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A special bird on New Year’s Eve: the Steller’s Sea-Eagle

Steller’s Sea-Eagle
The Steller’s Sea-Eagle on December 20 in Bristol County, Massachusetts. Photo by Justin Lawson

My fingers and toes vibrated with anticipation as I slid out of the passenger-side door on a small road in Georgetown, Maine, about 45 miles northeast of Portland. Camera bag slung over my shoulder and binoculars in hand, I half-walked, half-jogged down the street toward the town’s wharf, my stomach clenching more with every step. My mother and I had driven more than an hour to be here on New Year’s Eve, furiously refreshing the Maine Audubon and The Birdist Twitter feeds over and over to answer one simple question: Was the Steller’s Sea-Eagle still here?

Steller’s Sea-Eagles are not supposed to be in Maine. Steller’s Sea-Eagles are not supposed to be in North America, period. Native to Russia’s Far East, China, North Korea, and Japan, they are a striking species, with 8-foot wingspans, bright white wing-stripes across chocolate brown bodies, and bright orange bills. And yet, the photos came flooding in that morning of December 31 – the sea-eagle had landed on this rocky, pine-covered coastline.

This particular eagle has been bouncing around North America for more than a year. In August 2020, it was photographed near the Macleren River Bridge along the Denali Highway in Alaska, and then possibly the same bird was photographed in March 2021 at a reservoir in south-central Texas. (It bears pointing out that the Raptor Resource blog questions the validity of the Texas report: “One unconfirmed, unsourced photo posted to a Facebook page doesn’t cut it.” And it proposes a possible route the bird may have taken from Alaska to New England.) In late June and early July, the sea-eagle turned up along a river in Campbellton, New Brunswick, and in mid- and late July and early August, the bird was seen at a couple sites on Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula. Nearly three months later, in early November, it was seen for two days near a boat launch in Nova Scotia. Then on December 20, hundreds of birders saw the bird at various locations on the Taunton River in southern Massachusetts. That afternoon it circled high overhead and flew to the northwest, to where, no one knew.

Author, artist, and BirdWatching columnist David Sibley was among the many who saw the eagle in Massachusetts. On Facebook, he shared a stunning painting he made of the bird.

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On December 30, Maine birder Nick Lund (the aforementioned Birdist on Twitter), received a comment on his blog saying that the eagle was in Five Islands, Maine. He tells the story on his blog of confirming the sighting and getting the word out to the birding community.

I’d become aware of the lost bird when it showed up in Massachusetts, but I’m not much of a twitcher — I find the process very stressful — and merely enjoyed the sightings vicariously. But on the night of December 30, my aunt texted me that the bird was in Maine, and an hour seemed an astonishingly short distance away to try for the now-famous eagle.

Birders look for the Steller’s Sea-Eagle in Georgetown, Maine. Photo by Erika Zambello

‘Where are we looking?’

Back at the wharf, dozens of birders crowded the wooden dock or fanned out on the grass near the water, pointing lenses and binocs and scopes toward an island in the distance. I stopped at the first pocket of watchers, “Where are we looking?”

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They happily filled me in on the details. “It’s just on the other side of the island,” they explained. “Hidden behind a tree. We’re waiting for it to move for a better view.”

I knew from my aunt and cousin, who had been there earlier in the day, that the eagle flew from place to place regularly, so the news that it sat just out of view gave me a sense of both relief and horror. Relief, because at least the bird hadn’t gotten sick of this area altogether and high-tailed it up the coast, and horror that I might have missed it by mere minutes before it disappeared altogether.

A steady buzz of conversation rippled through the crowd around me: “From the corner of the wharf, you can get a better angle and just about see it.” My mom and I made a beeline for a new vantage point with binoculars at the ready; in such a rush to get down to the water, we had left the scope in the car.

Now, during a rare sighting, birders can be, well, unpleasant. I have read stories of jostling for prime viewing placement, stepping in front of scopes, and harsh words. But not today, not in the face of this incredible species. People who had already seen the bird helpfully pointed out its relative location to the new arrivals.

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“Here, use my scope. Do you want to try it in a scope? Let me help you find it,” were constant refrains. Hovering, I thanked one man profusely when he offered, only to wait behind another man who insisted on trying to take a photo through the scope with his cell phone (no judgement, I did this later in my mom’s scope). I’ll admit that this left me flustered — what if it flew before I could get my eye on the scope? What if I had missed my chance? But another helpful birder just up ahead offered hers, and after my mom had a quick view, my turn arrived.

And there it was. A dark silhouette perched atop a tall pine, well-camouflaged in the low light of a cloudy day. Its white wing bars stood clear as day against its brown body, and with a turn of its impressive head, the wide, orange/yellow bill came into view.

Something wonderful

A wave of emotion flooded my entire body, and for just a moment I thought I would cry in front of all those people. 2021 had been difficult, and here, on the very last day of the year, a majestic, feathered being had brought people together in community, in common cause, to be in the presence of something wonderful.

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Mom and I moved to another place on the wharf, where I could make out the bird with binoculars. Another couple lent us their scope for a minute, and when my mother jogged back to the car to grab her own scope, they helped us set it up and point the glass in the right direction. Now, we returned the favor, letting a nearby birder use the magnification to bring the Steller’s Sea-Eagle into view.

Two young Bald Eagles perch in a tree above the Steller’s Sea-Eagle. Photo by Justin Lawson

The wharf is small, and an active commercial fishing site, and after 30 minutes or so, we left to make room for the birders who continued to arrive, not only from Maine, but from states across New England. Reid State Park sat a short drive away, and we headed for it to look for more birds, decompress, and take a breath. Unbeknownst to us, the eagle paralleled our trek, and left the Georgetown island soon after we did for a tiny, rocky outcropping far off the beach of the state park. At that point, birders gathered at a high, stone cliff over the water to watch the Steller’s Sea-Eagle as it was chased by a Bald Eagle. The birders breathed as one, letting up a shout when the bird took flight and a collective breath when the bird rested.

Alex Lees of the UK’s Manchester Metropolitan University wrote to NPR “that it’s more likely that this bird’s vagrancy was caused by something internal, such as ‘a failure to switch off the instinct to disperse or a failure of its navigatory apparatus.’”

One of the project leaders of eBird, Marshall Iliff, saw the eagle in Massachusetts and described in his eBird checklist that this bird’s wanderings suggests that we should take the notion of vagrancy in raptors more seriously.

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“Multiple individual raptors have now turned up far from [their] home range,” Iliff writes, “and through individually identifiable plumage features, or tags/bands, have been confirmed to be the same birds moving massive distances (e.g., South Padre Island–>Portland Maine for Great Black-Hawk, Zone-tailed [Hawk] from Nova Scotia to Virginia and almost every state/province in between, tagged California Condors roaming to Wyoming, Bearded Vultures wandering all of Europe including the UK, etc.). Raptors seem to just go on walkabout sometimes: it’s in their nature.”

A feeling of sadness

Seeing a bird as rare and beautiful as a Steller’s Sea-Eagle is an eye-popping, adrenaline-pumping, toes-tingling experience. Yet, it’s difficult to escape a feeling of sadness when chasing vagrants. I saw the Great Black-Hawk in Portland, Maine, in the winter of 2018-2019, but it died a few weeks later, unable to withstand the frigid Maine season when it is adapted to the heat of Mexico, Central America, and South America. Vagrants like this that appear in northern climes rarely survive, and I often can’t bring myself to look for them.

By contrast, the sea-eagle is at home in cold temperatures and snow — it lives in eastern Russia, after all — but scientists predict it will continue to wander across North America, looking for a mate that’s thousands of miles away. While it’s possible the bird may reverse course and return home, the longer it spends on this continent, the less likely that future becomes. Instead, it will search and search and search. The basis for a tragedy, no?

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Climate change may make vagrancy more common, and in fact vagrancy itself can be an adaptive strategy for a species as a whole, if not individual birds. Most birds far from home — or far from where they are supposed to be in a given season — won’t make it, or at least, like the sea-eagle, won’t reproduce. However, what if another sea-eagle arrives in the future? What if they start a new population in suitable habitat? What if a vagrant of another species, and its mate, find habitat that is better suited for breeding/nesting/feeding, especially if their historic home turf has been altered by development or climate change?

As I write this on January 1 and 2, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle has been spotted in Georgetown again. The very patient residents of this seaside town will be inundated with birders once more, because who knows how long the raptor will stay here before moving on? “Please be respectful of local residents and businesses if you go! Parking is tight and roads may be icy,” Maine Audubon warned in a tweet. Maine Audubon’s naturalist, Doug Hitchcox, wrote in a blog: “please do not trespass” and reminded folks to give the lobstermen and fishermen the right of way when they needed to use the wharf. Wherever the eagle treks, birders will flock to see it again. (For the latest updates, follow this Maine Audubon blog post.)

Selfishly (since I’ve already spotted it), I hope that the bird heads north, then takes a turn to the west, across Canada, across Alaska, and back home to its fellow sea-eagles. Only time will tell!

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Story updated on January 18 to correct the location of the sighting in Alaska.

Originally Published

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Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is the communications director for Audubon Florida, a National Geographic Young Explorer grant recipient, and the cofounder of the communications company TerraCommunications.org. She has written for Florida State Parks, National Geographic Adventure, and other outlets. 

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