A Bird’s Tale

A ‘Steller’ Bird

Tue, 01/04/2022 - 2:00pm

Maine has hosted some amazing rare birds over the years. The great black hawk, of course, was certainly among the most memorable. There are many others, too: red-billed tropicbird, tufted puffin, crested caracara, redwing, fieldfare, pink-footed goose, slaty-backed gull, the list goes on and on.

But one thing virtually all of these rarities have in common is that they are not globally rare birds. In other words, they are mostly pretty widely distributed species that have relatively large populations sizes.

Perhaps the most globally rare bird to have appeared in Maine is the one that is all over the new recently: Steller’s sea-eagle. This is a massive eagle with a white, wedge-shaped tail, white wing patches on the brown body and an orangey-yellow bill so big that you would think it couldn’t be real. The bird was spotted late last week at Five Islands and was there through at least the weekend.

This particular Steller’s sea-eagle has been roaming around eastern Canada since the summer. What may have been the same bird was in Texas in the spring and in interior Alaska the year before that.

Most of the world’s Steller’s sea-eagles breed on and near the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russian Siberia and winter south to northern Japan. There are estimated to be just 4,000-6,000 remaining, with the population in decline.

Prior to this individual’s wanderings, the closest appearance of Steller’s sea-eagle to Maine was in Alaska, where seven records span the years 1977-2004. Most of these birds were in the Aleutian Islands, and a number of them stayed for a several years. Another bird showed up far out in the Pacific on Midway Atoll, one of the westernmost islands in the Hawaiian chain—and 1,800 miles from its expected range.

The Steller’s sea-eagle that has taken up residence in our area had made thousands of Massachusetts birders excited when it made an appearance along the Taunton River there a few weeks ago. It had spent the previous months popping up in New Brunswick, Quebec and, Nova Scotia, to the delight bird of enthusiasts across eastern Canada.

Fortunately for us, brother Andrew and sister-in-law Nina live not far from where the bird was spotted last week. They tracked things closely and kept us posted every few hours on the locations of the bird and of the hundreds of people who traveled from all over Maine and the eastern U.S. (perhaps some from even farther away) to see the bird and add it to their life list, Maine list, or year list. Some saw it on the last day of 2021 and then came back to make sure they saw it again on the first day of 2022!

The bird eventually decided to spend significant time on an island halfway between Five Islands and Reid State Park. The best vantage point to see it turned out to be on the grounds of the Grey Havens Inn and fortunately for everyone, the inn’s owner was nice enough to let birders view from the property. One of us (Jeff) was fortunate enough to get down with brother Andrew and see the bird late on Sunday afternoon. It was perched like a king on the top of one of the tallest white pines on the point across the cove from the inn.

As we write this, the bird was not definitively relocated. All eyes will be watching for this colossal wandering eagle to see where it lands next. We wonder if those who see it or read about it will be moved to learn more about its Russian homeland and its Japanese wintering grounds. Perhaps someone among those will become enamored with the idea of studying the birds and working toward the conservation of Steller’s sea-eagles and the places they need to survive. Will the presence of this one bird spark something in one person or maybe many people that will make a difference in the place where it came from or in the world anywhere or everywhere?

We think it will. We certainly hope so.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular books, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).