Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Steller's Article for National Audubon

The vagrant Steller's Sea Eagle is still in Maine and still a sensation. National Audubon asked me to write a summary of the bird's incredible path to Maine, and here it is

It's been so fun to play such a weirdly visible role in this bird's journey, from first cajoling the NYT into the first major article on the bird, to all kinds of press around the eagle's appearance in Massachusetts, to helping organize the ongoing response from Maine Audubon helping people safely see the bird. What a fun ride.

In more depressing news, my wife and I had to pull out of the long-planned trip I was supposed to be on RIGHT NOW to Costa Rica with a cadre of birding friends due to COVID concerns. We couldn't risk leaving our young son with my mom. Turns out just today, the day we were supposed to have left, our son's preschool emailed us to say that he had a close contact somewhere at school and now needs to quarantine until Jan. 24. Awful. Birding trips with friends are my absolute favorite thing on Earth, and I've been working really hard over the past two years (on this and this and other announcements to come), and really wanted this break. I'm kinda taking it like a big baby but oh well, there'll be other trips. 

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Steller's Sea Eagle in MAINE

I was having a pretty crummy day. My wife had given me the green light to go birding on 12/30, but I was striking out on all my targets. I wanted one last Maine year bird but couldn't connect. I whiffed on American Pipits at Scarborough Marsh, and Iceland Gulls along the Portland waterfront, and Yellow-breasted Chat downtown. My last hope for a new bird was a Lark Sparrow reported a few days earlier with House Sparrows behind an auto mechanic shop. 

So I sat in my car in the muddy back lot of a Subaru mechanic and watched some dumb House Sparrows fart around in a small bush next to an old rusting Outback. No Lark Sparrow. I felt like a goddamn loser, but then I checked my email.

I'd hoped for a last minute eBird Needs Alert but instead I found something much more interesting. A comment moderation message from this very web-blog, alerting me that someone named Linda Tharp had posted a note to my post about the Steller's Sea Eagle in Massachusetts. It read, "It's in Five Islands ME today, 12/30."

That was it. No photos. No contact info. No exclamation marks. 

"Probably someone just looking at a juvenile Bald Eagle," I thought to myself. There are plenty of people who, when there's a rare bird in the news, come out with a story of seeing it at their backyard feeder a few weeks before or something. It happens. Still, I was sitting in a stupid parking lot feeling stupid, and may as well try to get some more info. I searched for the name Linda Tharp on Instagram and immediately found a woman whose bio mentioned Five Islands, Maine. Her DMs were open so I gave it a shot. This is six minutes after she posted the comment to the blog.

WHELP. WHEEEEELLLLLLP. That's a Steller's Sea Eagle. You can see that I sent the first message at 2:21. What you can't see is that she responded with her message and that cell phone pic at 2:22, almost instantly. It's not suitable for framing, perhaps, but it was pretty clear that the Steller's was in Maine. 

I left the parking lot, my squealing tires probably dousing the House Sparrow flock in mud. I went right home. The next moves were to a) Hopefully try to get a better image from Linda to confirm the bird (ie there's no yellow bill visible in that pic; b) Understand if it is publicly accessible, if it's still being seen, how long it's been around, and any other useful information before; c) Getting the word out to as many people as possible.

Linda was fantastic. She was responding to my questions, and I spoke with her on the phone while I was in the car. Yes, it had a huge yellow beak, she said. It was hanging around with Bald Eagles, she said, indicating she could differentiate between the two species. At 2:48 she sent two other cell phone photos, still distant but enough to confirm. She said I could try to view the bird from her back deck if I could get there before dark. What a wonderful interaction. 

I texted my friend and Maine Audubon colleague Doug Hitchcox and others on our small birder friends group text, first to get their confirmation that this bird was the Steller's and wasn't some other species that just wasn't ringing a bell. I didn't hear anything different, and we all went for our cars. I stopped at home and quickly typed up messages for the Maine Birds Listserv and the Maine Rare Birds FB group getting word out about the eagle and including Linda's photos. The FB post was made at 3:10 PM, less than an hour after first hearing from Linda. 

The rest is still-developing history. I and a handful of other birders cranked up to Five Islands that afternoon but didn't find the bird before darkness. It was refound on the morning of 12/31, however, and I saw it that day. It was seen again today, Jan. 1, and will hopefully linger for many birders to come. If you've found this website in pursuit of information about the eagle I'm sorry but I don't really have that, please check Maine Audubon's updating blog post here, and please please please be respectful of the locals at Five Islands and be at times aware of yourself and whether you (or your car) is some place that it shouldn't be. Thanks. 

I was glad to play a tiny role in this bird being enjoyed by so many. I don't know how Linda found my blog -- she must have been aware of the bird somehow already in order to search the internet for a place to comment about it, right? -- but I'm glad she did. 

This Steller's Sea Eagle is such an incredible individual, I'm so glad I've now seen it in two states, including my home state. No one knows what the future holds for this bird but I'm excited to see what happens next.

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