Steller’s Sea Eagle: a local bird enthusiast’s perspective

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Steller’s sea eagle, on MacMahan Island, Sheepscot River, Georgetown, Maine on Dec. 31, 2021. (Photo by Steve Muise)

By Steve Muise

GEORGETOWN – An über rare Steller’s sea eagle showed up in Maine this week, and it’s attracting a crowd.

This particular bird, in my opinion, is the most famous and infamous bird in North America. The entire Steller’s sea eagle population is estimated to be around 4,000, and until the past several months, no Steller’s sea eagle had ever been reported in Canada or the lower 48 states. Steller’s sea eagles are the heaviest eagles, weighing up to 20 pounds, with striking white wing edges, and large, heavy yellow beaks. They’re stunning. Their usual territory is from Japan, and China to eastern Russia.

Sightings of mega-rarities can be very exciting. I experienced this first hand when spotting Maine’s first ever crested caracara in August of 2014. While looking for migrating common nighthawks to photograph, my wife, Debby, and I found this rare, out-of-range bird. (Crested caracaras are also called “Mexican eagles” and are technically from the falcon family. They act like vultures and are usually only found as north as Florida and Texas). Debby was driving, and I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth. . . “Uh, I think I just saw a crested caracara. . . ” I got a few perched and in-flight photographs in the waning light. To report this bird, and have the birding community see it (in Unity, and then later re-found in Norridgewock) will be one of the greatest joys of my amateur birding pastime.

But to see a Stellar’s sea eagle, which has never been seen in either the lower 48 or Canada, leaves a huge impression. Why do these birds journey so far outside of their normal range? Maine has seen its share of rarities. How does a great black hawk end up in Deering Oaks Park? Seeing a great gray owl, or chestnut-collared longspur, or fork-tailed flycatcher, or an ivory gull makes me love our state even more, and each sighting of a rare bird gives me another amazing memory and way to connect.

Back to the Steller’s sea eagle: the story of this particular bird’s amazing journey started in Alaska (where there are occasional rare sightings in mainland Alaska, the last one, 16 years ago). It was photographed and reported in August 2020, but the bird did not stay in that location. It was later photographed and reported in Texas, but it took flight with only that one photograph as evidence (and the photograph didn’t show the wings in flight, so it’s only an assumption that this is the same eagle). It was later photographed on the Restigouche River on the border of the Gaspé Peninsula, Québec and New Brunswick, Canada in July of 2021, and then in Nova Scotia in August of 2021.

Steller’s sea eagle in flight, heading south on the Sheepscot River towards Five Island wharf on Dec. 31, 2021. (Photo by Steve Muise)

The eagle wasn’t seen again until Nov. 4, 2021. It reappeared in Taunton, Mass., and was seen from Dec. 7 – Dec. 20, until it took flight once again, seen flying to the northwest. Photographs confirm that this is indeed the same individual as seen in Alaska and Canada according to unique markings on the outstretched wings in flight. The word was out that this bird was on the move, but where would it be seen next?

Linda Tharp reported that the bird was seen in Georgetown, Maine, near the Five Islands wharf on the afternoon of Dec. 30. Having seen this information shared on the Maine Birds Google group made for a very exciting opportunity for us on Dec. 31! We left Farmington at 5 a.m., and arrived to a small but growing group of excited birders at the Five Islands wharf. We all saw lots of bald eagles at first; it has been reported that the Steller’s sea eagle has associated with other bald eagles at previous sightings.

Eventually at around 8:20 a.m., word passed through the group that the eagle had been spotted a few coves north on MacMahan Island. The group migrated there for some great views, and then the eagle took flight back to Five Islands. It flew back and forth a bit, and then while Debby and I were at Five Islands, the eagle flew southerly down the Sheepscot River and landed on Malden Island in full view of the wharf. There was an audible cheer from the crowd of over 100 people watching this take place. An added bonus was to watch this whole scene evolve with friends on their deck on the harbor of Five Islands! The eagle was seen later in the day from Reid State Park.

The eagle has since been been reported in the area on Jan. 1 and 2, sometimes visible from land and sometimes on the backside of the islands. One enterprising local lobsterman has been offering short sighting trips when the eagle isn’t visible from land. There have been numerous reports from local and national news outlets across the U.S. and Canada even before Maine’s involvement, and, as we were leaving Five Islands, a TV news crew with WGME was arriving on scene to film a story.

This bird is well-suited to continue to hunt and thrive here in New England/Canada. How long will it stay? Scientific American describes vagrant (or accidental birds) as initially being thought of as storm-tossed wanderers, or perhaps having a migration defect, but that thinking may be changing. Is it expanding its range, as suggested by Audubon naturalist and amazing Maine birder, Doug Hitchcox? Does climate change or evolution have a part in this? That’s one of the great mysteries of these vagrant birds!

Steller’s sea eagle in flight, heading south on the Sheepscot River towards Five Island wharf on Dec. 31, 2021. (Photo by Steve Muise)

I’d like to take a moment to thank the entire birding community for reporting their sightings. I remember calling into a phone message for weekly rare bird alerts back in the day, one could be seven days off of a rare bird back then, but modern technology can help get the word out very quickly and in real time.

Thanks especially to Nick Lund, Doug Hitchcox, Derek Lovitch, and Kristen Lindquist (and more) for sharing in-depth information to the Maine birding community, and for teaching us how to be good stewards of our environment, communities and our birding passions. Bob Duchesne’s birding columns in the Bangor Daily News are also entertaining and informative. It’s an amazingly connected world, and sharing news of something über rare makes connections that bring people together.

Remember that even seeing new local birds can be exhilarating-it’s a great hobby which connects us to our environment. Start looking, and if you see something rare, let me know. I want to see it too!

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