Handsome eagle from northeastern Asia stakes a claim in U.S.
A giant eagle with a big bright yellow beak has caused a stir on the East Coast. A Steller’s sea eagle has been spending the winter along the upper Atlantic Coast, capturing the imaginations of birders across North America.
Typically found along the Bering Sea, west of Alaska, a Steller’s can tip the scales up to 20 pounds. That dwarfs America’s national symbol, the majestic bald eagle, which tops out at roughly 14 pounds.
This bird is not only way out of it usual range, but is most likely the same individual that’s been seen in North America starting in last summer of 2020.
A Steller’s sea eagle is a rare bird for Alaska, but occasionally ones appear on the coast. In August 2020, Josh Parks photographed a Steller’s at mile 43 on the Denali Highway, in the interior of Alaska. The bird did not stay, and it was presumed to have headed back towards the coast.
Then on March 10, 2021, a post from Barnhart Q5 Ranch and Nature Retreat Facebook popped up with a photo of a Steller’s sea eagle. Someone claimed to have snapped an image of it while boating Coleto Creek Reservoir in Texas.
Birders immediately lost their minds over the highly unusual sighting. How does a fish-eating bird from coastal Russia make it all the way to Texas without being seen by anyone else? Not to mention surviving on food available in the United States?
There was speculation the photo was a hoax until some intrepid birders visited the reservoir the next day via boat. They didn’t find the bird, but they did find the exact snag the eagle in the photo was perched on. Speculation even suggested that perhaps a south-of-the-border drug lord had an eagle as an illegal pet and it got loose.
Much like the Denali Highway bird, the Texas bird was not seen again. Then in late June 2021, a Steller’s sea eagle appeared eastern Canada. Birders converged on the bird getting photos of it in flight, and compared it to photos of the bird taken on the Denali Highway; it had similar patterns of white, confirming it to be the same bird. We unfortunately do not have flight feathers of the sea eagle in Texas, but it could be the same individual.
Since then the sea eagle has been working its way south. It has been reported in Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, and now Maine. Birders in the Midwest are hoping this wanderer will find its way along the Great Lakes and work its way west.
Sometimes birds get way off course. Is there some genetic component that tells them to go east for migration as opposed to south? Did it get caught in a storm? Tough to say. But a large bird like this that eats primarily fish (but isn’t opposed to hunting wildfowl and mammals like red fox) stands a good chance of survival. It pretty much occupies the same habitat as bald eagles.
There are fewer than 5,000 Steller’s sea eagles in the world. Even if you went to their traditional range of coastal Russia or Japan, you wouldn’t find many.
So long as it keeps flying in North America, birders will be on the lookout. When a single individual likes this travels to many places, giving birders a chance to see such a rarity, it becomes that unusual bird that ties other birders together.
So if you hear of this spectacular bird working its way towards you, it’s worth a road trip.