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.