Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Rare eagle sighting in Atlantic Canada like palm tree in the tundra, expert says

The unusual odyssey of a rare eagle from Russia onto Texas, Quebec and finally Nova Scotia has birdwatchers both puzzled and spellbound.

The unusual odyssey of a rare eagle from Russia onto Texas, Quebec and finally Nova Scotia has birdwatchers both puzzled and spellbound.

This Steller’s sea eagle has trekked almost halfway around the world from its home about 8,000 kilometres away on the eastern coast of Russia. 

Phil Taylor, a biologist at Acadia University, spotted the eagle on his way home after lunch with a colleague on Nov. 3, on the banks of the Avon River near Falmouth, N.S.  

"And there was this bird. Just sitting there on the mud," he said in an interview. "It's quite a remarkable bird, very easy to identify."

This bird is bigger than a bald eagle, with white shoulders and tail and a large orange bill. It has wingspan of up to 2 1/2 metres and can weigh up to 10 kilograms. 

The Steller's sea eagle is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and about 6,000 remain in the wild, usually in Japan, China, Korea and on the eastern coast of Russia. 

"It's very distinctive, and I immediately recognized it because the same individual bird was seen earlier in New Brunswick, this year in July," Taylor said.

Nick Lund, a network manager for Maine Audubon, who has been tracking the eagle's travels, said the bird was first spotted in Denali National Park in Alaska last August, which is "unusual but not crazy" because it's on the other side of the Arctic Ocean. 

It disappeared for a few months before showing up in Texas this spring and then turned north to Quebec, Lund said.  

"That seemed to make more sense to people," Lund said. "Because that was sort of in the same band of latitude, as you know, Russia and Alaska give or take, and so it sort of made sense."

The eagle's next stop was New Brunswick and now it's been spotted in Nova Scotia.

The bird has been photographed at every stop and the photos have been compared to ensure it is the same one, he said.

While it's impossible to know exactly what path the bird took, Lund said it is likely that the eagle covered a number of provinces and states across the continent. 

"And so it's kind of remarkable to think about a bird this large making its way unseen over all that distance," he said.

Taylor said the eagle hasn't been spotted since Nov. 4, but he's not worried because it has disappeared for some lengths of time before showing up again.

It usually feeds on fish but can also eat deer, ducks or other small animals, he said.

"There's a lot of places it can be and even though it's big, it could be in the back of some little valley somewhere," he said.

"Or it could be heading to New York or heading to Saint John, New Brunswick, or who knows. We really don't know."

Lund said he is hoping the bird shows up in Maine.

"We're sitting out there with fish on the coastline, dangling them so it'll fly over to us," he said laughing. 

While it is not unusual to find a smaller feathered creature such as a hummingbird or warbler on a wayward course, Lund said there's no precedent for finding a Steller's sea eagle in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and certainly not Texas.

"It would be like a Canadian arborist finding a palm tree growing on the tundra, or a fisherman finding a blue whale in their local pond."

Scientists use the term "vagrancy" to describe birds such as this Steller's sea eagle that fly outside their normal range, he said.

Vagrancy could be caused because birds migrated the wrong way, were blown off-course by winds or are looking for a better habitat, he noted.

"Completely anthropomorphically, sometimes I like to think the birds are just sort of explorers for their native species,” he said with a chuckle.

"They like seeing the globe so they can bring back tales of adventure to their home range. But that's probably not true."  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2021.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press