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Far from home, a big, rare sea eagle finds devoted fans on the coast of Maine

The Stellar's sea eagle birders have been chasing on the coast of Maine, on Dec. 31.
Linda Cunningham
The Stellar's sea eagle birders have been chasing on the coast of Maine, on Dec. 31.

Since late December, a rare, wayward eagle native to Russia and Japan has taken up residence along Maine's Midcoast near Boothbay Harbor.

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 birders from around the country.

John Putrino isn't an avid birder but he is a wildlife photographer. So, when he got a tip that the Steller's sea eagle had been spotted in his adopted hometown of Boothbay, he went out in search of it during a recent snowstorm.

"It's right there! It's right there! Oh. My. God. Oh my God! camera clicking," he said in one video livestreamed on his Instagram account "Manbythesea."

Putrino says he never expected to see the bird or to photograph it.

He's just one of hundreds of people who've been flocking to Maine's Midcoast to get a glimpse of the unusual bird that makes a bald eagle look small.

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 needed to improvise. Instead, they hit the road.

"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 searching for the Steller's sea eagle for three days.

Birdwatchers looking for the Stellar's sea eagle over Boothbay Harbor.
Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Birdwatchers looking for the Stellar's sea eagle over Boothbay Harbor.

"But we had no luck," Kyle says. "Yesterday we were out in the rain all day."

Mary added, "And, actually, one of the ladies down here lives in our neighborhood in Baltimore. She's up here, too! She's got family up here."

The Jenkins were among a small group of birders gathered outside the Maine State Aquarium with their binoculars trained on Boothbay Harbor.

Birders have also staked out other locations in the area. They're all looking for the same thing: a large brown eagle with distinctive white feathers on its shoulders, legs and tail with a massive yellow bill.

For many birders, a Steller's sea eagle is a chance to add one of the rarest birds they'll ever see to their birding life lists, a cumulative record of all the species they've identified. Nicole Koeltzow has racked up more than 800 so far. She drove to Maine from Tennessee.

"It takes a lot of patience but it is a lot of fun. Yeah, I have chased birds and not gotten to see them but sometimes you meet some really great people and you become with friends with them and they're like lifetime friends. So, it works out," she says.

Until a year-and-a-half ago, a Steller's sea aagle had never been recorded in the lower 48 states. Then, in 2020, after one was documented in Alaska, one was also seen in Texas. In November, a Steller's appeared in Nova Scotia, then in Massachusetts and now in Maine.

The Stellar's sea eagle seen in the Midcoast.
John Putrino
The Stellar's sea eagle seen in the Midcoast.

Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist with Maine Audubon, says it's likely the same bird because of distinctive markings on its body. But the reasons for its lonely odyssey remain a mystery.

"At least it's in an area that it's going to survive and do fine," Hitchcox said on Monday. The eagle "will probably feel great in the negative 2 degrees that I saw forecasted for tomorrow."

That was not the case for another vagrant raptor that captured Mainers' hearts. The Great Black Hawk that showed up in Portland was a tropical bird that perished from frost bite during the winter of 2018.

Hitchcox is hoping for a different outcome this time and that the Steller's sea eagle inspires people to take up birding.

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.