Bird watchers in Massachusetts have been given an early Christmas present in the form of an incredibly rare sighting – a Steller’s sea eagle, which is native to Asia almost 8,000 km (5,000 miles) away.
The large sea eagles are native to the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia, and also seen in Japan, China, and Korea. There are estimated to be only around 5,000 individuals left, including this one, which has somehow made its way to the Taunton river in Massachusetts.
Steller’s sea eagles (Haliaeetus pelagicus) are among the heaviest eagles on the planet, weighing 5 to 9 kg (11 to 20 pounds) and with a wingspan of up to 2.5 meters (8 feet).
They’re pretty easy to identify with their Gonzo-like bright orange beak, and distinctive white-edged wings
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. “I couldn’t believe it. Something like this is just one in a million.”
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.
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.
How did this majestic creature end up so far from home?
It’s not unheard of for birds to stray from their homeland, a phenomenon known as vagrancy.
Sometimes it’s environmental factors such as climate change or habitat loss that push them out of their natural range. But sometimes it’s just an internal navigation failure.
With this individual now having strayed for so long, Alex Lees, a conservation biologist at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK told NPR that it’s unlikely it’ll return home.
“It may be doomed to perpetually wander in search of a member of its own species, remaining in suitable areas for months perhaps, but the urge to wander to find a mate may drive it to keep moving,” Lees told NPR.
“It is still possible that this individual may find its way back, but the longer it stays the less likely this seems.”
That might sound lonely right before Christmas, but Lees and colleagues just published a paper in Current Biology sharing evidence that some vagrant birds may actually be pioneers of new habitats, setting up new migratory routes for their species.