Arts & Life, Features

Rare snowy owl draws crowds for weeks in Orange County neighborhood

Southern California residents might be familiar with snowy owls because of movies or local zoos, but for the first time, they have the opportunity to see one in the “wild” suburbs of Cypress, Orange County.

Each camera was at a similar angle to capture the bird, which created a visual pattern throughout the crowd.
Each camera was positioned at a similar angle to capture the bird, which created a visual pattern throughout the crowd.

According to birder and Cypress local Roy Rausch, “you’ll hear different things, but this is actually the first snowy owl that’s ever been officially recorded in southern California.”

Rausch confirmed this information with expert Jon L. Dunn, chief consultant for every edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Dunn and Rausch are among the hundreds of birders, experts, and others who have visited this snowy owl, which is sometimes referred to as Hedwig.

Rausch is a lifelong birder who was taught to appreciate nature from a young age.

“What I really like about [birding] is that it gets you out into different ecosystems, different places, the mountains, the beaches, the deserts. When you’re out there you have something to look for, something to get a little excited about. They can also be very beautiful,” he said.

The owl puffs up and makes a strange expression. In this moment, all of the photographers in attendance were rapidly taking photos.
The owl puffs up and makes a strange expression. In this moment, all of the photographers in attendance were rapidly taking photos. Photo credit: El Nicklin

There were birders of all ages in attendance, including 15-year-old Caleb Kusumo, who started birding in 2020. “I wanted a way to go outside,” he explained.

Kusumo traveled from Irvine with a few members of his high school’s birdwatching club to photograph the owl. Kusumo’s favorite place to go birding is the San Joaquin Marsh near U.C. Irvine.

An important activity to some birders is compiling a life list, which keeps track of every new species someone has seen in their lifetime.

Lifelong birder, Virginia, added the snowy owl to her life list just a day after her 101st birthday. This owl is a life bird for many birders.

This is Virginia, who added the snowy owl to her "life list" a day after she turned 101 years old. For her, this snowy owl is a "life bird." She is pictured with her caregiver.
This is Virginia, who added the snowy owl to her “life list” a day after she turned 101 years old. For her, this snowy owl is a “life bird.” She is pictured with her caregiver. Photo credit: El Nicklin

Each night, the owl flies away to an unknown location in the west, and when it returns, it chooses a rooftop for the day in Cypress near Holder. Reactions from residents have been mixed.

On Jan. 6, a man yelled at the crowd, demanding that spectators leave his property. The local police drove up and down the road throughout the day to discourage spectators standing in the street. On Jan. 7, Garden Grove local Josh Lindsay invited viewers to enter the backyard of a house he was working on so that they could get a better view of the owl.

A variety of equipment is used, including binoculars, digital zoom cameras, and detachable zoom lenses. The most noticeable among the crowd were the large camouflage lenses.
A variety of equipment is used, including binoculars, digital zoom cameras, and detachable zoom lenses. The most noticeable among the crowd were the large camouflage lenses. Photo credit: El Nicklin

One birder explained that the bird leaves between 4:50 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. every day. This birder, along with many others, waits each night to capture the owl’s flight away. On Jan. 6 and 7, the owl flew away right around 5:15 p.m. Even with a quality camera and lens, it becomes much more difficult for photographers to capture a flying bird in the dark, but the bird likely doesn’t have the photographers in mind when it decides to leave.

To receive the latest updates on the owl’s location, check out the eBird app. One birder recommended sorting by date using the OC Rare Bird Alert. Roy Rausch also created a Facebook group dedicated to the bird called “Cypress Snowy Owl” where birders share high-quality pictures of the owl and other updates.

Photographers lined up across the street from the snowy owl on Holder on Jan. 9.
Photographers line up across the street from the snowy owl on Holder and Jaluit, Jan. 8. Photo credit: El Nicklin

For those interested in getting into birding outside of the suburbs, Rausch recommends checking out the local Audubon Society and visiting the Bolsa Chica Wetlands.

“You see a wide variety of birds there and you get pretty close to them. You’ll consistently see some pretty cool stuff, like the raptors hunting and osprey diving for fish,” he explained.

Although the owl’s exact location isn’t always easy to find online, it’s hard to miss the crowds once you’re in the neighborhood. Consider adding this extremely rare snowy owl to your life list while it’s still in town.

The owl "smiles" on on a rooftop, Jan. 9. There were around 100 spectators watching the owl at 4 p.m.
The owl “smiles” on on a rooftop, Jan. 9. There were around 100 spectators watching the owl at 4 p.m. Photo credit: El Nicklin

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