Sep. 23—On the morning of New Year's Eve, more than 200 birders descended on Georgetown to catch sight of a rare Steller's sea eagle, a wayward raptor from Asia that had been making its way around North America. By afternoon, reports estimated twice that many had rushed to see the bird at Five Islands harbor on the Maine coast.
In the following weeks, more than 1,000 birders descended on the Midcoast from all over the country to catch a glimpse. By the time the massive raptor moved on to Newfoundland in April, the sea eagle had attained rock-star status among birders. A Twitter account tracked the bird's whereabouts @WanderingSTSE. Researchers at Southern Illinois University even conducted an economic impact study on the sea eagle's time in New England.
Now the big question is: Will the bird again choose Maine as its wintering grounds?
Typically the species inhabits the coastal waters of eastern Russia and the Kamchatka Province and then flies south in the winter to northern Japan and the Korean peninsula. This Steller's sea eagle was first identified in Alaska in August 2020 then later in Texas, eastern Canada, and eventually Massachusetts and Maine, where it stayed for three months before moving on to Newfoundland. Its most recent sighting there was on Sept. 2.
Several indications suggest if it reappears, it could be in Maine, said Maine Audubon Naturalist Doug Hitchcox. To start, the species typically migrates south in winter. The latitude of Midcoast Maine where it hunted last year between Georgetown and Boothbay Harbor is similar to the wintering grounds of the sea eagle's native range in Asia. In addition, the Midcoast is a favorite hunting ground for another raptor — the bald eagle — which like the Steller's sea eagle primarily eats fish.
"If it was in eastern Siberia wrapping up its nesting season, it would probably move south to northern Japan for the winter. It's a different continent, but why not go back to its winter latitude? Why not come back to Maine?" Hitchcox said.
A striking dark brown raptor with distinctive white markings and a large yellow bill, the Steller's sea eagle weighs up to 20 pounds and has a wingspan between 6 to 8 feet, making it one of the largest eagles in the world. Many consider the giant Philippine eagle to be larger, although the Steller's sea eagle has a far more prominent, recognizable bill. And in Maine's skies, it simply dwarfs the bald eagle, standing a foot taller and out weighing the bald eagle by five pounds.
Gov. Janet Mills, along with two state commissioners, took a boat to get a look at the rare bird in mid-January when it settled around Boothbay Harbor.
"Once I spotted it, I was struck by its sheer gracefulness as it flew across the sky. And I was grateful to have witnessed its journey," Mills said via an email. She added: "I certainly hope that the sea eagle — and birders hoping to see it again — will return to Maine for a visit soon."
The Steller's sea eagle that visited Maine is one of an estimated 5,000 in the world. The bird is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. This was part of the reason its continued presence in Maine prompted a study of the public excitement around it.
"As a birder and a wildlife ecologist and conservationist, I was excited about this bird being here. And I was excited about how many people were excited about that. People were traveling from Las Vegas to see it," said Brent Pease, an assistant professor of wildlife conservation and management at Southern Illinois University and a birder.
"I haven't studied the sea eagle before. I'm not associated with anything in Maine. It was an interesting event. I would have written about it wherever it was because of the excitement around the event. It happened to be in Maine and Massachusetts."
Pease watched all the buzz about the sea eagle on Twitter and other social media channels and decided to try to ascertain the economic impact of birders gathered to watch the bird. He quickly lined up a team of researchers and conducted an online survey through social media channels and local Audubon chapters. The survey, conducted last winter from Dec. 12 to Jan. 28, drew responses from 600 people who saw the bird, a remarkable response rate, Pease said, given that the survey was launched in such a short time.
The study's data suggested that roughly 2,000 people went to either Massachusetts near the Taunton River or Midcoast Maine during the six weeks the survey was conducted, and those wildlife watchers collectively spent up to $500,000 in New England to see the bird, Pease said.
When the sea eagle moved on to Newfoundland in the spring it delighted guests on ecotourism boats there. Whale-watching guides shifted gears and took boats full of eagle fans to the cove where the bird settled for nearly a month, said Jared Clarke, a Newfoundland birding guide.
"Like this bird has done in a lot of other places, it has captured the imagination of the general public. It made it into newspapers and the general media. It's so striking. It's such an amazing story. It's traveled all over North America. And it's such a recognizable bird," Clarke said. "It is a very large, very unique, very beautiful bird."
Clarke is uncertain whether the Steller's sea eagle is likely to migrate south or stay put.
"It could very well get the itch to go south," Clarke said. "It also could stay here. These birds are quite adept on the sea ice in Japan. There's no reason it can't spend the winter here."
There is precedent for vagrants, as wayward birds are called, returning to the same winter or summer area year after year. At least twice in the past that happened in Maine over multiple years when a red-billed tropicbird, which breeds in South America, returned to the area around Matinicus Rock off the Midcoast from 2005-2021, and a western grebe that hails from the West Coast was around Georgetown from 1977-1993, Hitchcox said.
Both of those vagrants are long-lived, as is the Steller's sea eagle, another point that could mean it will return to Maine, Hitchcox noted. The sea eagle — or STSE to birders — can live about 20 years.
Certainly, if the sea eagle does return, there's every chance the hoopla that occurred in Georgetown and Boothbay Harbor last winter would repeat. Maybe even get ramped up.
"It's much easier to get to Portland, Maine, than it is to get to Newfoundland," Hitchcox said. "We've already been scheming about how to get boat tours if it comes back. I'll make sure boats are lined up. They typically slow down for the winter, but I'll ask if they want to fill every boat every day."