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An Extremely Rare Steller’s Sea Eagle Has Been Traversing the United States Since 2020

Steller's Sea Eagle

A “Steller” Eagle

The Steller’s Sea Eagle is a very large and powerful raptor which is typically found in Japan, along the Eastern coast of Russia, and along the North Eastern coast of Asia. Steller’s Sea Eagles are often given the title of the heaviest eagle in the world, although there are a few other contenders for this title.

With a wingspan that can reach up to eight feet, talons and a bill that are a striking shade of yellow, and distinctive dark brown and white plumage, the Steller’s Sea Eagle is an unmistakable and visually stunning raptor. The relative scarcity of the Steller’s Sea Eagle only serves to increase its allure. There are believed to be less than 5,000 of these impressive birds left in the wild.

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An Unusual Visitor

Subsisting largely off of fish, this relatively uncommon bird of prey wanders the coastlines and waterways of its native range with occasional “vagrant” individuals venturing beyond their regular haunts.

Strangely, though, over the last year one particular Steller’s Sea Eagle has gone from “vagrant” to globetrotter. This individual eagle first entered the spotlight in the summer of 2020 when it was sighted in Alaska. This was an unusual and exciting occurrence, but not entirely unheard of. Because Steller’s Sea Eagles have a tendency to wander, and because Alaska is not dramatically far outside of their regular range, individual birds have been spotted as far as Alaska before. Though, this individual was further inland than one would expect.

What followed this first sighting would be something nobody could predict.

The Flight of the Wanderer

After a few months of evading detection, the seemingly lost Steller’s Sea Eagle seemed to have just been a particularly far reaching vagrant. That is, until it appeared again in the most unlikely of places.

Months later, in March of 2021, a birder in Goliad, Texas posted an image of a large raptor perched on a gnarled tree on a nature retreat to the retreat’s Facebook page. This changed everything. The bird in the image was unmistakably a Steller’s Sea Eagle. These birds had never been spotted in the wild Texas before, nor had they ever been seen this far out of their regular range.

The sighting in Texas began a saga that would span the North American subcontinent. Over the following months, this same individual eagle which can be identified by a white marking on its left wing, was seen in North Eastern Canada and Nova Scotia.

In late 2021, the Steller’s Sea Eagle returned to the United States, making an appearance in Massachusetts in December.

So, where is this mysterious traveler now? Beginning in late December of 2021 and continuing into January of 2022, the now world famous vagrant eagle has been spotted several times in the Sheepscot River area in Maine.

Steller's Sea Eagle in Japan
Photo by Vincent Camacho on Unsplash

Home Away From Home

So, why has this Steller’s Sea Eagle come here, and when will it return to its rightful corner of the globe? The answer is not so simple.

Vagrancy in birds occurs for a number of reasons, and is not entirely understood. Wisdom once held that vagrant birds were individuals that were “defective” in some way. Modern researchers suggest that this rare behavior is not quite so simple. Population growth, climate change, and personality quirks have all been suggested as contributing factors to avian vagrancy.

As for the Steller’s Sea Eagle that has wandered so far from home, home may mean something entirely different now. It has been speculated by some that this bird has an unusually active instinct to migrate; something which typically inspires younger Steller’s Sea Eales to wander much closer to their usual range. Others have wondered if a weather event might’ve blown this individual off course. Regardless of the reason for this bird’s journey, it is nearly impossible to predict what the outcome will be.

Living so far outside of its native range doubtless presents unique challenges for this eagle. It has no others of its kind to breed with, it has likely faced climate conditions that it would never encounter along the Eastern coasts of Asia and Russia. Whether a Steller’s Sea Eagle can thrive in North America is a complete unknown. In the face of this unknown, birders across the globe continue to wish this exceptional bird safe travels.

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2 thoughts on “An Extremely Rare Steller’s Sea Eagle Has Been Traversing the United States Since 2020”

  1. What makes you think there is only one vagrant instead of multiple. I have seen these in Arkansas as well and multiple times over the past two years.

    1. Great question! If I can refer you back to the article, I mention a distinguishing white marking on this individual eagle’s wing. This is the reason that tracking and conservation agencies are confident that this is one individual bird. In addition, Steller’s Sea Eagles are exceptionally rare and it would be a coincidence of massive proportions for multiple to have ventured this far. It’s possible that your sightings were different birds of prey, but if you’re confident you saw a Steller’s Sea Eagle, then you should report the sighting so that it can be tracked. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “ebird” website allows for sightings to be submitted. Make sure to include images if you have them! Who knows, maybe your sightings were this famous vagrant after all!

      Hope this helps!
      — Hailey Brophy
      Writer @ World Birds

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