Monday, December 20, 2021

Steller's Sea Eagle in Massachusetts

5:45 AM - I left my house in Cumberland, Maine and drove an hour south to York, to meet other birders for the York County Christmas Bird Count.

7:40 AM - We were counting! Things were going pretty well. We'd just seen a Northern Flicker, apparently the first one ever on the York count, and now we were walking through the cold and quiet but beautiful Highland Farm. Here's that.

Then I got a text from Doug Hitchcox: "Steller's was just found."

He was referring to the Steller's Sea Eagle. The species had never before been seen in North America outside of western Alaska, but one individual had been spotted in interior Alaska in August of 2020 has been disappearing and appearing all over North America since then. It was photographed in southern Texas in the spring -- a baffling sighting that was initially chalked up as an escaped bird or a hoax -- when all the way up in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia in the summer and into November, when it disappeared again. I spoke to the New York Times about the bird in mid-November after it had just gone missing again, and I told them I hoped it would fly to Maine. Apparently it did - but we all missed it. 

We learned yesterday, Dec. 19, that a photographer in Massachusetts had photographed the bird a week earlier, on Dec. 12. Not sure why word hadn't gotten out but the Taunton River area was searched yesterday without luck. This morning they had luck, and I got a text in York County.

8:48 AM - I abandoned the Christmas Bird Count. Sorry, York County, but there's a goddamn Steller's Sea Eagle two hours away. They had enough counters without me and I heard later that things went great. Doug and Fyn also paused their seawatch from Nubble Light. I picked up a Horned Lark (a year bird for Maine) along Short Sands Beach while we waited for Ed to come down from the Portland area.

10:32 AM - We are barreling through southern Massachusetts. I forced everyone listen to the Adam Sandler "Toll Booth Willie" skit after we passed the turn to Worcester and it was even dirtier than I remember. We were all shot up and boosted and wore masks in the car.

11:02 - We pull up to the tiny, private beach where the bird was last seen to the dreaded "you just missed it!" A birder's nightmare. It flew upriver somewhere and no one knows where it is. My gas light is on with 22 miles left until empty. We follow the roads upriver.

11:37 AM - We get word that the bird is being seen from 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.

We're not particularly close to the bird, but it sits still and gives great views through the scope. The orange bill is visible with the naked eye. The size stands out -- a pair of juvenile Bald Eagles perch just above it but are dwarfed by the Steller's. An absolute dream to be all of a sudden standing in this random park in southern Massachusetts looking at a wild, rare Russian monster. There are about 200 birders there by noon. We leave.

2:23 PM - Obligatory stop at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store to buy some vodka to commemorate our new comrade. I am home in plenty of time to pick up my son.

An amazing day. I never in my life thought I'd see a wild Steller's Sea Eagle, and may never again. This bird is my 699th ABA Continental species. It appeared healthy and was seen eating earlier in the day, and so hopefully it'll stick around to entertain many more birders.

9:25 PM - I sit down to write this blog and hit publish at, let's see, 10:57 PM, which is righhhhhhhhtttttt now.

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