One of the rarest eagles in the world has birdwatchers flocking to Maine

Jan 14, 2022
Originally published on January 15, 2022 7:32 am

A rare, wayward eagle native to Russia and Japan has taken up residence near Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

The Steller's sea eagle is one of the largest raptors in the world, weighing up to 20 pounds with an eight-foot wingspan. There are only about 4,000 of them left, and the chance to see one has captivated Mainers and drawn birders from around the country.

John Putrino of Boothbay isn't an avid birder, but he is a wildlife photographer. So, when he got a tip that one of the rarest eagles in the world had been spotted in his adopted hometown, he went searching for it during a recent snowstorm.

"It's right there! It's right there! Oh. My. God. Oh my God!," he told followers in one video live-streamed on his Instagram account Manbythesea.

Putrino is just one of hundreds of people who've heading to Maine's Midcoast to get a glimpse of the unusual bird that makes a bald eagle look like a lightweight. Those who do come are gently reminded to keep their distance.

Mary and Kye Jenkins of Baltimore had planned on taking a trip to the Caribbean but when their COVID-19 test results came back too late to board their flight, they jumped in their car instead.

Sea Eagle
John Charles Putrino

"Since we're birders, we were in Newark, we decided to come up here and try to find this bird," Mary Jenkins says.

This is what's known in the birdwatching world as "chasing." The Jenkins are constantly on the lookout for rare species and will go out of their way to see them. They've been scanning the horizon for three days, looking for the eagle's flashy white tail feathers and massive yellow beak. So far, the Jenkins haven't spotted the bird, but dozens of other people have. They've posted their photos to a Facebook group devoted to rare bird sightings.

Until recently, a Steller's sea eagle had never been seen in the lower 48 states. But in July one was spotted in Quebec. Then Nova Scotia. In mid-December hundreds observed one in Massachusetts.

Doug Hitchox, a naturalist with Maine Audubon, says because of the bird's unique feather patterns, it's believed to be the same vagrant. But the reasons for its lonely odyssey remain a mystery. Hitchcox and other experts say it could be prospecting for new territory. Or, it could have been blown off course or had an internal GPS hiccup. Mary Jenkins fears it's lost.

"And I feel sorry for him because you know, it's the only one and I don't know if he's going to be able to make his way back to where he's from," she says.

The good news is the bird can hang out with other eagles. It's also used to cold weather. And the longer it sticks around, the more birdwatching enthusiasts it's likely to attract.

John Putrillo is already a convert. As a photographer he says he's always been focused on larger charismatic animals like moose and fox but the discovery of the Steller's sea eagle has changed his mindset.

"I want to learn about all bird species now," he says. "I want to find every bird I can from the smallest to the largest."

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Since late December, a rare wayward eagle native to Russia and Japan has taken up residence along Maine's mid-coast near Boothbay Harbor. The Steller's sea eagle is one of the largest raptors in the world, weighing up to 20 pounds with an 8-foot wingspan. There are only about 4,000 of them left. And as Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports, the chance to see one has captivated Mainers as well as birders from all around the country.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: John Putrino isn't an avid birder, but he is a wildlife photographer. So when he got a tip that one of the world's rarest raptors had been spotted in his adopted hometown of Boothbay, he went out in a snowstorm to search for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN PUTRINO: It's right there. It's right there. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

SHARON: Putrino was livestreaming video to his Manbythesea Instagram account when he had the chance encounter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTRINO: See, there it goes. There it goes. Guys, the Steller (ph) eagle is right in front of me. It's on the branch. Can you see it? Holy smokes.

SHARON: Putrino is just one of hundreds of people who've been trying to get a glimpse of the unusual bird whose size and grandeur make a bald eagle look like a lightweight. Mary and Kye Jenkins of Baltimore had planned on taking a trip to the Caribbean. But when their COVID-19 test results came back too late to board their flight, they made a quick change of plans and hit the road.

MARY JENKINS: So we decided since we're birders, we were in Newark, we'll come up here and try to find this bird.

SHARON: This is what's known in the birdwatching world as chasing. The Jenkins' are constantly on the lookout for rare species and will go out of their way to see them. It's been three days with no luck.

KYE JENKINS: It's like baseball when you hit 333. That's good, right? Because you're not going to get 100%.

SHARON: The Jenkins' were among a group of birders from as far away as Texas, scanning the tree line above Boothbay Harbor for the eagle's flashy white feathers on its shoulders, legs and tail and its massive yellow bill.

K JENKINS: Where is it? Where is it?

M JENKINS: He's above the tree line, moving to the right.

K JENKINS: Where in the tree line?

M JENKINS: He's going...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, got it. It's a gull.

SHARON: Until recently, a Steller's sea eagle had never been seen in the lower 48 states. But in July, one was spotted in Quebec, then Nova Scotia. In mid-December, hundreds observed one in Massachusetts, and now in Maine.

Because of the bird's unique feather patterns, it's believed to be the same vagrant, but the reasons for its lonely odyssey remain a mystery. Experts say it may have been blown off course or had an internal GPS hiccup. Mary Jenkins fears it is lost.

M JENKINS: And I feel sorry for him because he's got - you know, it's the only one. I don't know if he's going to be able to make his way back to where he's from.

SHARON: The good news is the bird can hang around with other eagles and is suited to winter weather. And the longer it sticks around, the more bird watching enthusiasts it's likely to attract.

PUTRINO: I want to learn about all bird species now. I just want to find every bird I can from the smallest to the largest.

SHARON: As a photographer, John Putrino says he's always been focused on larger charismatic animals like moose and fox, but the discovery of the Steller's sea eagle has changed his mindset. And he's joined the legions of fans eager to see where the bird shows up next.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.