Rare Sea Eagle, Native To Asia, Turns Up In Massachusetts

A Steller’s sea eagle, a rare raptor native to parts of Asia and eastern Russia, has been spotted mingling with bald eagles along a river in southeastern Massachusetts.

The stunning eagle first turned up last week along the Taunton River, east of Providence, Rhode Island, and is believed to be the same bird that was previously observed in Alaska and Canada, according to a Facebook post from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Steller’s sea eagles can weigh up to 20 pounds and have a 6- to 8-foot wingspan. They have large, cartoonish orange beaks and distinctive white plumage along their upper wings that resembles a splattered snowball.

News of the sighting sent birders flocking to the area. One of them, Nick Lund, the advocacy and outreach coordinator for Maine Audubon, blogged about the experience on his website, called “The Birdist.” Lund had been participating in a Christmas bird count in southern Maine when he received a text from a colleague that said “Steller’s was just found.”

Lund abandoned the organized bird count, hopped in the car with some fellow birders and drove the two hours south.

“We pull up to the tiny, private beach where the bird was last seen to the dreaded ‘you just missed it!’” Lund wrote on his blog. “A birder’s nightmare. It flew upriver somewhere and no one knows where it is.”

With their car nearly out of gas, the group drove off in hopes of catching a glimpse. Eventually, they received word that the bird had been spotted at Dighton Rock State Park.

“We go, park haphazardly, and there it is, across the river with a bunch of Bald Eagles. Holy shit. We’re screaming,” Lund wrote. “An absolute dream to be all of a sudden standing in this random park in southern Massachusetts looking at a wild, rare Russian monster.”

On their way home, the group stopped to purchase a bottle of Russian vodka to “honor our visiting Russian comrade.

This bird of prey’s odyssey thousands of miles from home has captivated scientists and enthusiasts. As The New York Times reported in November, the lost eagle has been slowly makings its way east across North America. It was first spotted along the Denali highway in southeastern Alaska in August 2020, and more recently in eastern Canada. It is even believed to have been sighted in Texas in the spring.

“We’ve never had one here in this area of the world: the Northeast coast of North America or Massachusetts,” Andrew Vitz, a state ornithologist, told The Boston Globe. “This is like the bird of the decade for people around here.”

Birds turning up outside their normal range, known as avian vagrancy, is relatively common, often the result of an animal getting lost or blown off course in a storm.

Vitz told the Globe that the eagle appears to be in good health and there is no plan to tag or capture it.

“It’s probably trying to find some familiar faces out there — others of its own species,” he said.

The total population of Steller’s sea eagles is estimated at 4,000 to 7,000 individuals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the bird as “vulnerable.”

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