A rogue Steller's sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) has captivated birders once again as it soars eastward thousands of miles away from its home in Asia. The raptor was recently spotted in Nova Scotia on Canada's east coast on November 3, reports Marion Renault for the New York Times.
The sea eagle, native to Asia—specifically China, Japan, Korea, and Eastern Russia—has been spotted thousands of miles away from its range in places as far south as Texas and as far North as Alaska, reports Vernon Ramesar for CBC News. The bird was first spotted in the United States on Alaska's Denali highway, about 4,700 miles away from its native range, in August 2020. In July 2021, the eagle was spotted in New Brunswick and Quebec, Canada. The first sighting in Nova Scotia was reported by Phil Taylor, a biologist at Acadia University, while scanning for ducks in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, reports the New York Times.
The bird's distinctive, yellow beak, unique white patterning on its wings, and large white tail feathers are easily identifiable and Taylor recognized the eagle perched in the mud right away.
"I knew exactly what it was, immediately," says Taylor, an expert on bird migration, to the New York Times. "I couldn't believe it. Something like this is just one in a million."
Soon after spotting the eagle, Taylor pinged other birders about the sighting through a birding group on the Discord app, CBC News reports. The message inspired other birders to flock to the area in search of the raptor, including Jason Dain, a wildlife photographer who has been trying to photograph the raptor since it was last seen in New Brunswick. A total of 40 individuals crowded the area to see the roaming bird.
"Mind blown, gobsmacked ... there's all kinds of words," Dain tells CBC News. "It's a dream bird for a birder or to see, especially here in Nova Scotia."
Birders are confident the same eagle in Nova Scotia was also seen in various parts of North America because of the unique white markings on its wings. Photographs of the bird taken at multiple locations have the same wing markings, CBC News reports. However, it is unknown if the same eagle was spotted in Texas because it was only photographed perched, not with outstretched wings where distinguishing markings would be visible, per the New York Times.
Though the bird is about as lost as it could possibly be, it's not uncommon for birds to become vagrant. Vagrancy occurs when a bird veers off course, possibly due to a navigation error, or it may have been blown off course by extreme weather patterns. Vagrancy may also help migratory birds expand ranges, an advantage to their survival as global warming changes suitable habitats for many species, per the New York Times. Vagrancy is rather normal—there are even records of albatrosses spending decades oustide their native range. Birders often dream of vagrant sightings because it gives them a chance to see a rare bird they would not usually see locally.
Experts suspect the lone traveler may migrate with native bald eagles along the coastline, make its way back to its normal ranges in northeastern Asia or stick around and brace Nova Scotia's brutal winters. It is possible that the sea eagle may die while out of range, the New York Times reports.
"It's like an avian soap opera," Alexander Lees, an avian vagrancy expert at the Manchester Metropolitan University, said to the New York Times. "We're all rooting for it. Will it make it home? Or is it doomed to never see another species of its own in its lifetime?"