I tried to warn you.
Two weeks ago, I relayed that a Steller’s sea eagle had been found in Massachusetts. This enormous raptor is native to Siberia, and it has never been seen in the lower 48 states until now.
It’s so rare, there’s no good word to describe how rare it is, and I warned you that it could head this way.
On New Year’s Eve, it was discovered in Georgetown near the Five Islands public wharf. What a frenzy followed! People from all over the country raced to Maine and picked their way to the area around Reid State Park. Many hundreds of people saw the bird over the next two days.
I take full credit for their success. First, this column publicized that a bird from Siberia would relish Maine’s winter climate, and that Maine seafood was the best. Apparently, he read it.
Second, I did not rush to see the bird, as I have a longstanding reputation as a jinx. If I chase a rarity, it will leave 15 minutes before I get there, disappointing everyone else who’s chasing it.
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I finally tried on Monday, three days after its discovery. Naturally, no luck. I made the three-hour journey again on Tuesday. No luck. It was gone.
On March 2, 1975, a Ross’s gull was discovered in Salisbury, Massachusetts. It is also a bird typically found in eastern Russia, with very small colonies in the North American arctic. The find was described as “The Bird of the Century.”
It created such a stir, it was credited with getting many Americans newly hooked on birding. This Steller’s sea eagle in Maine might be considered “The Bird of this Century.” I sure wish I had seen it.
I may have missed a show of nature, but I witnessed a show of human nature, mostly good, some amusing. Even most Mainers couldn’t find Georgetown without a map. It’s near Bath, just past Arrowsic. It has small villages and narrow roads.
Imagine the chaos when hundreds of cars streamed into an area with little parking and scarce shoreline access. I heard one story of a man who drove 10 hours from Cleveland, saw the bird, then turned around and drove home.
Most people respected private property. Most people parked responsibly, keeping roads open enough to allow emergency vehicles and lobster traps to get through. A sheriff stood by with a tow truck, just as a reminder for those who didn’t quite get the message.
A sign was placed at Reid State Park, reminding visitors that the gate would close at 4 p.m., and it would be a long night for anyone whose car was on the wrong side.
It is fortunate that the hysteria happened over the holiday weekend, when the Five Islands dock was not too busy. One lobsterman even took some people out for better looks, until dusk and the authorities discouraged further voyages.
The eagle was visible from the veranda of Grey Havens Inn for much of Sunday. Although the inn is closed in winter, the owners proved to be most gracious and cordial hosts for the immense throng that gathered.
All they asked was that people not tear up their lawn while scratching out a parking spot. Note to self: must book a room there this summer.
As birders fanned out to search the area, Maine Audubon established a Google GroupMe account to help share reports quickly. More than 1,200 people signed up.
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As I stood there with scores of other people Monday morning, many of us had our spotting scopes trained on a suspicious treetop image one mile away. The blob was dark and eagle-shaped, with two white patches where the wing patches should be. It looked like our target bird.
But the turbulent breeze played havoc with optics. Even the most expensive telescopes could not resolve the image enough to confirm the bird. Some very competent birders were sure they saw it move, and some confirmed they had seen the bright orange of the beak flash. For much of the morning, most of us believed it was real.
It wasn’t. As the sun’s angle changed, it became apparent that it was an optical illusion — a group hallucination — a clear case of “confirmation bias.” People saw what they wanted to see, as often happens in politics and birding.
The Steller’s sea eagle is still out there somewhere. If it is rediscovered, and you want to see it, you’d better get there before I do.