In almost thirty years of birding this was most meaningful chase I’ve experienced.
By Cameron Cox
My relationship with Steller’s Sea-Eagle began as a teenager flipping the pages of a 2nd edition National Geographic Field Guide. I remembered staring at the page with the somewhat wooden looking painting of this majestic eagle, reading the description of where it was found, breeding primarily on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia, and putting it in the mental pile of birds I was never destined to see.
My Steller’s relationship deepened over a decade ago when I saw a pair of Steller’s Sea-Eagles in a flight cage in the San Diego Zoo. The shear size and the presences they exuded literally stopped me in my tracks. I was smitten and I decided in that moment that I would see this bird in the wild no matter what it took.
How would you normally get to see the Steller’s Sea-Eagle?
What it takes is pretty “straightforward”. You need to hop a flight to Tokyo, rent a car and drive ten and a half hours north to the city of Oma. You grab the ferry in Oma, and spend three and a half hours holding tightly to your cookies as the ferry sloshes through the Pacific until you arrive in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Once in Hokkaido it’s a mere additional ten-hour drive to the town of Rausu. In Rausu you need to find a boatman to take you out to the ice floes that the eagles use to hunt from. Ah yes, ice floes. Didn’t I mention the only time you can do this is in the depth of winter when northern Japan is absolutely frigid? The prize at the end of this little journey (besides frozen fingers) is significant though: incredible views of the world’s largest eagle, a creature among the most spectacular on earth, Steller’s Sea-Eagle.
Despite the difficulty, the idea of making this trip has been embedded in my head since that moment at the San Diego Zoo. Steller’s Sea-Eagles are essentially a Bald Eagle on super steroids. They are over 25% larger than a Bald Eagle with a bill that can be twice as large as that of a Bald Eagle. They are also much rarer, only about 4000 of these beauties exist. The have been seen in North American rarely, mostly from westernmost Alaska, which is how the species ended up in the National Geographic field guide and came to my attention. Occasionally one will pop up briefly in mainland Alaska. Years ago, though, there was a bird that spent several years up the Taku River near Juneau. The best way to see the Taku River bird was to charter a helicopter to fly up and down the river until the bird was spotted. A fair number of birders did exactly that, spending roughly what a trip to Japan would cost in the process, illustrating the lengths people go to for this dream bird.
A Steller’s Sea-Eagle is Sighted in the lower 48
Then in March of 2020 a photo of an adult Steller’s Eagle popped up in Texas of all places. Zoos and aviaries were contacted, none where missing an unmissable eagle, it seemed like an extreme example of the adage, ‘bird have wings and sometimes use them’. No one other than the photographer saw it at that time, however. This bird, though, had dreams of seeing the world, and popped up next in Nova Scotia, then Quebec, then New Brunswick. During this period my wife and I moved from western Washington to coastal Maine. My wife attempted to console me, a notorious hater of all things cold, that maybe our move would give us a chance to see “The Eagle”. When it was in New Brunswick it was only a few hours from our new home, but it still seemed very far away as Covid regulations made the trip impossible.
The Chase is On
Then it showed up in Massachusetts and my wife’s prediction seemed a lot more real. Before we could go look for it though it disappeared after just a two-day stay. Where next? I assumed it would continue south, but no, on the eve of New Years Eve we got the word that the bird had been found in Maine! The location, near Five Islands, was a mere four and half hours from our house! We waited until the excruciatingly late hour of seven AM New Years Eve to drop off our dog at doggie day care and shoot south as fast the speed limit would allow. Halfway there we received word that the bird had been located. This raised the stakes tremendously.
On a chase like this with the potential of a fantastic bird at the end of the road, the tension creeps up on you slowly, building every hour you spend in the car. When the bird you are chasing represents the culmination of a nearly thirty-year infatuation the tension builds a bit faster. An hour away I discovered I had left the memory card for my camera at home!
More than a mile away from the dock where we were set to begin our search cars were parked, fairly haphazardly, along the narrow road, changing it to essentially a single lane. We rolled the dice hoping we could find parking a bit closer and were rewarded when someone was pulling out of a parking lot near the dock as we pulled in. There was no question of where to search for the bird we just joined the throng. The word ‘throng’ was entirely legitimate; we stood in the back of a group of well over one hundred people. Unfortunately the people in front of us didn’t seem too focused on anything, always a bad sign.
Turns out the eagle had disappeared five minutes before and most people had been watching it for hours and now were content to talk loudly about their success with their neighbors, doing very little to refind the bird. Supposedly it had flown behind one of the nearby islands, nothing to do but wait and curse.
After an excruciating twenty minutes the shout of “ITS GOING RIGHT” was heard and a massive shape appeared from behind the island, pumping its wings hard, following a suddenly small-appearing Bald Eagle. Five Islands is well named and the two eagles disappeared and reappeared behind several more islands before landing on the backside (of course) of the southernmost island. In the chaos though, I had sprinted, spotting scope and tripod in hand, to the other side of the dock. We now had front row seats to the show instead of looking over a sea of heads.
The eagle, brief though the sighting had been, was absolutely worth it! It became even more worth it when someone found a narrow window where the birds head could be seen sitting. Then it shifted allowing an even better view and my wife and I put our scopes on it and invited others to have a look. For over an hour we went back and forth between looking at the bird and letting others use our scopes, until the bird took off. While we were there 250-300 people viewed the eagle, townspeople came out to see what was going on and were able to see the birds as well. The whole thing took on a party atmosphere. Birders at a successful chase can be positively effusive!
I don’t do many chases, it’s not really my thing. I try to save them for really meaningful birds. In almost thirty years of birding this was most meaningful chase I’ve experienced. Special though it was, connecting with this dream bird in such an unexpected place does not in any way lessen my desire to make that trip to Hokkaido. I still desperately want see the world’s largest eagle hunting from ice floes in the Kunashirskiy Strait. That trip will still happen, but I will triple check for my memory cards before it does.