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  • Yahshua H.

Like the one in Harry Potter, an Arctic snowy owl causes a sensation in Washington.

Its presence in such an austral area "is like having a polar bear in the neighborhood," the surprised ornithologists comment. A snowy owl perches on the giant marble orb of the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain at the entrance to Union Station in Washington.

Night has fallen in Washington, but dozens of onlookers are watching with binoculars and pointing cameras at an Arctic bird of prey with sumptuous white plumage, perched on top of a statue, very close to the Capitol. Rumors have been circulating for days that a snowy owl has arrived in town. "It's there!" shouts one of the amateur ornithologists. Then the tripods move in search of a better viewing angle to capture their beauty. "It's great!" enthuses Melania Rose. "I've been birding for a long time and this is the first time I've seen a snowy owl. I'm going to add it to my list."

Many Americans are fond of bird-watching, and the week-long presence of this specimen from the tundra in Washington has caused a sensation. From here, "you can see the Capitol ... The contrast between wildlife and the city is striking, especially in Washington, with all these emblematic monuments," she adds with her partner, Alex. They left their baby at home in the care of a nanny so that they could enjoy the moment in peace.

Like many others, Rose found out through eBird, a network powered by amateur ornithologists that alerts the community to the presence of rare birds (290,000 enthusiasts made 200 million sightings in 2021 worldwide). On this occasion, the photographers are not in a forest or on the shore of a lake, but between the imposing facade of Washington's train station, Union Station, and a bustling avenue, on a barrier populated by tents of homeless and infested with rats, potential prey for this snowy owl.

It is deduced from its plumage, mottled gray and white, a young female. Perched on top of a statue, she looks with her yellow eyes at the station esplanade in search of a rodent that will end up in her clutches. Among the onlookers is the Swiss ambassador to the United States, Jacques Pitteloud, a fan of ornithology. "Seeing the snowy owl in such an unlikely setting was a very special pleasure," the diplomat told AFP, who has had the snowy owl on his "list" for "a long time."

With their enormous white wings, these "birds of snow and ice" are "like creatures from another world," says Kevin McGowan, a professor at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. The snowy owl nests in the arctic areas of the polar circle in the summer, and most individuals migrate south to spend the winter. Still, they usually stop at the border between Canada and the United States. Its presence in such an austral area "is like having a polar bear in the neighbourhood," adds the ornithologist

"It is a fascinating bird, even more so for bird lovers in the Washington area, where its presence is really rare. It is something incredible!" Scott Weidensaul, co-director of the SnowStorm project, who keeps a record, confirms to AFP its presence in North America.

Retiree Edward Eder, 71, sets up his camera for this "visitor from the Arctic." According to him, the number of bird watchers "has probably grown even more during the pandemic, because it's a hobby where you can maintain social distancing, chart your own path..." Accompanied by their parents, a handful of children point with Point your finger at the statue and try to see the bird you may have already seen in Harry Potter: the "owl" Hedwig, faithful companion of the sorcerer's apprentice, is a snowy owl.


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