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Hoping to see rare eagle, birders are flocking to the Taunton River

A Steller's sea eagle, photographed by the Taunton River. (Courtesy of Mass Audubon via Justin Lawson)
A Steller's sea eagle, photographed by the Taunton River. (Courtesy of Mass Audubon via Justin Lawson)

Hundreds of bird enthusiasts from across the region have been coming to the lower Taunton River to try to catch sight of a rare Steller’s sea eagle spotted there recently.

The eagle has captured public imagination (and national attention) partly because of its size — it’s much bigger than a bald eagle, with an 8-foot wingspan and a massive bright-orange bill.

But people are also drawn to the bird's backstory. It's thousands of miles from its usual home in Asia, and nobody’s sure how it got here.

"Not only is this bird exceedingly rare, it's absolutely gobsmackingly unexpected here in Massachusetts," says Mark Faherty, science coordinator at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary.

Faherty says experts are fairly certain that this same eagle was first photographed at Denali National Park in Alaska about a year ago. Since then it has made its way across Canada to the Maritime provinces, perhaps to Texas, then to Massachusetts.

Faherty says a storm probably blew the eagle off course. Now it's lost and far from home.

"It's really has no business being here at all," says Garth Wlochowski, who got up at 5 a.m. to drive from his home in East Hartford, Connecticut, to Dighton Rock State Park — and stand in the freezing cold — to try to see it this week.

"When you get an opportunity to see something this unique and this rare, you take a day off from work and come," Wlochowski says.

"Not only is this bird exceedingly rare, it's absolutely gobsmackingly unexpected here in Massachusetts."

Mark Faherty, science coordinator at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary

Jonathan Eckerson of Dighton was one of the lucky birders to see the eagle this week. He and his brothers heard rumors of the bird last Sunday night, and set up a search corridor along the river Monday morning. Eckerson says he was perched precariously on a railroad bridge when he saw the bird just after dawn, and called the experience "mind-blowing."

"The size of the bill is almost like the size of its head, which is quite unlike bald eagles," Eckerson says. "I mean you think like bald eagles are big, but this thing is just like next level."

Eckerson says it's unusual for Dighton and Somerset to get so much attention from bird enthusiasts.

"The past couple of days, driving along the river and seeing birders everywhere lining all the little viewpoints — it's quite unprecedented in this area," he says. "It's very strange to see, but it's a great area for birding, so it's good to see people here."

The bird was first reported to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife on Dec. 12, but not positively identified as a Steller's sea eagle until a few days later. It was last seen on Dec. 20.

Joan Walsh, chair of field ornithology for Mass Audubon, said in an email she isn't sure if the eagle will return to the Taunton River, even though it's a good habitat for the bird. Walsh suspects it will turn up again at another spot with lots of bald eagles, like the Connecticut section of the Connecticut River.

Related:

Barbara Moran Twitter Correspondent, Environment
Barbara Moran is the senior producing editor for WBUR’s environmental vertical.

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