The Route 127 bridge that connects the Midcoast Maine islands of Arrowsic and Georgetown isn’t typically prone to traffic in the winter months. Now, however, it’s become the Northeast’s hottest birdwatching destination—all thanks to a single bird, a Steller’s sea eagle, which […]
By Kim Knox Beckius
Feb 16 2023
This Steller’s sea eagle has become quite a celebrity since its first visit to Maine in 2022.Photo Credit : Zachary Holderby, courtesy of Maine Audubon
The Route 127 bridge that connects the Midcoast Maine islands of Arrowsic and Georgetown isn’t typically prone to traffic in the winter months. Now, however, it’s become the Northeast’s hottest birdwatching destination—all thanks to a single bird, a Steller’s sea eagle, which has inexplicably taken up residence in Maine for the second consecutive winter.
There are only about 5,000 Steller’s sea eagles in the world, according to population estimates. Their range is quite restricted: They nest in eastern Siberia, then travel south into northern Japan in the winter. Maine Audubon staff naturalist Doug Hitchcox says it used to be if you wanted to see one, “You’d basically have to travel to Japan in the winter and get on a boat that goes out to some ice flows.” But now, a “vagrant” Steller’s sea eagle is hanging out in Maine, and birders and other curious observers are making an off-season trek to the Midcoast region in hopes of encountering this exceedingly rare bird.
In Instagram posts and on the messaging app GroupMe, which birders are using to share sightings, this adult Steller’s sea eagle has been nicknamed “Stella” (say it, of course, with a drawn-out “AH” like a true Mainah). Whether the enormous raptor is a female or male is actually one of the great unknowns swirling around its presence in Maine. “For this bird to be thousands of miles off course, that’s bizarre,” Hitchcox says. “It’s really unbelievable.”
We chatted with Hitchcox to learn more about the bird’s backstory, but first… here are some tips on:
Step One: Check Maine Audubon’s Rare Bird Alert blog, where Hitchock is posting updates on sightings once or twice daily. You may also want to download the GroupMe app and join the East Coast Steller’s Sea-Eagle Discussion Group. Stella only stuck around through the first week of March in 2022, so there’s no telling how long this window of opportunity will last.
Step Two: Dress warmly, and set your GPS for Georgetown, Maine. You’ll bump into other birders if you follow updated guidance on the best public places for spotting the Steller’s sea eagle. This is a friendly, generous, knowledgeable community, so even if you don’t have your own spotting scope or camera with a telephoto lens, chances are good someone will help you view this rare bird if it is in the vicinity. Be sure to stay safely out of roadways.
Step Three: Plan to stay a night or two. “Patience is key,” says Hitchcox. You’ve made the trip, so why turn around disappointed after an hour or two? Experienced birders know their investment of time reaps rewards. And you’ll feel good knowing you’re supporting the local economy at an off-season time, too. One study estimated the Steller’s sea eagle brought at least $500,000 in tourism revenue to the Midcoast region last winter.
Hitchcox: Size is what seems to awe so many people. When you see the Steller’s sea eagle sitting next to a bald eagle, it’s just amazing how much larger it is. It made a very brief appearance in Massachusetts before it was found in Maine, and I raced down to see it then, thinking that would be our only chance. I’ll always remember: We had spotting scopes set up on it. Experienced birders would come running up, and I remember this birder looking in the scope, seeing it, and saying, “Oh, wow!” then asking, “What are those little birds perched around it?” Those little birds were bald eagles: young ones. Not immediately recognizable, I guess. That’s the only time I’ve heard someone describe a bald eagle as a little bird.
Hitchcox: 2020 was the first sighting up in southern Alaska. Any sighting beyond the Aleutian Islands is noteworthy. Fast forward to spring of 2021: There was a sighting down in Texas, which blew people away, but it was only seen by one person. All of a sudden, it moves to eastern Canada in the fall of 2021. And then, ultimately, it was found down at Five Islands in Georgetown on December 30, 2021.
Hitchcox: At least a few thousand people got to see it last winter. It was seen until either the 5th or 6th of March in 2022.
Hitchcox: Yes. It helps that there are thousands of photos being taken of it daily. And there are some really unique markings. It’s got that dark head, white tail, and the white that shows up on the wings up by the shoulders. There are these white slashes. It’s basically the shape of the feather or the white on the feather that creates this kind of unique marking, especially on the dorsal view. That’s the angle a lot of people have been comparing. You can basically think of it as the fingerprint of that bird. With all the photos we’ve got, you can see that it is definitely the same bird.
Hitchcox: Throughout summer of 2022, we know it was hanging around Newfoundland. In November 2022, it was seen in eastern New Brunswick and heading our way. It has spent the most time and been seen by the most people in Midcoast Maine, where it has gotten the notoriety it deserves. We had a good feeling it would come back this winter, but the later it got, the more it became a big question. Now it’s here [first sighting was February 4, 2023] and amazing to see how people are reacting so quickly to try to get a glimpse.
Hitchcox: We know vagrancy is a natural phenomenon in birds. That’s how most birds are going to expand their ranges, maybe find new wintering or new breeding areas. It’s a well documented thing that birds are known to wander. Usually, that tends to be with more migratory species, though. Steller’s sea eagle has a really restricted range. They migrate from northern Japan to eastern Russia: They’re not moving very far.
When it was first found in 2020 in southeastern Alaska, as it was starting its journey here, it was already an adult, which we can tell by its plumage. They take at least four years to get that white tail, dark body, white on the shoulders. So it’s at least four years old then, putting it at six or almost seven now. Most vagrants tend to be young birds. They could have something internally. Some internal compass is wrong.
Why is an adult eagle wandering? We have to throw our hands up: No one knows.