By Mary Jewett
My last Earth Notes column, back in October, explored the difference between birdwatching and ‘muscle twitching’. In the spring, my birding hobby allows me to wake up at dawn, travel locally to see my favorite migrants on their journey north. I also had a very pleasant day on December 28 taking part in the Christmas Bird Count, which Jean Preis wrote about in this issue.
Contractions are a much more adventurous activity and will likely make you call a bird nerd for traveling all over the kingdom to see a particular bird. As an avid ornithologist, it is not easy to see a new species of bird in Maine in the winter. If you’ve been there for a few years, chances are you’ve seen most of the local species, and these rarely change. However, every now and then something new happens that shakes everything up.
I’m talking, of course, about Steller’s rare and crazy sea eagle, the bird of the century. This incredible, terribly lost bird has been roaming North America for almost a year, first appearing in Alaska (which makes sense), then traveling east through Canada (which has no sense). If you haven’t heard of it yet, there are about ten articles online, and a recent one in the Portland Press Herald. I won’t tell all the stories, but I will share my own contraction experience.
To say that this bird is rare would be an understatement. It is most commonly found on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far eastern part of Russia. There are approximately 4,000 living individuals and they are considered a vulnerable species. I first heard of the sea eagle when it was spotted along the Taunton River in Massachusetts the week before Christmas. I seriously considered going down, but by the time I had the courage, that had changed. All the bird watchers in Maine then made their Christmas wishes, come here next, and we all went about our business.
And then on December 30, the sea eagle was spotted by a woman in Georgetown, Maine, and the news spread like wildfire. On New Years Day, hundreds of bird watchers from all over New England had converged on the small coastal town and no one was disappointed. I took a terrible risk and didn’t cancel my plans for Friday, deciding to leave Saturday morning instead. For most of the day on Friday, I oscillated between being comfortable with my decision and thinking I was an absolute jerk for not getting on the bandwagon.
I woke up early on Saturday and made my way to Georgetown ASAP. I knew the bird wouldn’t be seen until sunrise, but I also knew parking would become a problem the longer I waited. It was a perfectly horrible day to see a new “bird of life”. The sun was not shining and all the clouds were in the sky. A light drizzle had started and the fog was so thick on the drive that I couldn’t see 50 feet in front of my car. I knew the bird wouldn’t be seen if the fog didn’t clear, and I was willing to wait all day if necessary.
There were still a few spots in the public parking lot when I arrived, driving along with two cars full of birdwatchers from Connecticut. As I left the parking lot, I passed two women leaving. They sadly (for them) and accurately predicted that I would see the bird since they had to leave for work. I found a place among the dozen others and started my own water sweep. From our perspective, in the parking lot of a lobster company, we could see a handful of islands, with beautiful tall pine trees perfect for a large bird to roost on. About 20 minutes after I arrived he was spotted and started a slow island-to-island migration causing a frenzy of activity every time he moved. Steller’s sea eagle has a wingspan of eight feet and can weigh up to 20 pounds. If it wasn’t such a massive bird, there’s little chance anyone would have seen it.
Finally, I would like to address the photo that I attached to my article. I don’t even know if the publisher will allow it (We were doing), given the poor quality, but I submitted it anyway. It’s the kind of photo I wouldn’t normally share, it’s grainy and slightly blurry, which isn’t surprising considering Steller’s sea eagle was over 500 feet through the fog. Heavily cropped and edited, this is my new favorite photo, and I’ve shown it like it’s a new baby.
I often feel sadness when I watch birds so far away. A few years ago a Great Black Hawk showed up in Portland and sadly died due to the cold. Fortunately, the Steller’s Sea Eagle is well suited to cold marine environments, and after several months of travel, it doesn’t look any worse to be away from home. He also seems completely indifferent to the attention he gets from all of us bird nerds.
Mary Jewett is an educator and director of the CBI at the Lakes Environmental Association.