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A first-time visitor is bringing out all the birders

Kitty Mao
CC BY-NC 2.0
Steller's Sea Eagle

It appears that Santa has come early for Massachusetts birdwatchers in the form of a truly “Steller” avian discovery in Bristol County. If you heard a low rumble on Monday morning, it was the collective roar of birder car engines speeding toward the lower Taunton River. And while you may be hard pressed to identify Berkley, Dighton, and Somerset as actual towns in Massachusetts, these obscure hamlets are currently hosting the most drool-worthy bird in North America — a Steller’s Sea Eagle, 5000 miles from home, has made just its second appearance ever in the lower 48 states. The eagle has indeed landed, and this eagle comes with a back story.

Steller’s Sea Eagles are monstrous, striking birds, the heaviest of the eagles at up to 20 pounds, and with 8-foot wing spans. They have big white patches along the leading edge of the wing, a white forehead, and a big white, wedge-shaped tail. The giant yellow bill, proportionally much bigger than on a Bald Eagle, is the size of a human fist, imparting a toucan-esque look. To give you some perspective on their size, I saw many photos from Monday of this Taunton River bird perched in a tree with several smaller birds, and the smaller birds were Bald Eagles.

They breed in the Russian Far East and winter largely in Japan. Unlike our Bald Eagle, a close relative, Steller’s are strictly coastal, especially preferring river mouths. Here’s where that back story comes in — back in August of 2020, someone photographed one well inland in Denali National Park, Alaska, which was unusual — even coastal Alaska, relative spitting distance from the breeding range, has few records.

Fast forward to this past summer, when a Steller’s Sea Eagle was photographed in New Brunswick, Canada, where it hung around, eventually moving to Quebec, then Nova Scotia in November. Incredibly, based on unique feather patterns, this was clearly the same bird photographed in Denali a year before. Even more incredibly, a Steller’s was photographed in Texas in March, and most think it is this same bird. So this bird of coastal Russia must have crossed the Bering Sea into Alaska, headed inland, likely scooted down to Texas real quick, headed north in the spring to coastal Canada, and has now migrated south to the Taunton River, of all places.

Incidentally, the Taunton River is not such a strange landing spot. It’s the longest undammed river in New England and, despite intense development pressure, has been designated a National Wild and Scenic River. Mass Audubon works on various fronts and with several partner organizations in the Resilient Taunton Watershed Network to protect and restore this river, and I’m glad to see this fish-loving eagle, who could have chosen anywhere in North America, appreciates the efforts.

I suspect an unusual number of Massachusetts and Rhode Island birders were absent from work on Monday and Tuesday thanks to a sudden spike in cases of “eagle fever.” The eagle was apparently first photographed back on the 12th by a mystery person, and it wasn’t until a week later that birders learned of the discovery. Monday morning, the sea eagle was rediscovered by local birder Jonathan Eckerson, one of a brood of four young uber-birder-brothers who grew up nearby. Within a few hours, well over 300 people had come and seen the bird, including 230 that were counted at one time just in Dighton Rock State Park.

Tragically, I was not one of those people, as I have been too booked so far this week. Which is why today I’m feeling some symptoms coming on that might require a day away from work, just to be safe. It seems I’ve got the “eagle fever,” and the only cure, is more eagle.