A Steller’s sea eagle in flight. (ISTOCK PHOTO)
It was easy to close on my target because the road in Georgetown was lined with vehicles. I arrived before noon on Jan. 2 to find the lawn packed with at least 60 people bundled up against a cold mist. Some had taken shelter on the porch of the Grey Havens Inn, while the intrepid had scrambled down to the shoreline. They ranged from toddlers to octogenarians, with most observers packing binoculars and/or cameras, many sporting large telephoto lenses. Everyone was focused on a tall spruce at the north end of Wood Island, a couple hundred yards into the Sheepscot River.
While many New Year’s celebrations were muted this year due to the never-ending pandemic, 2022 got off to a rousing start for area birders. Starting on Dec. 31, hundreds of people were thrilled to witness a once-in-a-lifetime bird that had wandered far from its native habitat. A huge Steller’s sea eagle had flown up the coast after a few days along the Taunton River in Massachusetts, drawing a crowd in its wake.
For three days, the bird was easily spotted in a short stretch between Reid State Park and the Grey Havens Inn. The owner of the inn and the good folks at Five Islands Lobster were accommodating to all the people who streamed into the area from near and far, including travelers from Maryland to California.
As with the rare great black hawk that arrived from South America in late 2018 to delight thousands of visitors to Portland, this eagle had to be seen to be believed. Grouped in the Haliaeetus genus with our bald eagle and eight other fish or sea eagles, the Steller’s sea eagle is massive, with a wingspan up to 8 feet and weighing up to 20 pounds. Only the California condor, among North American birds, would be slightly larger than this gorgeous eagle. Its body is cloaked in rich brown feathers, contrasting with brilliant white tail, belly and shoulders. Bright yellow is the color of the eyes, talons and oversized bill, very prominent through the lens even at long distances. The bird was first described by Peter Simon Pallas in 1811 and is named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, a pioneer of natural history from the early 1700s who worked in Russia and Alaska.
The primary home of the Steller’s sea eagle is the northeastern coast of Russia, in particular the Kamchatka Peninsula. There the eagles nest and feed near the ocean or inland along major rivers rich with fish, the dominant food for the bird. Their normal migration path finds the birds moving to Hokkaido (Japan), Korea or China. The eagles are adept at snatching fish from shallow waters, and during salmon migrations, they find easy pickings when the salmon die after spawning. At other times of the year the eagles will take small mammals, waterfowl and other shorebirds, and will dine on carrion, such as dead seals. The Steller’s is known to follow fishing boats in search of scraps or to steal food from other birds, as witnessed by some viewers in Georgetown.
How did this magnificent bird arrive in Georgetown, 7,000 miles from home as the eagle flies? Scientists have a term to describe such wanderers: “vagrants.” They may find themselves in foreign lands due to navigation errors or having been blown off course by major storms. Since birds migrate by memory and celestial navigation, an injury or illness may also play a role in vagrancy. As many of the vagrants are young males, it may be that they have traveled far in search of a first mate. “Our” eagle carried enough distinguishing marks that it is believed to have first traveled to Alaska in late 2020. It was spotted in Texas in March 2021 and first landed in our region with a visit to Nova Scotia in November.
I was so keen to see the bird again in good weather, and hopeful of snagging a good photo, that I was the first one on station at the inn on a cold Jan. 3 pre-dawn. Other hopeful visitors joined me in the next hour, but we were unlucky. The bird some had taken to calling Lonely George had moved on. (Since it is not possible to sex the eagle by sight alone, it may have been Lonely Georgette!) Records in Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology indicate the bird was seen again on Jan. 7 near Bar Harbor.
Will the Steller’s sea eagle ever make it back home? Scientists believe that 90% of small songbirds do not survive long off-course journeys, but this eagle is a powerful predator in apparent good health. Also, it comes from a rugged northern climate, so wintering in New England or the Maritimes should not be a hardship, as it was for the unfortunate great black hawk that succumbed to frostbite in early 2019. The Steller’s may choose to migrate with bald eagles, following them to productive feeding grounds.
Hopefully the bird will survive, since it is one of fewer than 5,000 remaining Steller’s worldwide. Although not yet considered an endangered species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature rates the Steller’s sea eagle as “vulnerable,” subject to further population declines as a result of habitat loss, pollution and overfishing.
Birders are generally curious folks, often fixated on minute details of tiny birds that are difficult to observe even in ideal conditions. Some birders are highly competitive, keen to add another bird to their life list so as to gain bragging rights over their brethren. While most of us are happy to seek birds close to our homes, others will jump on a plane immediately if a rarity is reported somewhere on Earth. Those of us fortunate enough to see the Steller’s sea eagle so close to home will count our New Year’s blessings and look forward to the next rare vagrant to grace our shores.
Ed Robinson’s latest book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More,” is available from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. All profits support HHLT’s conservation and public education efforts.