The forbidding frozen wilderness of the high Arctic tundra is the natural home of the snowy owl, a great predator perfectly adapted to hunting its primary food source, lemmings.
But sometime over the last few weeks, one snowy owl in particular made a surprise appearance in noticeably less harsh terrain — the shingled roofs and white chimneys of suburban Southern California.
What brought the owl to the city of Cypress, in Orange County, about 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles, remains a mystery and the subject of impassioned debate among the scores of bird watchers and curious neighbors who have come out to marvel at the bird.
Whatever the owl’s journey may have been, the sight of such an unusual raptor set among streets lined with palm trees has been “amazing,” said Nancy Caruso, a neighbor who has seen the owl.
“It’s like seeing Santa Claus on a beach,” said Ms. Caruso, a marine biologist. “Like that out of place, but cool.”
Neighbors have come to notice a pattern with the bird, which seems to take off around 5 p.m. before reappearing sometime later, like a commuter, to its suburban roost.
“I have been hanging out with him a couple of times a day, and I’m not a bird guy in any way, shape or form,” said Joshua Lindsay, a general contractor who lives nearby.
He said the “absolutely ginormous” owl had been “divebombed by hawks and robins” and “would look over at them, like, ‘Really? What the hell are you going to do?’”
Lori Arent, the assistant director of the Raptor Center at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, said that snowy owls are known to migrate from northern Canada to the Midwestern and northeastern United States during the winter. Some have been spotted as far south as Texas, she said. (In January 2021, one visited Central Park, creating a frenzy among urban birders.)
But it was “extremely rare” to find one as far south and west as Southern California, Ms. Arent said.
She said it was possible that the owl may have simply flown thousands of miles to Orange County. Or it may have “hitched a ride” on a ship, she said, maybe from somewhere along the Canadian coast, like the port of Vancouver, or Alaska. Others have speculated that the bird may have been kept as an exotic pet and escaped.
“It will be interesting to see how long this bird stays,” Ms. Arent said. “The question will be: Will this bird be able to find enough food to eat?”
She said snowy owls that fly south often prefer flat, open terrain such as airports where they can more easily hunt small prey. That could make Cypress an appealing destination: The Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, a National Guard facility with an airfield, is only a few miles away as the owl flies.
When the owl returns, joy fills the neighborhood.
“The most exciting thing for me is that the public is reacting so positively,” said Victor Leipzig, who teaches birding at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., and is a past president of the local chapter of the Audubon Society.
“I was there on Tuesday of this week, and there were people from the local neighborhood who were just thrilled and people who had driven from a hundred miles away to see the bird,” he said.
Scott Thomas, the raptor research chairman at the local Audubon chapter, said the owl had recently been spotted coughing up a pellet of bones and fur, a sign that it had found a small animal to eat.
But there are dangers in the area, such as cars, rodenticide and airplanes landing at the military base. At some point, he said, the most popular raptor in Cypress may simply move on, headed north to the Arctic.
“The thing I can say for sure is people are going to continue to watch it — a lot,” Mr. Thomas said. “And one day it will disappear, just fly off.”