Alaska or other parts north and rode it into Long Beach harbor. That would explain the original sighting so close to the harbor. And it would most plausibly explain how a single Snowy Owl appeared out of the clear blue sky so far south. Such so-called “ship-assisted” birds are a real, though perhaps exaggerated, phenomenon. It raises esoteric debates amongst birders about whether a ship-assisted bird “counts” on your life list. I’ll spare you the details. What matters is that Southern California–birders, nature-lovers, and curiosity-seekers alike–have been blessed by the presence of majestical vagrant. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a great 2023.





That Time I Saw a Mythical Bird in Utah

The stunning hood emblem of a 1963 Ford Thunderbird

Mythical Bird Sighting in Utah

I had just turned a corner when I spotted it walking casually along the side of the road, all by itself. I had never seen anything like it. By size and shape, it resembled a chicken. It walked like one, too. But there was something about this creature–several somethings, actually–that weren’t quite right. It appeared to be covered in fur, not feathers, and had the haggard look of having just showered or been recently shocked by a jolt of electricity. It looked to be wearing puffy leg warmers. It was black from head to foot. And its feet were really big. Upon close inspection, the feet on this beast had 5 or maybe even 6 toes.

Fawkes the Phoenix flames out in front of Harry Potter

What could it be? But for the shaggy hair, I would’ve said it was a chicken. And those 5-6 toed feet were weird. Perhaps it was a mythical bird-like creature here to fulfill its destiny. Native Americans tell of a gigantic Thunderbird, whose flapping wings sounded like thunder and who shot lighting out of its eyes. I couldn’t be sure that this creature had wings, to be honest. It certainly didn’t have wings big enough to create thunder. Greek mythology describes the immortal Phoenix, but this bird didn’t burst into flames. The Egyptians worshipped the Ra, the deity of the sun who had a falcon head, and Thoth, the scribe of the gods who had the head of an ibis. But this little creature had neither such a hear nor the body of a human. There weren’t enough legs for this to be a Griffin. Japanese texts refer to an “eerie bird”, or itsumade, that showed up around corpses. Thankfully, I didn’t see any corpses around. So I snapped a couple of pictures and went to do some research.

What in the world is this thing?

It turns out that my black woolly monster is a breed of chicken known as a Black Silkie. They originated somewhere in India maybe, or China, Marco Polo described a “furry chicken” he encountered during his 13th century travels, which seems to be the first historical record. They reportedly have a strong maternal instinct and calm disposition. It’s said that they like to sit in people’s laps. I saw nothing about whether the people liked this trait. This might explain why this bird was so casually walking along the side of the road as I crept by in my car. These birds actually have blackish skin and blackish bones, and you can find a bunch of youtube video online about cooking black silkie chicken (like this one).

Check out the feet. There are at least five, and maybe 6, toes on this freaky foot.

I guess the point is – you never know when you’ll stumble upon some kind of bird the likes of which you have never seen before.



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