Steller’s sea eagle spotted in Massachusetts

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When bird enthusiast Justin Lawson heard of a Steller’s sea eagle in the area, he set out to find it. And found it. Adding it to his Christmas bird count was a huge feather in his cap, no pun intended, but it might never happen again.

“Anyone can guess where he’ll go next,” he said. First spotted in the United States on the Denali Highway in Alaska in August, the bird was identified by a distinctive white spot on its left wing. He wandered further inland and is now found in Massachusetts.

Steller’s sea eagles, with declining populations, are large, diurnal birds of prey in the Accipitridae family. First described in 1811, no subspecies are recognized. With dark brown plumage, white wings and tail, a yellow beak and yellow talons, it is a hardy bird with a wingspan of 6.4 to 8.2 feet. In the wild, Steller’s sea eagles typically live to be 20 to 25 years old and weigh up to 21 pounds. Often larger than bald eagles, which weigh 15 to 16 pounds, their original range is typically China, Japan, Korea, and the east coast of Russia.

“I’ve been generally told that birds are caught in a major storm, and if they are lucky and survive the ordeal they can end up very, very far from home,” said Colin Novick, director. Executive of the Greater Worcester Land Trust and a Resident of Worcester.

Expressing his sympathy for an animal so far from its natural habitat, he imagined “this eagle being swept away by a typhoon and landing on the west coast of North America, somewhat stunned.” Whatever the cause, he’s unlikely to find a mate, even if he survives in his new home. “Suddenly imagine that you are the very last bird of your kind to be seen and no matter how far you travel you can’t find anyone else like you!” “

Steller's Sea Eagle photographed by Justin Lawson.

“It’s a truly iconic bird,” agrees Wayne Petersen, an ornithologist at Mass Audubon and director of Important Bird Areas. “It probably made its way from Asia to the Aleutian Islands via Alaska, and it appears to have existed for a week before being identified as a Steller’s sea eagle.”

Mainly seen in Japan, where they winter in a restricted breeding range, it is closely related to the bald eagle and is part of the group of sea eagles that live along the coasts.

While it is possible, says Peterson, he doesn’t think a storm is the only reason the bird is here, because in terms of where these birds live, the weather is not conducive to their movement d west to east. “Very difficult to say what he was trying to do – the route is completely atypical, and most likely there was something wrong with his navigation or orientation system.”

What is implied, he said, due to the bird’s erratic route, is that he may have been born genetically deficient – or he didn’t know where he was supposed to be. or he didn’t have the equipment working properly to get to where he was supposed to be.

“He’s a super star,” said Peterson, “and seen by a lot of people who will never forget seeing him, just as I will never forget not seeing him.” He was involved in shopping for his family when he was supposed to be nearby.

Martha Gach, conservation coordinator at Broadmeadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Mass Audubon, confirmed that “this got a lot of people excited.”

She explained that it often happens that birds end up in parts of the world where they are not meant to be because the young are not used to moving around and miss the right landscape landmarks – birds follow coasts, mountain ranges, etc.

“It’s interesting that there was a Steller’s sea eagle that escaped the Pittsburgh aviary last spring and summer, but was luckily picked up after a few days. She agreed that it would be very difficult for this bird to find its way home. To return to Asia, it would have to head north across the United States or the sea, and “the birds that do this are not going to survive long term, it is natural selection and it is unlikely that” they find a partner. . ”

Marion Larson, chief information and education officer at Mass Wildlife, said “It’s really a big deal that this has happened in Massachusetts. What’s really cool is that, thanks to its markings, this specific bird can be identified. People are very sure this is the same bird that has been reported in Alaska and Canada. She added that we can only speculate as to why he is here. “The paths of the fauna are very mysterious, which is what makes it interesting.”

Larson was hoping to see him because she had taken time off last week to be able to drive and watch him like the others. Unfortunately, she said with a laugh, she was “planning interviews about the bird, which meant I couldn’t take the time to look for it.”

“It’s such a unique observation,” Larson continued. “You have a bird that used its wings and traveled thousands of miles, traveling across two continents to show up here in Massachusetts. This is the first sighting reported from Massachusetts and quite possibly the first from eastern North America. When this type of sighting happens, she said, there will be a group of people who will look at the records to see if this is the first time this species has been seen in the Lower 48.

She added that a Mass Wildlife official had seen license plates from as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey and that this unique eagle had brought a flock of bird watchers from across the region. “It’s like collecting stamps – people keep a list of life. ”

Larson warned that following can create stress for the bird. She has tried to stress the importance of watching wildlife responsibly and worries about the effect it may have on animals. Snowy owls, for example, may allow you to approach and then fly away, but “people don’t understand that it stresses them out during the time of year when food is least available.”

As a result, Mass Wildlife deliberately does not refer to a specific location. “Birds may appear to be unstressed, but you don’t know what’s going on with their heart rate,” Gach said. In the face of danger, birds freeze to avoid being noticed or fly away. So a bird stays put can still be under intense stress. “We don’t need them to be harassed to death. ”

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