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Rare snowy owl that drew flocks of bird-watchers disappears from Cypress neighborhood

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A snowy owl that found its way to a rooftop in west Orange County has flown the coop, according to local birders who rapturously monitored the unique visitor over the last month.

Perched atop a roof on Onyx Street in Cypress, the snowy owl arrived without warning in early December, seemingly unaware that it was several hundred miles south of its usual habitat in the Arctic regions of North America. The owl would fly away every evening, just around sunset, then return to the rooftop the next morning, according to Cypress resident Roy Rausch.

The owl, which left on Monday around 5 p.m., has yet to return.

“I would actually go there first thing in the morning when the sun was coming up to try and just make sure the Cypress snowy owl was still there and to spend a little time with it,” Rausch said. “It was really very special to me, and it has profoundly affected my well-being, my life, and it was almost kind of spiritual to be there with it.”

A snowy owl perches on a roof

The owl took up temporary residence in Orange County, far from its typical habitat in the Arctic regions of North America.

(Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times)

With her penetrating gaze and white plumage spotted with brown, the owl transfixed her myriad spectators. Male snowy owls are usually all white, while females are flecked with brown. Bird-watchers and curious people alike flocked to the residential neighborhood to get a glimpse of the bird. She perched atop rooftop vents, chimneys and on top of telephone poles. She put up with some crows and the Southern California rain, all the while making her way around the neighborhood like any other bird.

The owl was first spotted in Los Angeles County on Nov. 12, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. She then made her way inland to Cypress and was first seen there in mid-December.

Chris Spurgeon, program chair with the Pasadena Audubon Society, said the bird could have been blown thousands of miles off course by a storm, or perhaps it caught a ride on a freighter headed to Southern California’s ports.

“They’re not supposed to be here — normally they don’t venture farther south than Oregon,” he said.

How or why she flew south is anyone’s guess, said Denver Holt, founder and lead researcher of the Owl Research Institute. The owl’s feathers appeared healthy, which probably rules out that she was kept in captivity, and there didn’t appear to be any type of tags on her feet, he said.

She appears to be about 7 months old, and based on her age, this is probably her first migration and first foray into Southern California, said Holt, who gave a lecture on the owl in Cypress on Thursday.

There have been snowy owl sightings in parts of Texas and Florida, but a snowy owl spotted in a densely populated residential area of California is rare, Holt said.

“I mean, it’s in the middle of a California housing development,” Holt said. “It’s just house after house after house. It’s not unusual for them to get on … man-made structures, but this is just a very, very densely populated area.”

Now, just as unexpectedly as she arrived, the owl has left Cypress. There’s no telling what made her leave, said Rausch, who considers himself an intermediate birder.

“There’s a bit of sadness that she’s gone, but sadness in a good way,” Rausch said. “She really meant a lot to many different people in many different ways.”

When news spread that the owl, or “Snowy” as locals took to calling her, was gone, local residents said they felt a real sense of loss.

“I’ll admit, I feel like she stole my heart,” Cypress City Councilwoman Frances Marquez said. Many neighbors who gathered to bask in the owl’s beauty connected with one another for the first time, even though they had lived in the same neighborhood for years, Marquez said.

“I grew up in Cypress and I have to say that this is the coolest, most educational thing to happen to our community,” Marquez said. “I have all these new friends because of this owl.”

Times staff writer Louis Sahagún contributed to this report.

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