The Snowy Owls of Seattle

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The Snowy Owls of Seattle

2020-08-02T23:12:02+00:00December 30th, 2012|Birds, Blog|20 Comments

12/31/12: I edited this post early this morning to correct for some late-night syntactical issues.

“The piercing light of her eyes is a reminder there is light upon the dark path no matter how doubtful it might be …. Owl can navigate the dark realms of the night and still sustain her nourishment; if you feel lost, the Owl can help you find your true path once again.”
~ From The Bohemian Collective

It’s as if the Snowies came to Seattle with a message of goodwill.

The first Snowy Owl I photographed in this corner of Seattle was on a chimney above a tile roof. She yawned at first, then gaped repeatedly to the point where I thought she must be coughing up a pellet.

Snowy Owl on Chimney

Snowy Owl on Seattle Chimney

There were four of us who spotted her on the walk and stopped to quietly observe for a few minutes. None but me had a lens, so I passed my little travel binoculars around to exclamations of “oh my god, it’s really an owl!” Two people meandered away, leaving me and another woman who struck up a conversation about owls and the crows who mob them … then about John Marzluff’s latest book, Gifts of the Crow.

For the past few weeks, two or three Snowy Owls have been moving about the neighborhood, not far from our place, pressed against chimneys or huddled in fir trees, flinching at the crows who swipe at them. The owls appear to take human attention in stride, but I’m careful not to diminish their experience. The good thing is that I’ve seen respectful observers, most of whom stop to appreciate the vision in white, then move on.

Snowy Owl on Seattle Rooftop

I captured this flight shot at sundown and — as usual in Seattle — flat gray light. That’s where I default to “bird noir,” as I’m sure you’ve noticed. A few of us watched the owl hop from rooftop to rooftop to tree, escaping the harassment of crows.

On the Friday of the Newtown tragedy, I was passing through the neighborhood on my way home, feeling despondent, overcome with personal and cultural grief. I didn’t feel right chasing Snowies, I’m sensitive to their celebrity and have mixed feelings about indulging my enthusiasm for them. So, on this day, I made a deal that if I saw a Snowy Owl in passing as I headed home, I could stop. Otherwise, I would keep on truckin. As I headed south, past the mid-century ramblers and brick Tudors, a solitary Snowy Owl stood out like a … well, like a Snowy Owl. She was silver against a cloudy dusk, preening on a chimney top.

Snowy Owl on Chimney 2

As I was leaving the area, a mother and her 12-year-old son, a little short of breath, rushed to the corner. “We heard there was a Snowy Owl here, have you seen it?” Seeing her son’s excitement, I showed them the Snowy preening on the roof.

A neighbor emerged from her front door and offered the boy her binoculars. “The owl stops here once in a while,” she said. The boy looked through the lenses and kept saying, “wow, wow, wow! This is the best day of my whole life, the best day of my whole life!” His mother explained that it was her young son’s life goal to see a wild Snowy Owl in person, and he was now the happiest boy in the universe … in our little universe anyway, on a day when so much had transpired to shake the faith of every person I met. Seeing a boy, unabashedly elated over an owl sighting, scraped a few of the doldrums off our hearts.

I’ve been saying “she” but through conversations with other birders at this site, I’ve come to learn that there are few, easily distinguished marks between males and females on the juvenile Snowy Owls. I’ve been defaulting to “she,” simply because the juvies have some of the coloration of adult females.

When Hugh returned home for Christmas, after two months away and only five days at home, I told him we should see if the Snowies were still around, then take a long walk and grab a coffee. (If I offer coffee or a meal out, I guarantee myself a photography companion.) That day, this is who we saw:

Snowy Owl in Evergreen Tree

As we left the owl, intent on the local bakery, a birder approached with binoculars. In typical winter fashion, the Seattle sky opened up and gushed — and the three of us stood drenched but engaged in conversation about Snowy Owls, Seattle Audubon, and how the birder hoped beyond hope that the Snowy Owls would still be around for the Christmas bird count this year. We told him we were going to check the alley under the fir tree later for owl pellets. He, in turn, told us where we could take the pellets to get the contents analyzed.

We discovered that Snowy had, indeed, chucked up pellets just under her perch — the mushiest, most rain-soaked pellets I’d ever collected. I picked what I could from the mess and put it into baggies for our citizen science project. (The baggies are still in our freezer, waiting for a convenient drop-off.)

Because of the Snowies, Hugh and I found a cozy bakery we didn’t know about, with the smoothest, stiffest Americano in the neighborhood. So, we headed to the coffee bar again and had the good fortune of seeing Snowy Owls while walking off the caffeine jitters. By a local rooftop, we met a man who was near tears of joy, looking through his binoculars, awestruck over seeing his first-ever Snowy Owl.

I’ve been touched by how people are reacting to a solitary owl on a red-tile roof. So far, it’s been reverential, usually quiet, often just a few people walking their dogs who happen to look up. I’ve been surprised and grateful that people who spot the owls tend to stand at a distance on the other side of the street, not angling for an intrusive view. The temperament of these viewings is an about-turn from what we experienced during last year’s irruption on the plains. The generous neighborhood residents also set a consistently civil tone for the Snowy Owls, even when they find lenses or binoculars pointed at their chimneys and bedroom windows.

Snowy Owl in Ballard

Around my sightings and coffee stops, I’ve met children’s book authors, puzzle experts, dog rescuers, Scottish expats, Flickr friends I hadn’t seen, Seattle natives whose families go back to the earliest settlements, runners sweating cold with icicle fingers and popsicle toes, who’ve all stopped for a glimpse of an owl that’s creating magic in the murk of a Seattle winter. Some of them said they were changed by the experience, saying they’re now more attentive to the wildlife in our urban midst.

I’m calling the owls the White Birds of Happiness — a role I know they did not choose, a designation that’s blatantly and pathetically anthropocentric, and one I truly hope is not detrimental to the owl’s sense of well-being. Wild animals are famously stoic, even when in pain. And, we don’t know how well fed or robust they are right now in body and spirit. As one example, the Snowy Owl who landed in Capitol Hill this year was undernourished and rehabilitated by Sarvey Wildlife in Arlington (WA).

These Snowy Owls appeared like winter beacons and their popular draw, with those furry faces, is easy to understand. In a world with far too much disregard for wildlife, the Snowies here seem to have brought out the better aspects of human nature, at least when I’ve been present. I hope we’ve all indulged our excitement without causing additional stress for our beloved winter visitors. I stayed a bit too long the last time I was there, watching a Snowy Owl rouse herself from sleep and skip around the neighborhood, evading crows. So, I’m cutting myself off from the Snowy Owl fan base for now.

Thank you, Snowies, for putting up with us humans and our randomness. I’m convinced, always, that we are here to learn from the four-leggeds, flyers, crawlers and swimmers … never (or rarely) the other way around.

Here are a few additional Snowy Owl shots I’ve taken in the course of these walks.

Snowy Owl on Ballard Rooftop

Snowy Owl in Seattle Tree

Snowy Owl and Crows

Related owl posts: A Sneeuwuil By Any Other Name | Bird Verse: Eastern Gods | First … Signs of Snowies


  1. Hugh December 31, 2012 at 10:23 am - Reply

    It’s been great fun spending time with our urban Snowies, then ducking into my (new) fav coffee house for a capp & cookie! 😉

    • ingrid January 5, 2013 at 9:08 pm - Reply

      It’s such a privilege to have them in our midst, isn’t it?

  2. Denise Dahn December 31, 2012 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing your Owl of Happiness. It is wonderful how nature can lift us up out of the stresses and sorrows that our “connected” world subjects us to. I don’t think I could live without my daily walks into nature! I’ve only seen one snowy in the wild, (in a certain neighborhood/park in Seattle I won’t mention!). It was so exciting to see and made my day!

    • ingrid January 5, 2013 at 9:10 pm - Reply

      Denise, I relate intimately to your comment, “I don’t think I could live without my daily walks into nature.” I’ve often wondered how I would even survive without these components of my life.

  3. Mia McPherson December 31, 2012 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    I felt every word you wrote Ingrid, this is a delightful post.

  4. M. Firpi December 31, 2012 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    For me these are amazing, high quality shots of this very rare owl, even more so in an urban area. You really got them well, sharp, with great detail and post work.

    I’m also considering picking up a Micro Four Thirds camera system at some point, they are constantly improving, and their portability can sometimes make the difference between getting the shot or not. Heavy equipments have great pay-offs, I’m not criticising them, I myself use them, but for me “portability” is synonymous with “accessibility”. Setting up heavy camera equipments takes time, and one’s subject may well be gone by then. I’m also in a very urban setting right now, so a Micro Fourth Thirds system seems more “discrete” than the large Canon cameras.

    • ingrid January 5, 2013 at 9:13 pm - Reply

      Maria, I have never had the super-large gear that would, undoubtedly, earn me higher-caliber shots and respect from fellow photographers in the field (hehe). But, there are times my E-3 and lens feel leaden compared to my husband’s micro-four-thirds camera which I now use frequently. There is obviously a trade off … but in my generally urban environments, I would lose my pedestrian mobility and back health by carrying too much weight. I’m torn about the whole issue and am just glad that I don’t have the money to even consider a huge, $10,000 lens.

      • M. Firpi January 8, 2013 at 12:00 pm - Reply

        I feel the true ergonomic tool for the photographer is the tripod. The tripod allows you to raise the camera at eye level and holds all the weight, and prevents problems with wrists and shoulders. As an OT I had to learn all this. Any repetitive lifting with shoulders and wrists of weight or more than 2 libs is likely to cause injury. The “overhead” lift with shoulders it’s deadly, and I’ve seen it with photographers. It’s prohibited by ergonomic standards (rock climbers do these, however). Be careful even with a Canon Rebel. It can add up to 3-4 pounds easily with a small zoom, and you need to hold the weight repeatedly if you’re hand-holding the camera.

        Point & shoot cameras don’t count because they weigh barely a pound. I’ve yet to try the micro-four-thirds system, but I’m sure it can benefit from the tripod too, specially with the large zoom.

        • ingrid January 8, 2013 at 12:32 pm - Reply

          Totally agree! I like a monopod as well. Great point, too, about the overhead lift. I should always keep that in mind. For me, it’s just about the actual carrying, not the shooting. I usually take photos on my walks, which are several miles in duration, so I’d be doing dastardly things to my physiology if always lugging heavy gear. Although I miss my Zuiko lens when I take out the m43 camera, that little thing feels like a necklace in terms of weight. I love that aspect. 🙂

          • M. Firpi March 11, 2013 at 5:50 pm - Reply

            I meant to show you this bag:
            It’s a shoulder bag and the advantage is the zipper; it has no flap over it, so you can get your camera out quicker. It’s for short walks, however.

            • ingrid March 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm - Reply

              I love this bag! I’ve been looking at it since you posted this link, the slouchiness/non-camera design is great. My hesitation with slings (I have a Lowepro traditional style camera sling) is the way the strap hits across the chest for women — not always comfortable. But, if I’m wearing a sweater or jacket for padding, it works fine. 🙂

              • M. Firpi March 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm - Reply

                I don’t even use it across the chest, I just hang it over my shoulder. The shoulder pad is very padded. What’s great is the zipper, and the immediate access to the camera. I also got it at Best Buy.

                • ingrid March 15, 2013 at 10:23 pm - Reply

                  I succumbed. It’s on its way.

                  • M. Firpi March 15, 2013 at 10:37 pm - Reply

                    I didn’t even know it was supposed to be worn across the chest; I naturally wear it over my shoulder as a purse. The design makes it look like a shoulder bag/purse. It also expands with a zipper on one end. I started using that because the back pack started hurting both my shoulders and back; and for lighter trips, the bag is ideal. The backpack is still a must when traveling real long distances, however.

  5. M. Firpi December 31, 2012 at 9:13 pm - Reply

    Errata: “discreet” is what I meant: “unobtrusive, unnoticeable” amongst crowds of people.

  6. John Raymond January 2, 2013 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    More great work, Ingrid! It is so odd to see them in trees!

    What a great collection of different perchings (is that a word? nope!)
    Owls are just the coolest and oddest creatures. One of the very few animals that seem not to be too afraid and more
    importantly, none too impressed with us.
    **around minute 14 if anyone hasn’t not seen this, it shows that the Snowy Owl is not too timid at all !
    That was forwarded to me by a dear friend.

    Fine words too of how creatures bring us out into the word to meet and exchange with others!

    Thanks again for your wonderful perspective and documentation.

    • ingrid January 5, 2013 at 9:34 pm - Reply

      Thank you, John. I’d still like to get out to Damon Point before they leave … hopefully later in January if they’re still around. What a poignant thing in the video, to see the origins of these owls who’ve traveled so far, and overcome so much to be here in Washington. I’m consistently in awe that wild animals survive at all, let alone manifest something as grand as a migration and urban renewal.

  7. Colleen O'Connor January 5, 2013 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing these lovely photographs and your notes. My husband and I have enjoyed seeing the owls on our walks. We too have appreciated the respect shown for the owls, and the camaraderie amongst the viewers.

    • ingrid January 5, 2013 at 9:36 pm - Reply

      Colleen, I’m glad to hear you’ve had a similar experience. I’ve been contrasting it with some of the field behavior we saw last year, with various photographers encroaching way too much on the Snowies, getting too close, flushing them from perches. It’s been a joy to observe such respectful interaction.

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