WASHINGTON (AFP) – The white dome of the United States Capitol shines through the night, illuminating a small group huddled down the hill, bundled tightly against the winter cold and carrying long-lens cameras and binoculars.
The motley crew are not there to photograph Washington’s famous monuments – they have their sights set on a rare creature that flew in from the Arctic: a snowy owl.
“There he is!” shouts one of the birdwatchers.
The crowd shifts positions to get a better angle.
“It’s amazing,” says an enthused Ms Meleia Rose, 41. “I’ve been a birder a long time and this is my first time every seeing a snowy owl.”
Birdwatching, or birding as it is also known, is a popular pastime in the US, with hobbyists typically hiking through forests or camping in rural areas to spot different species of birds.
So the majestic owl’s appearance a week ago in the city, much further south than its usual habitat, has proven a magnet.
“You can see the Capitol,” said Ms Rose, wrapped in a big winter coat and accompanied by her partner. “It’s arresting to have the contrast, the wildness with the city – but especially DC where it’s so… monumental and iconic.
The couple, who hired a babysitter for the special occasion, got a good look at the rare bird, allowing them to mark “snowy owl” off their “life list” – a catalogue of every bird they’ve seen.
Like others staring up at the young female owl, identified by its grey and white plumage, Rosa was alerted to its arrival by eBird, a network used by birdwatchers to signal particularly interesting finds, which logged 200 million observations last year by 290,000 enthusiasts worldwide.
Users had pinpointed the snowy owl near Union Station, a bustling transportation hub just down the road from the Capitol, where a line of taxis curls around a grassy park, criss-crossed with walkways and spotted with tents set up by the homeless.
At the centre of the park, on top of a marble fountain, a pair of yellow eyes peer out, searching for an evening snack – most likely one of the capital’s countless rats.