Just when you think all the birding excitement has quieted down for the winter, a Steller’s sea eagle pops up.
This species is among the largest raptors in the world — a third larger than bald eagles. Before showing up in southeastern Massachusetts this week, it had been observed at several spots in maritime Canada. This exceedingly rare bird probably passed right over parts of Maine as it headed south. It’s hard to believe that no one noticed a bird the size of a golden retriever flying by.
In 2018, a great black hawk turned up in Portland. It instantly became national news, and people came from all over the country to see it. As big as that event was, a Steller’s sea eagle within striking distance of our home state is even more exciting. Many Mainers have joined the throng of birders who have bravely negotiated Boston-area traffic to see such a rare bird.
Why? There are only about 5,000 Steller’s sea eagles left in the world. Gloomy predictions suggest they will go extinct within the next 40 years. They reside along the northeastern coast of Asia, and most of them are found on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia. There are records of them straying across the Bering Strait and making rare appearances in Alaska, but none beyond there. Until now.
This wayward Steller’s sea eagle has been making headlines for months. It has been featured in the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine. It was first spotted in Alaska in August 2020, before making its way to Quebec via Texas. Yes, Texas, in mid-March 2021. It subsequently wandered into New Brunswick, where it was seen in early July. In November, it was rediscovered in Nova Scotia. It then disappeared again until last week, when it arrived in Massachusetts.
Although the Steller’s sea eagle feeds primarily on fish, it is large enough to carry off a rabbit — a Volkswagen Rabbit, that is. It weighs up to 20 pounds, with a wingspan of up to 8 feet. This one has been roosting with bald eagles, making them look puny.
But enough about Massachusetts rarities.
Several other way-out-of-range birds have popped up in Maine this month. A gray kingbird spent more than a week attracting birders’ attention in Biddeford Pool. This species is a permanent resident of Caribbean Islands, with widely scattered nesting populations in South and Central America. They also breed in isolated areas of southern Florida in the summer, but they generally vacate the United States entirely in winter.
So, Biddeford Pool in December? It’s unlikely, but not impossible. Gray kingbirds sometimes wander, and storms can blow any migrant far off course. Summer individuals have been noted as far north as the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec . Nevertheless, I couldn’t find a record of a gray kingbird in winter anywhere north of Virginia until this one popped up. I’ve spent a lot of time birding southern Florida over the last four decades, but usually before they return. The only one I ever saw was on Key Largo, just after it had arrived on its breeding grounds in April.
Then there is the MacGillivray’s warbler that was reported on the Rockland Christmas Bird Count last Sunday. This western species rarely gets east of the Mississippi River. It is very similar to Maine’s mourning warbler, but neither of those insect-eating species should be this far north right now. In December 2009, a MacGillivray’s warbler was discovered at a most convenient location — Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm headquarters in Falmouth. It created quite a stir.
The MacGillivray’s warbler in Rockland was in the company of an orange-crowned warbler, another species that doesn’t nest anywhere near Maine. However, it does nest all across Canada and down through the Rockies in the United States, and it is notorious for wandering east in early winter. So I can’t really call that one a surprise. Another orange-crowned warbler was spotted in Saco last week.
More surprises may be coming. ’Tis the season of Christmas Bird Counts, with hundreds of volunteers surveying birds across the state. If ever there was a time to discover December rarities, this is it.
Meanwhile, that Steller’s sea eagle is welcome to visit Maine anytime. It should feel right at home. Maine has a cold climate, a frigid ocean, plenty of fish, and lots of bald eagles to keep it company. We can offer them everything Siberia can, except caviar.