Friday, January 7, 2022

Rare Birds


I don't often chase after rare birds. If I happen to be in the neighborhood where one's recently been sighted, or if a friend invites me on an expedition to seek one out, I'll happily go. I've seen a red-billed tropic bird this way, as well as a redwing, a dickcissel, and Icelandic gull. I've had less luck with the snow goose, roseate spoonbill, and black throated grosbeak. The rare birds are a thrill, but I'm equally content to wander the woods behind my house in search of the annual cycle of migrants or watch everyday chickadees and nuthatches on my feeders.

Yet when I heard heard about the Stellar's sea eagle making an appearance in Maine, I knew I needed to at least try to see it. My first indication that this giant raptor was in town was in a New Year's Eve social media post from a friend of mine, which showed his field sketches of the bird's massive yellow bill and fierce gaze. Despite its ice-age splendor, the sea eagle looks a bit like the giant bird that falls in love with the professor in my favorite childhood book, Professor Wormbog in Search of the Zipper-Uppa-Zoo, by Mercer Mayer. I wanted to be there the coast, trying out my Christmas gift spotting scope, sketching this prehistoric bird. The place it had been sighted was only an hour from my home--practically in the neighborhood. Besides, when would I ever have the chance to see this far-from-home visitor again? I made plans to drive down the next day.

The Stellar's is the largest of the sea eagles (members of the genus Haliaeetus, which includes bald eagles). Standing around three feet tall and weighing up to twenty pounds, it's the size of a toddler, a toddler with an eight-foot wingspan. This massive bird doesn't normally hang around in Maine. Its usual stomping grounds are along the coast of Siberia, particularly the Kamchatka Peninsula, with winter forays south to Japan. This particular bird is believed to be the same one that appeared in Alaska in August and has been hanging around Canada's Maritime provinces this fall, with a foray into Massachusetts last month and one unsubstantiated sighting in Texas. In other words, it's far from home and doesn't seem to know how to get back, although it could be forgiven for mistaking Maine for Siberia.

As I made my way down the peninsula--not Kamchatka, but Georgetown--on a foggy New Year's Day, I began to question my decision. There were cars--a lot of cars. Far more cars than should be driving toward Reid State Park in the wintertime. I saw Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts license plates. My butterfly teacher, Bryan, has written about birders and our carbon emissions in pursuit of the next grand thing. Now I was one of them, a member of a smog-emitting flock. 

But I'd come this far. There was not turning back. As I neared eagle ground zero, I noticed cars heading back the other way. I pulled over and asked a passerby, "Any luck?" He told me the bird hadn't been seen in a while and everyone was heading over to the state park. Good, a chance to pee. I joined the flow of cars heading back inland and into the park, where I availed myself of the facilities. But now what to do? The park has miles of coastline. Birders appeared to be milling around, heading in multiple directions, no apparent direction of migration. I overheard someone saying it was back at Five Islands and watched the crowds return to their cars and head back down peninsula. It reminded me of something, this ebb and flow of birdwatchers. Murmuration of starlings, perhaps, or, more likely, characters in an old slapstick movie directed by Mel Brooks.

Yet here I was, a member of the ridiculous cast, and I joined the stream of cars, found a place to park beside the road, walked down to the dock and found myself a rock on the shore to sit on. All of the other birders stood on the hillside above and behind me, and I wondered if I was missing something by being lower and closer to the water. The crowd was quiet, birders being a sedate lot, and I pulled out my journal and sketched the islands in front of me, stopping every few minutes to scan the trees with my binocs. The fog had lifted some, and I saw a bald eagle perched on at tree at the edge of one island. I realized that even if the bird did make an appearance out there, it would look like little more than a smudgy dot. I'd left my scope in the car up the hill. Would such a sighting even "count"?

An unpainted lobster boat tootled out toward the farthest island, a handful of birders on board. Sound carries over water, especially on a foggy day, and I could hear the pilot tell the people on board that no other fishermen were transporting birders because of the liability, but he just wanted people to see the bird. I supposed I could have hung around the dock, hoping to catch a ride on a later foray, but I didn't have any cash with me--I imagined he was charging--and while I don't have a great fear of water, I do have a strong respect for the North Atlantic Ocean in wintertime. And while it was nearly flat calm, I still didn't relish the idea of heading out into the fog in a lobster boat with no transom, and likely no lifejackets, in January.

I hung out on my rock for about an hour, until I got cold and a little bored, and headed home. Later in the week my great birding friend Cheryl invited me to go on a hunt for the eagle. It hadn't been seen in a couple of days, and she and another friend of ours had hatched a scheme to search a nearby island (car accessible), in hopes of finding the bird. We spent the day on the island, and I got to try out my new scope. We saw some sea birds and tree birds, and even a red-shouldered hawk. We hiked all through the enchanted forest of a preserve I'd never known was there, we chatted and laughed together, and we discovered a new bakery on the way home. But we never found the Stellar's sea eagle. And I'm okay with that.

Because the thing with rare bird sightings is that, as exciting as it is to see and learn a new bird, it's unspeakably sad to see a creature so out of place. The dickcissel looked cold, puffed out like a dandelion in a multiflora rose bramble in Portland, rather than a jungle in Central America, where it peered out from its yellow-rimmed eye and tried to fit in among a noisy flock of house sparrows. The redwing, a visitor from Iceland or Eurasia, looked less cold, but still confused. An oversized, disheveled robin, it arched its skeptical white eyebrow and stretched its wing, playing to the crowd of migrant birdwatchers who'd flocked from as far away as Tennessee. And the tropicbird could break your heart, beelining each summer from parts unknown to a cold, barren North Atlantic rock, only lobster buoys for companionship. 

Wherever that sea eagle is today, I hope it finds its way back home, nearly halfway around the world.

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