News & Events

A Birding New Year’s Present of a Lifetime

(Photos and story by Pam Hunt)

Attentive birders may have heard of the exceptionally rare Steller’s Sea-Eagle that appeared in southeastern Massachusetts in the week before Christmas. It appeared on birders’ radar the evening of December 19th, and hordes descended on the sleepy town of Somerset the next day. Among them, but a little late to the party, was NH Audubon biologist Becky Suomala, who missed the bird by 15 minutes after a two-hour drive. The eagle was never seen again in Massachusetts.

On December 30, again late in the day, it was rediscovered 200 miles away in Georgetown, Maine, and again the birders arrived en masse the next day and got great looks. Becky and I were busy that day with Christmas Bird Counts, but decided to take the trip on January 1 in the hopes that it wouldn’t depart as it had before. We met two other friends early in the morning for the 2.5 hour drive and arrived only minutes after the bird finally reappeared (some people had been there almost two hours). For the next hour the eagle moved four times and finally disappeared to the backside of an island not visible from shore. We left in victory, and later learned that an enterprising lobsterman started taking people out in his boat to see it from the water. On January 2 the whole process repeated itself (albeit without Becky and I), but the bird was not found on the third. People continued searching however, and on January 6 the eagle was rediscovered only 4 miles away in Boothbay Harbor, where it was seen intermittently through at least the 8th.

This particular eagle’s story encompasses a lot more than New England, so a bit of history is in order. Steller’s Sea-Eagles are normally found in eastern Siberia and Japan, although there are a handful of records for Alaska. Most are from the Aleutian Islands, so one photographed near Denali National Park in August 2020 was noteworthy, even though only one person got to see it. Normally one would presume the story was over at this point, but then photos surfaced of one in south Texas in early March, an almost unheard of location for a Siberian species! There is a lot of uncertainty about the Texas record, and the story again took a break until late June, when a Steller’s Sea-Eagle was discovered in New Brunswick. Based on plumage pattern it was almost certainly the same bird as in Alaska, and it spent a little over a month exploring the Gaspe Peninsula before disappearing again in early August. Almost three months went by, but then it was found again in Nova Scotia for only two days in November before performing yet another vanishing act. On December 12 it was photographed in Massachusetts, although word didn’t get out until the 19th, and that’s where the story above begins. If the bird in Texas is the same as Alaska and the Northeast, it has covered some 6000 miles (assuming straight line flights, which are highly unlikely!) in a year-and-a-half, and only it knows where it’s going to show up again. Is it still in Maine? Will it cross over NH a third time as it wanders around the continent? Time will tell, but be sure to keep an eye out for a massive eagle (twice the weight of a Bald Eagle) with white on the wings and tail, and let us know if you find it!