GEORGETOWN — As Chris Sayers picked up his tripod from the pier at Five Islands Harbor to head back to Boston on Friday morning, the bird biologist said goodbye to Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox and asked if the Audubon chapter was having a New Year’s Eve party this year.

More than one birder standing nearby – and there were hundreds – piped up: “This is the party.”

The arrival of the first Steller’s sea eagle ever sighted in Maine – and likely the same individual that is the first ever seen in the Lower 48 – drew hundreds of birders to Georgetown on Friday.

They were not disappointed.

Oskar Mattes of Deer Isle, left, and Nellie Haldane of Blue Hill try to spot a Steller’s sea eagle in Georgetown on Friday. The rare eagle, which normally resides in Asia and Russia, had been spotted near Five Islands pier the day before and was later spotted just a few miles north of the harbor. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Steller’s sea eagles are native to northern Asia and eastern Russia, specifically the Kamchatka Peninsula. They are seafaring raptors that hunt in cold coastal waters.

The bird sighted in Georgetown is believed to be the same individual that has been sighted in several locations in the U.S. and Canada over the past year or so. A Steller’s was first sighted in Alaska in August 2020, then in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick in July, and later in Nova Scotia, The New York Times reported. It may also have taken a side excursion to south Texas last spring, according to the Times.

The eagle appeared on the Taunton River in Massachusetts earlier this month, and was spotted Thursday afternoon near the Five Islands pier by Linda Tharp, a resident who lives near the water. Word went out on avian-watching social media sites and the birder migration began.

Linda Cunningham smiles as she photographs the Steller’s sea eagle in Georgetown on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Many birders had already been on high alert recently following reports that the eagle had been sighted in Massachusetts on Dec. 20.

“I was maybe just hoping it would come up here. Then I saw on social media last night it was here. So we got up this morning,” said Carlie Lochner of Sabattus, who brought her two children, ages 3 and 6 and both birders. “They are here for the birding. And they have their own binos.”

The rare brown bird with the huge yellow bill is easily identifiable by the striking white markings on its wings, as well as its 8-foot wingspan. It weighs 11 to 20 pounds, making it one of the largest eagles in the world – up to twice as big as a bald eagle. 

There are only about 4,000 Steller’s sea eagles in the world, Hitchcox said, making its presence in Maine not only a first-time event, but an unexpected, unthinkable end-of-year hurrah for Maine’s tight-knit birding community.

For nearly two hours Friday morning, the massive eagle sat high in a conifer tree on an island across from the public wharf as a steady stream of cars rolled down to the pier. Birders parked along the road while others on the pier waved newcomers down to the water’s edge.

“This is the dream,” Hitchcox said. “It’s now just sitting there, showing off for everyone. And everyone wants everyone else to see it.

The Stellar’s sea eagle glides low across the waters off Georgetown on Friday. Photo by Luke Seitz

“I don’t even know what to compare it to. We often say these (rarities) shouldn’t be here. This bird should not even be on this continent. But because there are only about 4,000 in the world, you could travel the world birding and never see one. And it’s an hour from my home.” 

Many in the crowd were from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. More were expected to arrive from New York and New Jersey on Saturday, Hitchcox said.

Matthew Gilbert of Cumberland was the birder who found it Friday morning. Gilbert, 17, and his two friends got to the public wharf around 7:30 a.m. to find many birders already there, but no sea eagle – everyone was just standing around. 

So Gilbert and his two friends headed to Golf Cove, and there Gilbert spotted it.

“I saw eagles in a tree and looked through my scope and saw bald eagle, bald eagle, and then the big white patches on the wings of the next bird, and that big, honking, yellow bill – it was unmistakable,” Gilbert said. “I said, ‘Guys, guys, guys, I got it, I got it.’ It was super exciting.”

The fact the Steller’s eagle winters in northern Asia and Russia gives birders hope it could survive a Maine winter should it stay, unlike the great black hawk that hailed from Central and South America and settled in Deering Oaks park three winters ago, only to succumb to frostbite.

The Steller’s sea eagle sighted in Georgetown is believed to be the same individual that has been sighted in several locations in the U.S. and Canada over the past year or so. Doug Hitchcox

Others think that given the Steller’s eagle already has traveled thousands of miles means it will likely soon pick up and leave Maine.

Birders have confirmed that the large eagle seen in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia in recent weeks is the same individual by comparing distinctive markings on its wings. While photos of the eagle Friday morning had not yet been compared to earlier ones, Hitchcox said there was a high probability it was the very same individual.

Birders Mitch Heydt of Stow, Massachusetts, and Heidi and Brian Murphy of Littleton, Massachusetts, saw the rare bird alert on social media Thursday while they were out birding along the Massachusetts coast. They decided to rise at 5 a.m. Friday and drive to Maine.

“We wanted to see the otters in Evergreen Cemetery (in Portland) anyway,” Heidi Murphy said.

They were joined at the wharf by birder Dan Oh of Beverly, Massachusetts, but at the time, the eagle was nowhere to be found. They followed the crowd to Golf Cove after Gilbert had reported his sighting, and Heidi Murphy knocked on a front door to ask if she could look for the bird from the woman’s deck.

The homeowner not only invited the four to the deck, but a man guided them through the woods to get a better view. Neither were birders, Murphy said.

“They were so generous. We thanked them and said we would send them a framed photo of the bird,” Murphy said.

For Heidi Murphy, who took up birding during the pandemic, the communal gathering was like a massive, joyful festival. And even to Heydt, a birder of 10 years, the atmosphere was special: an ideal New Year’s Eve celebration.

“We got here at 8:15, and by 8:30, we saw the eagle,” Heydt said, laughing and shaking his head.


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