People are traveling hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles to the Boothbay region to see one of the world’s rarest birds. National Geographic reports there are about 4,000 Steller’s sea eagles in the world. The bird has an eight-foot wingspan and weighs about 20 pounds. The bird is typically found in Siberia, but also has regular sightings in Japan, China and Korea.
In 2020, the bird was sighted in Alaska before traveling to Texas and to Canada where it was seen in Quebec and Nova Scottia. In mid-December, the Steller’s sea eagle made its way to Massachusetts. The rare bird was seen in Georgetown’s “Five Islands” village on Jan. 2 before making its way to the Boothbay Harbor region. And once the eagle landed in the region, eager bird enthusiasts followed.
Ken Beckley, 65, and wife Michelle Beckley, 62, of upstate New York traveled from the Empire State’s Saratoga region to see the rare bird. Once they saw reports of a confirmed Steller’s sea eagle sighting, they decided to make the five-hour car ride to Boothbay Harbor. “We’re birders and we both knew we had to make the trip,” Ken said. “We’ve been following the bird on Cornell University’s e-Bird website which tracks rare and unique bird sightings.”
On Jan. 24, the Beckleys saw and photographed the eagle on Samoset Road. Even though they accomplished their goal, the couple is sticking around for a few more days. They were found on the Southport bridge Jan. 24, photographing other rare birds. “We haven’t been to Boothbay in the winter so we are sticking around looking for other birds like the cormorant,” he said.
A Coloradan took a different approach after photographing the Steller’s sea eagle. Flagship Inn manager Julie Bryer reports the Coloradan had a one-day stay. “He flew to Boston, rented a car to drive here. He found the bird, and left,” she said.
For Bryer and the Flagship Inn staff, January has been an atypical month. Whereas in the past, January and February are among the slowest months for bookings, this year has seen 10-14 bookings per day. Guests from New York, Texas, Colorado, New York, Vermont, Indiana, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are all staying in the inn to see the eagle.
“We hope he never leaves,” Bryer said. “The bird left for a couple days to Bristol, but now is back. A couple of guests were so glad to hear this they extended their stay for three more days.”
Local restaurants are also enjoying a sharp rise in business. Once the eagle was sighted in the region, Brady’s Pub owner Jenn Mitchell began receiving phone calls from bird enthusiasts from all over the country. Mitchell reported the eagle spent a lot of time in the cove eating ducks. She understands it is staying on Burnt Island. “What really blows my mind is so many people from all over the country are coming here,” she said. “It left for a couple days and returned Sunday and did a flyover over the cove.”
Mitchell has tracked the bird’s movement on “Maine Bird Alert” after bird enthusiasts told her about the website. Mitchell has enjoyed serving an unexpected crowd of winter patrons, but she is also amazed at how many guests arrived mid-winter. Mitchell has spoken to a Buffalo, New York high school teacher, and others from Arkansas, Seattle and Oklahoma. “This is so cool. My mother saw (about) 50 people on the Southport bridge in the morning looking for the bird. And now, there is (about) 200 at the (former) Ship Ahoy property looking for it.”
One visitor may not have been lucky enough to see the bird. French national Olivier Langrand, 63, is a conservationist. He lives in Reston, Virginia and works for the French-sponsored Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. He tracks rare species as part of his work. Once he learned the eagle was in Maine, Langrand made plans to visit the region.
He arrived Jan. 17 and, as of Jan. 21, hadn’t seen the bird. “I’m planning to leave Jan. 23 so I hope I see it before leaving,” he said. Langrand started tracking the bird after reports surfaced of an Alaskan sighting in 2020. He wanted to track it to Canada, but COVID-19 restricted him from crossing the border. “I have birded since I was 4. One of the things about birding is you’re not always guaranteed seeing what you look for.”
Mitchell reports birders tell her the Steller’s sea eagle is likely lost and may not leave anytime soon.“This is the only time it has returned to a place. They think it may remain here for a while and make it a home,” she said.