Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Rare Eagle Spotted in Massachusetts
December 24, 2021
By Steve Grinley
If you were around in the mid-1970’s you may remember the “bird of the century” that put Newburyport on the map, at least for birding. A rare bird of the arctic, the Ross’ Gull, made national headlines for its appearance in the lower 48 states. Birders flew in from all over the US to view this rare visitor, which cooperated by staying for more than a month. The Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Center has a film clip exhibit of the news event.
The bird of THIS century (at least to-date) is the Steller’s Sea Eagle. It is one of the largest raptors in the world and normally resides in eastern Russia and Japan. This bird spent several months in eastern Canada following reports in Texas and in Alaska earlier in the year. Its appearance made national news on NPR and in the Smithsonian Magazine and the New York Times.
This bird has now made its appearance in Massachusetts! It was first seen and photographed by David Ennis on the 12th of December along the Taunton River in Dighton, north of Fall River. Mass Wildlife made the ID but they kept it a secret for a week before word leaked out. It could be that other local birders knew of it, but no one else reported the rarity.
Brian Cassie, who heard about the bird late last Saturday and lives close to the area, went searching for the bird on Sunday without success. He did find ten eagles, four adults and six immature. So it was clearly a good area for eagles. I posted about the week old find to the Massbird lists serve late last Sunday and the pot was stirred.
Monday morning, the Dighton area was swarming with birders and the eagle was soon re-found along the river in nearby Somerset. Word spread quickly through the rare bird alerts and within hours there were more than a hundred birders on site, including Margo and me.
By the time we arrived, the bird was being viewed from Dighton Rock State Park, which easily accommodated the throngs of birders that arrived. The Steller’s Sea Eagle was perched across the river and provided excellent scope views. It was perched near an immature bald eagle that was dwarfed by the foreign visitor.
The adult Steller’s Sea Eagle was unmistakable with broad white in the wing and white tail against a dark body. Its large yellow bill also stood out in the sunlight. The bird has a wingspan of eight feet and weighs almost 20 pounds. Every time I looked through the scope, all I could say was “Wow.”
The congregation of birders was a who’s who of Massachusetts birders. Many folks I hadn’t seen since the last rare bird. Many birders from New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut were also there. There were also many young birders that I didn’t know. I was always pleased to see the number of young people that are taking an interest in birding.
Then there was a cry out that the bird was in flight! Everyone scrambled to try to get into position to follow the giant raptor in his or her scopes. Both Margo and I were able to, and again I could only say “Wow! ” The shear size, huge wingspan, and leading edge of white and long white tail stood out. It slowly circled northward, eventually picking up a raven in pursuit. After another fifteen minutes or so, it eventually disappeared to the northwest.
Many birders were still arriving and those who arrived thereafter missed the bird. When it was in Canada, it wandered many square miles throughout its stay and birders have been searching diligently since. Unfortunately, it was not re-found that afternoon, nor anytime after that, as of this writing.
Still, birders are checking as far south as Long Island and west to Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts. Birders are even searching along the Merrimack River here in Newburyport – always a good place to see eagles. So do keep your eye out for this once-in-a-lifetime eagle!