At 10 pounds and with a 7-foot wingspan, the Bald Eagle is one of the largest flying birds in the United States. Yet the two juvenile Bald Eagles I saw perched in a tree in Massachusetts on December 20, 2021 looked like pigeons compared to the other bird on the limb with them: a Steller’s Sea-Eagle.
Everything about seeing a Steller’s Sea-Eagle in New England is incredible. It’s an awe-inspiring bird—about a foot longer and taller than an adult Bald Eagle and as many as five pounds heavier, with a massive golden bill that looks like pirate treasure. It’s rare: There are only about 4,000 of this vulnerable species left in the wild, compared to hundreds of thousands of Bald Eagles. And of course, it’s not supposed to be here. Steller’s Sea-Eagles are native to far eastern Russia, the Korean peninsula, and northern Japan.
So how did this bird get to New England? It flew. The whole way. And it’s still flying now.
Vagrancy—the tendency for birds to show up far outside their normal range—is one of the most exciting aspects of birding. The Steller’s Sea-Eagle is the epitome of a vagrant bird, and the same individual has been tracked across North America since it was first spotted more than a year ago. The timeline and travels of this single bird, from Alaska to Texas to eastern Canada to New England, must be seen to be believed. Now the biggest question for birders is where this wandering giant will go next.
August 30, 2020
Matanuska-Susitna County, AlaskaAmericans first became aware of the bird when Alaskan birder Josh Parks photographed a Steller’s Sea Eagle along the Denali Highway. It was big news, but not shocking. These eagles occasionally show up in Alaska, with a handful of records in recent decades. But the Denali bird was unusual for being spotted inland, far from its typical habitat. It would be a sign of things to come.
March 10, 2021
Coleto Creek Reservoir, Victoria, TexasThe bird’s trail went cold for months. Then, the Barnhart Q5 Ranch & Nature Retreat in Texas posted a photo, and birders were stunned. Could this be the same bird? No wild Steller’s Sea Eagle had ever come anywhere near Texas before. Still, a massive winter storm had blown through weeks before, and there were no jesses or other signs of captivity in the photograph. The image didn’t have detail to compare unique feather markings, either, so birders could do little more than scratch their heads. With no further sightings, the mystery continued.
June 28, 2021
Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec/New Brunswick, CanadaThe bird popped up next in late June—more than 2,500 miles away in eastern Canada. Gerry Isaac, a ranger from the Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nation, first spotted the bird in a tree on June 28 and got the word out. People from across Canada converged on the location, but it was only spotted a handful of times, mostly on July 1. Still, high quality spread-wing photographs allowed birders to notice something crucial: The distinctive border between the white and brown feathers on the upper wings was an exact match to the bird previously seen in Alaska. It was confirmed the two sightings were of the same individual. The eagle continued to bounce around the Gaspé Peninsula in July and early August.
Wanna know something cool?— Beast of Birdin' (@GREGNEISE) July 9, 2021
The Steller's Sea Eagle being seen right now in New Brunswick, is the same bird that was photographed near Denali in Alaska in August of 2020 ... and almost certainly the same one that was photographed in Texas in March of this year! pic.twitter.com/K26GUX6sfM
November 3–4, 2021
Avon River, near Falmouth, Nova ScotiaAlmost three months after its last sighting, Nova Scotia biologist Phil Taylor spotted the Steller’s while birding along the Avon River. Dozens of local birders rushed to the scene to enjoy the bird during its short, two day stay. Then, gone again.
December 12–20, 2021
Taunton River, MassachusettsLate on December 19, word got out of a sighting in southern Massachusetts that occurred a week before. The bird was re-found early on the 20th. This was most U.S. birders’ first real shot at seeing the bird, due to pandemic rules for crossing into Canada, so New England’s entire birding scene was in a scramble. (I immediately begged off the Christmas Bird Count I was working on when the news hit. Sorry!) Three masked friends and I sped down I-95 from southern Maine to Dighton Rock State Park where—miracle of all miracles—we watched the massive, rare, incredible, wandering Steller’s Sea Eagle tower over nearby Bald Eagles. A crowd of 200 or so people were elated, whooping and high-fiving and shaking their heads with incredulity. Hours later, after we left, the eagle left its perch. It was not seen again.
December 30, 2021–January 6, 2022
Sheepscot River, MaineI had written a blog post about my journey to Massachusetts, and on Dec. 30 a comment notification popped up. A woman named Linda Tharp let me know “it's in Five Islands ME today, 12/30.” I quickly found Linda on Instagram. Could she send any photos of the bird? She did. It was the eagle. Another scramble.
By the next morning, the eagle was being enjoyed by hundreds of birders for three glorious days on the scenic coast of Georgetown. Cars packed into the small wharf area alongside lobstermen and women working to unload their traps. The scene was ripe for conflict but instead it was one of joy, with bemused lobstermen laughing about the surprise crowds and one even giving birders a ride on his boat to see the bird perched behind an island. The eagle went missing on January 2 but was spotted on January 6 not far away on another stretch of the river.
Five Islands is a working waterfront, and yesterday was a busy day for local lobstermen pulling their traps for the season. They weren’t expecting hundreds of birders crowding the wharf, and it could have been an ugly scene. Instead, the mood was bemused, pleasant, and happy. ♥️ pic.twitter.com/aCXVfvfwGk— The Birdist (@TheBirdist) January 1, 2022
The Story ContinuesThe bird seems to be hanging out in Maine for the time being, but where might it go if it disappears again? For a bird as large and powerful as the Steller’s Sea Eagle, and with its history of flying great distances, there’s no telling where it might show up. It has shown a preference for tidal rivers with tall trees and lots of islands. Many areas along the Maine coast fit that bill, including the Harpswell area and the Piscataqua River. If it has flown south, perhaps to escape dropping temperatures in Maine, likely areas could include Boston harbor, Buzzards Bay, and back on the Taunton River. Further than that, the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, or Hudson River are all possibilities.
Graphic: Alex Tomlinson/Audubon
It’s hard to know exactly what condition the wandering Steller’s Sea-Eagle is in, but by all accounts it appears healthy. After all, it’s clearly strong enough to fly across an entire continent and take several hundred mile flights every couple of weeks. It has been observed feeding on fish at several locations and displays no sign of injury or illness.
Why the bird has strayed so far from its native range is anybody's guess. Marshall Iliff, eBird project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and one of the first to spot the eagle in Massachusetts, says scientists are just beginning to understand the tendency of raptors to wander. “Raptors are more and more blowing our minds with their movements,” he says, “and with more observers, more cameras, and digital tools like eBird, we’re seeing that long-distance raptors dispersals are a rare but regular phenomenon.” Iliff says that many of these wandering raptors are juvenile birds dispersing to find new areas to live. There are other reasons birds show up far from their normal range, including habitat loss, weather events, and simply migrating in the wrong direction. (In its native range, the declining population is threatened by habitat loss, lead poisoning, climate change, and nestling predation by brown bears, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature.)
Though it's far from home and will likely never make it back, there’s a chance that this eagle could find a place it’d like to stay in North America. It’s not uncommon for individual vagrant birds to thrive in their new territory, such as the Red-billed Tropicbird that has returned to the Gulf of Maine for 16 years and counting. In fact, it’s possible that Steller’s Sea-Eagles could breed with local Bald Eagles, as evidenced by this supposed hybrid eagle seen in Juneau, Alaska, in 2004.
When asked to guess the future of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle, Iliff said he could easily see it wandering North America for years to come. “I predict that we’re going to have a lot more fun with this bird,” he says. The only thing that’s certain with this bird is that, wherever it’s found, it’ll leave a group of stunned and elated birders in its wake.