STEEELLLAAAAA! – Birding and Kayaking in Maine’s Midcoast
This was the cry that P2 staff members Eric, Mariah, and Megan let out just a few weeks ago when they, along with hundreds of other bird enthusiasts, traveled to the towns of Arrowsic and Georgetown in Maine’s Southern Midcoast, in hopes of finding a rare visitor who is taking the birding world by storm!
In case you haven’t heard, New England and eastern Canada have recently become the home of a Steller’s Sea Eagle, which some have affectionately nicknamed Stella. Steller’s Sea Eagles are an endangered cousin of Maine’s native Bald Eagles, typically found in Northeast Asia, particularly Russia and Japan. Though a few other Steller’s Eagles have made the relatively short flight across the Bering Sea from Asia to Alaska, this is the only known case of one traveling inland across the continent to the North American Atlantic Coast. Stella caused a buzz last winter when they spent several months in the Southern Midcoast between Bath and Boothbay Harbor. After disappearing for sometime in the spring, Stella reappeared with several sightings in Maritime Canada, then settled into a summer retreat on Newfoundland. Fall and early winter saw another dearth of sightings, before they reappeared in Maine’s Midcoast around the start of the new year.
Sea Eagle Basics
Steller’s Sea Eagles are noticeably larger than their Bald Eagle cousins, with a prominent yellow-orange beak, black or very dark brown body feathers, and patches of white on their shoulders, legs, and tails. They eat primarily fish, but will also eat mammals and other birds when the opportunity presents itself. So far, Stella has often been seen in company with Bald Eagles, especially juveniles. These relationships seem “para-social” with the birds tolerating each other and sharing fishing spots, but engaging in minimal direct interactions. In most cases the Bald Eagles seem to defer to Stella, giving up prime roosting spots and backing down quickly in conflicts. Steller’s Eagles share their home range with the White Tailed Sea Eagle, a relative nearly identical in size and behavior to a Bald Eagle, so this is likely a very natural feeling arrangement for Stella. For our native Bald Eagles though, who are used to being the largest birds around and frequently steal fish from smaller Ospreys and Gulls, this is surely a jarring change. Check out the gallery above for a great size comparison shot from birder-photographer Matt Felperin.
In Search of Stella
For several days before our adventurers headed to the Midcoast Stella had been reliably spotted from the route 127 bridge over the Back River between Georgetown and Arrowsic, as well as a few other nearby spots. We made it there by 10 in the morning, which sighting reports had revealed was when Stella usually settled into a perch for the day. Our plan was to get a fix on their location, then launch kayaks to go for a relaxing paddle, hopefully getting a view from a less common perspective. No sign of her yet when we arrived, but we were greeted by the comical sight of hundreds of people, in winter coats and mud boots, binoculars, cameras, and spotting scopes at the ready, staring into the largely empty marsh. After a few minutes observing the scene we decided to drive around the area, scouting out some other likely haunts in hopes of catching a site of our bird. Thus began a marvelous, though ultimately fruitless, day of exploring Maine’s Midcoast. We stopped at numerous locations in Wiscasset, Woolwich, Arrowsic, Georgetown, Bath, and Five Islands. Though none of them produced for us a rare Sea Eagle, we saw many other delightful birds, including a Surf Scoter, Loons and Guillemots in their winter plumage, numerous Canada Geese and Ducks, and several Bald Eagles. We even got to visit the historic Doubling Point Lighthouse on the Kennebec River, just a little down stream and across the way from Bath Iron Works, where we were treated to a scene of seals playing in the tidal currents!
Birding as a stand alone activity is noticeably different from many other outdoor pursuits. Little to no special equipment is needed to get started, and no technical skill is necessary from a safety stand point. A willingness to drive and walk to odd locations, and to notice the sounds and sites around you, is all you need. We all had limited experience “birding” on its own, though of course have always enjoyed seeing our feathered friends on paddles, hikes, and at feeders. The mixed thrill of looking for something so rare and special, while also taking the time to notice the little every day beauties at each spot we stopped, was an enlightening experience. We brought some basic cameras and binoculars with us, a far cry from the massive scopes and telescoping lenses of the really serious birders, but knowing that we could have simply walked out the door just to see what we saw felt very freeing compared to the gear intensive nature of many modern outdoor sports.
Most of the birds we did end up seeing were familiar to us on first glance. For those we were not familiar with, we took note of specific markings (for example the color on the belly and wings), the general size (robin sized, crow sized, etc), and the general category of bird (ducks and duck like birds, songbirds, birds of prey, etc). Armed with this information, we were able to consult the Merlin App, produced by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or guidebooks like the Audubon and Peterson’s series to positively identify the species and provide interesting information about birds’ behavior and ecology. To aid us in specifically searching for the Steller’s Sea Eagle we used the Maine Audubon page which tracks confirmed sightings daily, as well as helpful Facebook and GroupMe groups on the subject for on the fly reports. For future rare bird sightings, we intend to keep an eye on Maine Rare Bird Alert, where experienced birders let others know of uncommon sightings in the state.
After a long day of adventure, we headed back to Portland, disappointed we had missed seeing Stella, but thrilled about the birds we had seen, and relaxed from just letting the day take us where it willed. This certainly won’t be the last time we go birding, nor the last time we explore the beautiful Midcoast of Maine! This part of the coast is a particularly good area for wildlife viewing, due to the intricate maze of islands, rivers, and back channels which create a wide variety of habitats. Nutrients from the Kennebec-Androscoggin river system, other smaller rivers, and the ocean all intermingle, creating abundant food sources for birds, seals, and porpoises. Here you can paddle through rivers, salt marshes, rocky coastline, sandy beaches, and open ocean, all within a few hours, or even minutes of each other. It truly is a paddler’s dream!
For more information on common coastal birds in Maine, check out our previous blog post on some of the most likely ones to spot! If you want to come explore the Southern Midcoast with us this summer, check out the brand new multi day trip we just announced, the Midcoast Meander Expedition!
For more on seabirds of coastal Maine, check out our blog post, “Seabirds to Spot While Paddling Coastal Maine.”
Photo Gallery credits:
- Steller’s Sea Eagle eating Canada Goose with juvenile Bald Eagles – Matthew Felperin Photography
- Bald Eagle soaring, Guillemot in winter plumage, and Surf Scoter – Megan Nathanson
- Dubbling Point Lighthouse – Eric Nathanson
- Southern Midcoast from Brunswick to Pemaquid Point Satellite Image – CalTopo