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Rare Steller’s sea eagle travels far from home to Maine coast

The large eagle, native to northeastern Asia, was first spotted in Maine in late December.

A Steller's sea eagle is seen December 31 off Georgetown, Maine. The rare eagle has taken up residence thousands of miles from its home range, delighting bird lovers and puzzling scientists. (Zachary Holderby/AP)

A rare, large species of eagle that has thrilled bird lovers and baffled scientists since arriving in Maine last month might not be in a hurry to leave.

The Steller’s sea eagle arrived in Maine in late December after a brief stop in Massachusetts more than a month ago. It has stuck to Maine’s middle coast, eating fish and ducks and attracting hundreds of birdwatchers from around the world.

The sea eagle numbers only a few thousand worldwide and is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is native to northeastern Asia, including Russia and Japan. The bird is far off-course, and it’s unclear why it came to the East Coast of the United States, said Doug Hitchcox, a staff naturalist at Maine Audubon.

But the bird doesn’t appear to be in any danger, Hitchcox said. It has an ample food supply and is living in a habitat that is similar enough to its native range, he said. It’s possible it could eventually return to its home range, but now it appears comfortable in Maine, Hitchcox said.

“This one is so far off-course, it’s just purely speculation to say it could go back and then return. There is no reason it couldn’t make its way back to Japan or Russia,” he said. “It seems to be doing okay.”

It’s not uncommon for bird species to return year after year to places far from their typical range. A single red-billed tropicbird, a species commonly seen in the Caribbean and tropical oceans, has been seen off the Maine coast in the summer for years. Birders affectionately call it “Troppy.”

Maine’s Steller’s sea eagle is an adult, and its sex is not confirmed. It is sometimes seen near bald eagles, dwarfing them with its wingspan of nearly eight feet. The Steller’s, named for German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, is one of the largest eagles in the world, often weighing 13 to 20 pounds. That’s twice as heavy as a bald eagle — the United States’ national symbol.

The bird attracted dozens of onlookers to Reid State Park in Georgetown when it was first seen in Maine, and birdwatchers have continued to visit the state for weeks with no sign of stopping.

Allison Black, a birder from Connecticut, made the four-hour drive to see the bird Monday. Many bird fans are relying on websites and social media channels set up to help people track the eagle.

“I took my mom with me, too, who isn’t a birder, but heard the story about the eagle and wanted to see it. We actually tried to see it back in December when it was in Massachusetts, but missed it by 10 minutes. That hurt,” she said. “I saw in the alerts that it flew not too long after we left, so I’m thankful we were at the right place at the right time to finally see it!”