Into the Wild: Betting on the most famous bird in North America

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I imagine that it will be my only opportunity to do live TV in Brazil. I did a live morning show in Nebraska, too, and was quoted twice in The New York Times, presented in front of Maine Audubon’s largest-ever Zoom crowd, and did a whole bunch of other crazy things thanks to one very lost bird: the Steller’s sea eagle.

For those victims of the churning news cycle that have already forgotten, the Steller’s sea eagle is the largest eagle in the world, one of the rarest, and is typically found only in Siberia and northern Japan. It’s something of a dream bird for many birders – a spectacular species but one not many thought they’d see (including me, since Siberia isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of birding destinations). Incredibly, one came to us.

Nick LundA single individual Steller’s sea eagle left Siberia at some point and flew east. It was spotted on Aug. 30, 2020, in the middle of Alaska. Cool, but not earth-shattering, as Steller’s had been seen in Alaska before (though never that far inland).

The bird disappeared before being spotted again in – get this – southern Texas, in March 2021. Then it was seen in June 2021 along the Gaspe region of Quebec and New Brunswick. (Birders compared the unique markings on its feathers to prove it was the same one). Then it made a brief stop in Nova Scotia in November 2021 before appearing along the Taunton River in Massachusetts in late December 2021. That’s when I first saw it.

The bird was huge news in birding circles at each stop, but it didn’t stay long enough at any one place for many people to see it. That changed on Dec. 30, 2021, when it was spotted in the great state of Maine, near Five Island in Georgetown. It stayed there or in neighboring Boothbay Harbor until the end of March, where it was seen by thousands of birders from all over Maine and the nation. It was a huge deal. Facebook groups were started, bad art was created in commemoration, and even cakes at the local Hannaford were designed in the bird’s image.

These were fun times, but all good things come to an end.

Steller's sea eagle
A rare Steller’s sea eagle is seen off Georgetown in December 2021. (Courtesy Zachary Holderby)

The bird was last seen in Maine in late March, after three full months in the state. It disappeared, to lands unknown. There are always those questions with a bird like this: What happens now? Where could it go? The questions don’t often get answers, but the story of the Steller’s sea eagle didn’t end when it left Maine, and it’s not over yet.

Being such a huge and identifiable bird, people kept an eye out for the Steller’s, and it has paid off. Steller’s migrate seasonally north to south, and people predicted that the bird would move north in the spring, perhaps to a similar latitude as its breeding range in Siberia – and that’s just what seems to have happened.

The bird was spotted back in Nova Scotia on April 1, and then in Newfoundland, along the deep bay that separates the Avalon Peninsula from the bulk of the island. It appears hale and hearty.

It’s anyone’s guess what happens now, but my prediction is it will come back to Maine.  When winter comes, this bird will instinctively move back to a southern latitude, and perhaps take up in the same region of the Midcoast. It knows the area now and did well there last winter.

And when it comes back I will be there waiting with a welcome party of birders, bird-curious, and an international press hungry for more information about the most famous bird in North America.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.