The Sea-Eagle Saga
This is the story of the quest for one of my most wanted birds in the entire world.
As a curious kid who was obsessed with wildlife from the moment I opened my eyes, I devoured countless books and documentaries about the planet’s amazing animals during my childhood. The Steller’s Sea-Eagle was one of those iconic species that stood out in my early memories due to its striking appearance and seemingly unattainable rarity. By weight, this species is the largest extant eagle, clocking in at up to 20 pounds. It’s also in the running for top honors by length and wingspan, measuring “a third as big again” as the mighty Golden Eagle, as Sir David Attenborough so eloquently put it in a memorable Blue Planet sequence. My desire to see this imposing Far Eastern raptor was so great that I often listed a winter visit to Hokkaido as one of my top birding destinations alongside more mainstream picks like Australasia and the Neotropics. Sea-eagles are not completely unknown from North America, appearing rarely but regularly in Alaska, but most records come from the extreme western regions such as the Aleutian Islands and the coast of the Bering Sea. Even when I spent a summer working in Juneau, my occasional daydreams of finding a Steller’s felt like impossible fantasies. Though there are truly too many incredible birds in the world for me to ever curate an official “bucket list” of must-see species, this magnificent bird of prey was always a high priority when considering regions I hoped to one day visit.
Over the course of 2021, a most remarkable story began to unfold, with this species at the center of it all. In truth, the prologue of the tale took place in August 2020, when an adult Steller’s Sea-Eagle was photographed along the Denali highway in interior Alaska. Considering that all prior sightings in North America had come from coastal regions and offshore islands, this report was an especially noteworthy event and celebrated as such. None of us had any idea what we were in for. The next and arguably weirdest development in this narrative took place in March 2021, when photos surfaced of a Steller’s Sea-Eagle allegedly seen at Coleto Creek Park in southern Texas. Locals who followed up on the claim were able to locate the exact snag the bird was perched on in the images, but the eagle itself was nowhere to be found. There was a great deal of debate over the legitimacy of this observation, but with limited details and no subsequent sightings the speculation gradually died down. A few months later, at the end of June, yet another report of a wayward sea-eagle came in, this time from the border of New Brunswick and Quebec. What’s more, images of the bird in flight showed that the plumage patterns on the upper surface of its wings looked shockingly similar to those of the previous year’s Alaska record. The birding world turned upside down.
There has been some controversy about whether these closely matching feather details were indicative of the same individual crossing the entire continent or simply a strange coincidence, but most experts agreed the details lined up closely enough that any discrepancies could be explained by a year of molt and wear. What might have otherwise been dismissed as an escapee from some illegal, unregistered menagerie was increasingly recognized as a potential legitimate and mindblowing vagrant, thousands of miles beyond the previous furthest record. Even the mainstream media picked up on the incredible story, and I received frequent messages from non-birding friends asking if I’d heard about the lost eagle. Birders in the Canadian Maritimes delighted in the sighting, while those of us trapped on the other side of the closed border wished that the sea-eagle had turned up at a time when an international roadtrip would actually be possible. The bird spent several weeks wandering the Gaspé Peninsula before disappearing, only to resurface in Nova Scotia at the start of November. Though Americans were now permitted to enter Canada again, albeit with some restrictions, I realized that my passport had expired in the intervening months. I submitted an application for renewal just in case the bird stuck around for the winter, but a few days later it vanished yet again.
After wistfully watching this story develop from afar for the better part of a year, December finally brought the sea-eagle within striking distance. While I was enjoying a round of drinks with friends after the Captree Christmas Bird Count, word came in that the Steller’s had been photographed by a non-birder along the Dighton River in Massachusetts a week prior. Bright and early the next day, hopeful searchers rediscovered their quarry hanging out with some Bald Eagles not far from the originally reported location. I was in agony. It was the Monday before Christmas vacation, a short week as it is, and I wasn’t sure I could justify taking a day off without warning. I packed a bugout bag and started negotiating car access for the break. My primary enablers, Dad and Jacqi, stated that they were fine with me going after the bird as long as I was back for festivities and flights. I never got a chance to put my plan into action. The eagle circled high and flew off to seek new horizons shortly after midday, leaving many of the folks who’d dropped everything to chase empty-handed. The game of keep away continued, with a report coming in from coastal Maine the day after I arrived in Arizona. Hundreds of happy observers rang in the New Year with sightings of the majestic megararity, but they lost track of it again right before I returned to the Northeast.
Over the course of the first work week of 2022, I kept my ear to the grand for reliable reports of the missing sea-eagle. Chatting about the subject with my friend Ryan Mandelbaum, we both confirmed that we would instantly prepare to chase in the event the bird was refound. It didn’t take long for our wish came true: photos of the eagle standing triumphantly atop a deconstructed Canada Goose came in mere hours later. The restless traveler had apparently relocated across the river to Boothbay Harbor, one of the ports where I used to narrate puffin tours back in 2014. We immediately began scheming our departure from New York, booking a hotel in Freeport, Maine for Friday night and securing use of my family car to head out right after work. We were initially concerned about a snowstorm that blew through the region on Friday morning, but the precipitation stopped early enough in the day that the roads cleared up nicely. We even got a positive report that the Steller’s had been seen in the same area by an intrepid observer during the storm. Our drive up to New England was shockingly easy. The conditions on the highways were exceptional, with no snow or traffic, and we completed the first leg of our trip in just about 5 hours. After a fun-filled drive with no shortage of great conversation, we were in high spirits and cautiously optimistic about our chances as we settled in for the night.
We were up and out the door in the wee hours of Saturday morning, finishing the last hour of drive time and arriving at Boothbay Harbor in time for sunrise. We set up our scopes at the Maine State Aquarium, one of the prominent landmarks that I used to see from my regular trips aboard the Island Lady with Cap’n Fish’s Cruises. I reasoned that this expansive parking lot at the tip of McKown Point would be a great location for scanning the harbor to the north, east, and south. As for the west, my old college friend Zac Peterson had contacted me about making a predawn run from his home in Massachusetts, so we decided to coordinate our search efforts with him checking a public boat launch just up the road. Within minutes of starting our vigil, I received an urgent call from Zac notifying me that the sea-eagle had just flown past his vantage point. We rushed over as quickly as we could, finding a handful of other birders who were thrilled by their early success, but no eagle. Zac showed me the photos on the back of his camera. There was no mistaking that massive golden beak and diamond-shaped tail. The bird was still present, but it was on the move, and we just had to track it down.
We split up again to fan out and search for areas along the roadside where we’d have a clear view of our surroundings. Much of the Maine coastline is complex and irregular, with plenty of inlets, rivers, peninsulas, and islands that complicate surveying. In combination with the abundance of private property and restricted roads, this means that long detours are often required even when the straight line distance between two points is only about a mile. It’s easy to understand why this is the state that coined the phrase “you can’t get there from here!” We hit several dead ends in our quest for an accessible vantage point south of the bird’s last known location. Fortunately, we weren’t the only ones watching for the bird. The arrival of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle had spawned two separate group chats to discuss updates on its whereabouts: one general group for news on all avian rarities in Maine and another solely devoted to the celebrity raptor. The constant chatter in the twin conversations meant there was a steady stream of messages to sift through, but I was still grateful for the resource of additional observers and prompt notifications.
While Ryan and I were scanning from the Southport Swing Bridge across the water from the West Boothbay Harbor, we received word someone had eyes on the eagle. It was apparently perched somewhere near Juniper Point, which lies between the aquarium and the boat launch where the bird made its daybreak appearance. Rather than head directly to the GPS coordinates, we drove south in search of a road where we’d be able to look north towards the bird’s location. To our great relief, we quickly found signage marking a public street called Pine Cliff Road. A short distance down the way, Ryan spotted a small gap in the treeline just beyond a construction site. I pulled over, readied my scope, and immediately spotted an enormous bird of prey perched in the branches of a tall pine. Oaths flowed freely from my mouth.
Despite the distance, the views in the scope were truly exceptional. The Steller’s Sea-Eagle was every bit as impressive as my lifelong expectations had built it up to be. The hulking frame of this Siberian giant was a spectacle behold, with rich chocolate brown feathers contrasting boldly with the gleaming white plumage of its tail, legs, and the leading edge of its wings. Its heavy yellow-orange bill was as bright as a beacon, turning this way and that as it surveyed the harbor for prey. Even from afar, this was an incredibly imposing creature, especially when it focused its steely gaze in our direction. As Ryan commented, it basically looked like a man in a bird costume was sitting in the tree. We exchanged ecstatic cheers as we basked in this moment of glory, savoring our time with the awe-inspiring wanderer. I was in such a state of shock that it took me several minutes to realize there was another car just up the road, with a familiar face amidst the crowd of wonderstruck onlookers. It was a pleasure to reunite with birder extraordinaire Tom Johnson, a fellow Cornell graduate and regular fixture of my time in Maine with Project Puffin, who had made the journey to chase the sea-eagle along with a small crew that also included his equally talented fiancée Melissa Roach. Our brief catch-up was greatly enhanced by the opportunity to share in the company of the world-class bird roosting across the water from us. Unexpectedly bumping into far-flung friends is one of my favorite parts of chasing noteworthy vagrants!
Eventually, the sea-eagle took flight when a group of overeager observers carelessly got too close to the base of its tree. It headed east over Boothbay Harbor and lit in another lofty pine tree. We repositioned to try for a better look, returning to the Maine State Aquarium where we could safely observe the bird from across the water without disturbing it. We reconvened with Zac and set up our optics, and the expected crowds began to build as the scattered twitchers gradually converged on this accommodating overlook. The dense branches of the eagle’s new perch meant that it was more obscured than it had been at the previous site, but it nevertheless attracted attention from the locals. The call went up that a pair of crows had found the raptor and begun harassing it. When I focused my scope to get a better look, I realized that the comparatively tiny-looking corvids circling the tree were actually Common Ravens. It’s rare to see a raven, the world’s largest songbird, associating with a bird that makes its 4-foot wingspan seem small. Steller’s Sea-Eagles can measure more than 8 feet from wingtip to wingtip, and seeing a familiar large bird in direct comparison helped to drive home the sense of scale. The eagle launched into the air and began circling the harbor with the ravens in hot pursuit. The high altitude dogfight briefly attracted the attention of a nearby Bald Eagle, which was dwarfed by its colossal cousin. The Steller’s truly was “a third as big again.” We finally lost sight of our prize when it broke off from its pursuers and disappeared into the distance, but we were all completely satisfied with the experience. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have enjoyed such a spectacular encounter with a species of such monumental proportions!
Being back at Boothbay Harbor was making me feel pretty nostalgic, so when discussion turned to how we should spend the rest of our day I couldn’t resist recommending a few old favorite spots. Zac, Ryan, and I headed off towards Pemaquid Point, the site of the famous lighthouse that graces the Maine state quarter, in the hopes of conducting an impromptu seawatch. Along the way, however, I received another call from Zac, who had run afoul of some nasty unforeseen engine trouble. We paused the birding to transport him to an auto shop in Damariscotta so he could pick up some oil, but upon returning to his vehicle it became apparent that a simple top up wasn’t going to be enough to fix the problem. It was some comfort that we all got a chance to connect with our target bird before this misfortune reared its ugly head.
Ryan and I continued on to check out the Point while Zac waited for roadside assistance to collect his car. I saw my first Razorbills and Northern Gannet of the year, and I was also pleased to encounter my first Black Guillemots since 2017. Even better, I had the chance to wave hello to Eastern Egg Rock, the seabird colony where I conducted both field research and boat tours, and Monhegan Island, one of the most incredible autumn migrant traps I’ve ever visited. It wasn’t long before we got the signal from Zac that we was ready for a pickup. We closed out our time in Maine with lunch and celebratory ales at King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta, one of my preferred haunts during the summer and fall of 2014. That field season I spent working for Project Puffin was one of the most fondly remembered highlights of my professional career. The months-long wait for the sea-eagle had been well worth it, and the opportunity to revisit some familiar stomping grounds certainly improved the experience.
The journey home was not nearly as quick as our drive up had been, but it was a relatively painless affair overall. We returned Zac to his family in Massachusetts, bidding him a fond farewell and thanking him profusely for being first to spot the bird so early in the day. I was grateful for Ryan’s company to keep me awake at the end of such an exhausting day, and they delivered masterfully on navigational duties, entertaining music, and quality discussion topics throughout the long drive. We parted ways at Jamaica Station with about an hour to go until midnight, and when I finally returned to my parents’ house Dad was waiting for me with a thematically appropriate nightcap: a “Sea’s the Day” New England IPA from South Shore Craft Brewery. The sea-eagle may have been the focal point of this grand adventure, but all of the people who were involved helped to make it an extra special event.
So what’s next for the Steller’s Sea-Eagle? As of this writing, it is still putting in regular appearances in the general vicinity of Boothbay Harbor. It remains to be seen how long it will linger or where it might wind up next, but you can be sure that birders across the continent will be on the lookout to document the next chapter of the saga. It’s no exaggeration to say that this expedition was one of the most highly anticipated birding trips of my entire life. After months of buildup tracking this specific individual and nearly 3 decades of dreaming about the species itself, this gorgeous, gargantuan raptor still managed to live up to my sky high hype. This top tier avian encounter is already an easy favorite for Top Bird of 2022, barely more than a week into the New Year, and I’m confident it will remain one of the most spectacular and memorable adventures of my entire life.