Thirty-three hours. Five days. One bird.
That’s how long I spent, over two weeks, trying to see a single bird here in Maine, a Steller’s Sea Eagle—or rather the Steller’s Sea Eagle, the only one of its kind in North America. Each day I missed the eagle, sometimes by minutes, my sunk costs increased, as did my desire to see the bird. At the same time, my low bar for a sighting kept dropping.
I just wanted to see the bird from a distance…please. A brief fly-by would suffice…maybe.
It worked. Or maybe I was just lucky. I saw the eagle twice that day, both times perched more than a half mile away across open water and then flying. I also saw the sun rise from the ocean, a Bald Eagle in falling snow, an adorable Black Guillemot swimming in the bay, and at the end of it all a stunning sunset while sitting alone by the water. It was a good day.
That first moment of finally seeing the Steller’s through my own camera—even on an island a half mile away—was thrillingly better than the previous day’s dusky scope. There it was! Just sitting in a tree. After forty minutes of watching it perched, the bird stretched its wings, took off, and flew down the inlet and past me. This felt well earned.
Context matters. Especially where wild things are concerned.
After all, this bird is famous. A LOT of people want to see it, driving and flying to Maine from around the country. While I’m not an obsessive Life List birder (at least I wasn’t), I get that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And now that I’ve seen the rare eagle, I don’t want to be a gatekeeper, distancing others from the outdoors and nature.
So, this is also an opportunity to remind myself of ethical birding and wildlife watching: do not get too close to an animal; don’t influence its behavior; if it notices you, you’re too close; don’t flush it and waste its energy. (Most of my pictures were taken at full 600mm zoom and from a half mile or more away.)
I expect most people to fall into one of two camps, to think:
- Who wastes days standing around in the cold just to see a bird? Crazy. or
- What a cool and amazing bird to see.
I understand both, so I’ll share some thoughts from my five days of searching, waiting, wondering:
- First, the ability to spend five (non-consecutive) days looking for a bird is a fortunate privilege of working for myself. That said, I still had to give up some things, rejigger my schedule, but decided I’d remember these days more—especially if I could find the bird.
- As the days passed, I wondered if I was becoming a bit obsessed. Was this healthy? Was the Steller’s becoming my white whale? (That didn’t end well for Ahab.)
- With time and frustration, one starts bargaining with the fates; Just let me see it once, please.
- Or adopting a Linus-Great Pumpkin mindset; I am the sincerest of the eagle searchers; please rise up and pick my patch of sky, Great Steller’s.
- FOMO and social media can make it feel like everyone else has seen the bird and spectacularly up close. Not true. Most people I met had not seen the eagle yet; some were stopping by for a quick look and others had been trying for days. I wished most that kids whose parents brought them would see it, or local folks, like the aquarium scientist, police officer, and boatyard workers I chatted with.
- Worried about crowds? Go on the coldest weekdays, especially days when no or few eagle sightings will be reported. Most of my 30-plus hours were spent, coldly, standing or wandering around a few areas without many people close by. My double-layer neckie worked well for warmth and as a mask when others were near.
- The people I did interact with were kind, courteous, and helpful.
- Over those five days, I got to watch and notice numerous seabirds and Bald Eagles.
- It is possible, on the fourth day of looking for a very big bird, to walk alone down a dirt road, pass a tree among trees (twice!) less than 100 feet away, in which the largest eagle in the world is perched, and never see or flush it from the dark branches. After realizing this happened, I simultaneously wanted to cry and felt oddly proud of my ability to practically walk to the eagle, but not disturb it. If the eagle sees me, but I don’t see the eagle, does that count for something? (No.)
- That still makes me want to cry a little.
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of people wasting time, money, or resources to look for one bird. I asked myself, what was the point? Could I justify this? But people are interested in and drawn to birds. So, I also asked myself, how do we convert that goodwill to actions that value and protect nature?
Supporting the places that advocate for and provide space and habitat for birds is a good start. I made donations In Honor of the Steller’s Sea Eagle to Maine Audubon (in addition to my annual membership) and Boothbay Region Land Trust afterwards. I also bought my annual Maine State Parks pass. Just imagine if everyone who looked for this bird gave a little something.
Also, this Steller’s Sea Eagle might be the ultimate spark bird, converting untold numbers into avian lovers and advocates.
I’d consider looking for the Steller’s Sea Eagle again—if it hangs around Maine and the crowds retreat. It was exciting to see such a huge, rare bird. (I was going to call it “impressive,” but I think all birds are impressive.) And those five days and thirty-three hours were undoubtedly good practice in patience and mindfulness.
But I’ve also returned my focus to hyper-local, backyard birding out the kitchen window. I still see you, chickadees and woodpeckers! Plus, the very next day after spotting the eagle, while picking my daughter up at school, I was excited to unexpectedly see a Sharp-shinned Hawk fly into a bush. And then the next day a Bald Eagle flew right over our car…