The Eagle and the Gull
A rare and charismatic eagle has returned to the state of Maine. And yet in this meditation on the oddities of birdwatching, I more enjoyed a gull working the waves at sea.
Note (6 Feb 2023): First published elsewhere a year ago, this essay has been gently updated owing to the Steller’s Sea-Eagle’s rediscovery a few days ago in Maine.
EAGLES ARE EASY. It would be a breeze for me to rave about the eagle, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle, one of the most famous bird in the world right now, whose gigantic beak glows like gold and whose eight-foot wingspan makes a Bald Eagle look diminutive by comparison.
The eagle has flown to the U.S. from as far as Russia, making appearances along the way in Alaska, Texas, eastern Canada, and most recently the coast of Maine. Its presence is not exactly on par with a visit from a Siberian Tiger, for example, but you get the idea.
The gull, a Black-legged Kittiwake, has no social media presence or legions of besotted followers. Nor are you likely to see a kittiwake unless you live at sea or along arctic shorelines around the world (a breeding distribution that goes by the beautiful word “circumpolar”).
The only place a Black-legged Kittiwake and a Steller’s Sea-Eagle might routinely meet up would be somewhere over the Bering Sea or the seas of Japan and Okhotsk — or, for the time being, in the Gulf of Maine, where my own encounters with the eagle and the gull in early 2022 were revealing and sublime.
But before you yourself decide on my experiences with these two species, I offer you a reflection on the skill, aesthetic and odd sociology manifest in the act of chasing and watching birds.
Birdwatching of course embodies more than the sum of a bird’s parts and character — more than feathers, flight, song and grace. Birding is about our being with birds somewhere in nature. It is also a display of human nature: materialism, camaraderie, competition, discovery, joy.
Wherever it has landed and been found (most recently again in Maine), the Steller’s Sea-Eagle has triggered stampedes of birders, congregating by the scores or hundreds, which is all together exciting and illuminating, a display of our collective fascination with rarity and celebrity. Long ago I gave up chasing birds like this, not only because of birdwatching’s carbon problem, but more so because I do not enjoy watching birds in a crowd and from roadsides. I had no desire to chase this one. Yet it turned out that the eagle had landed and remained in and around Boothbay Harbor, which was a minor detour for me on a scheduled retreat farther east in Maine.
When I arrived on a Sunday morning, a few of the harbor’s side streets resembled the approach to Woodstock, but instead of drugs, mud and music, attendees had hope, optics and smartphones tracking the eagle’s every flap. After claiming a roadside parking spot, I emerged from the truck to be greeted by a guy dressed in camouflage and hauling serious camera gear. “It just took off toward the aquarium,” he said. “Some birders got too close and flushed it.”
With a grand view of the harbor, the Maine State Aquarium property is a prime location for eagle watching … and for waiting. These stakeouts are fairly typical, often more social than ecological: some birders diligently search the skies and perches; others wait for us to find the target. We encounter old friends and reminisce about rare birds, trips to Texas and in this instance about how “you shoulda been here yesterday” when the eagle posed full-frontal in a White Pine near the post office.
After about two hours of searching, I considered calling it quits and moving on to my destination in Downeast Maine. At which point birders began to leave the stakeout because the eagle had been rediscovered near the Spruce Point Inn Resort and Spa — a 13-minute drive from the aquarium and a nautical mile (as the eagle flies) across the bay. Now my fateful choice: chase or wait?
If the eagle were to flush from Spruce Point, I might see it from this vantage — a semi-private ledge near the aquarium. Loath to join the charging convoy to Spruce Point’s seaside homes on private streets, and perhaps seeking some form of validation, I turned toward two guys sharing a spotting scope. “It’s gonna be a shitshow over there,” I said. One of them replied, “Yeah, we’re staying put.” As did I.
I wish I could tell you that staying put was the right call, that instead of chasing an eagle in my vehicle around Boothbay Harbor, a good thing came to those of us who waited at the aquarium. I cannot tell you that.
What I can tell you is that the very next morning I walked alone to the gull.
At dawn, before the rain began, a stiff wind blew from the southeast toward shore — fine weather for seabirding on the Maine coast. From my accommodations, I walked to the tip of a peninsula, where my companions were Jack Pine and Black Crowberry, crusty lichens and a parade of seabirds. A Northern Gannet, whiter than whitecaps, with black-tipped daggers for wings, glided low, close and fast. A dozen Common Eiders moved like fullbacks against the wind toward shelter in a nearby cove. And the Herring Gulls, the default gulls here, among the most versatile birds on earth, moved without distinction, in and out of the mist, with and against the wind.
Then came the gull, the other gull, the Black-legged Kittiwake, which I recognized the moment it flew into view — but not by its distinctive markings: not its clean yellow bill, not the winter smudge on its white head, not even its wingtips “barely dipped in black ink.” Instead, I know a kittiwake (you can too) by the way it carries itself at sea, how it comports with the wind and waves.
A kittiwake glides and turns like no other gull here now. Moving on quicker and stiffer beats of its subtly longer, narrower wings, a kitti (as we affectionally call it) is diminutive in the wind and yet not buffeted by it. It slices and banks, hangs and dips unlike any Herring Gull. Airborne in lousy weather, a kittiwake is relaxed and yet supple, aware and in command.
Among the 42 Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls I counted from the rocky point that morning, all of them worthy actors on stage here, the solitary kittiwake was like a prima ballerina in her company or a pitcher orchestrating a no hitter among teammates — a standout in nature and in its place.
A day earlier, back at my post at Boothbay Harbor, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle’s afforded me no such performance. With four of my birdwatching pals tracking the eagle’s movements online from their homes, they urged me to leave the aquarium. “Get to Spruce Point — now!” one of them texted. Reluctantly, I did.
The crowd and traffic at Spruce Point reminded me of that notorious photo of climbers lined up beneath the summit of Mt. Everest. Before I arrived, the eagle had left the point and taken a perch on a White Spruce nearly a mile across the bay. From beside my truck, and only owing to my 60-power spotting scope, I could barely make out the eagle’s white tail, white wing flashes and orange bill — all fuzzy at best. I showed it to a few birders (one of whom pointed out that, “you shoulda seen it at the post office”) and then drove off through traffic toward my appointed destination farther east in Maine.
To be sure, sitting around on a faraway spruce is part of what it means to be a Steller’s Sea-Eagle. And I will admit that had the eagle flown past me earlier at the aquarium I might not be writing this essay.
Regardless, I prefer the gull.
Performing with the waves on a lousy day, the kittiwake became for me not just a bird but an experience — like all things in nature an ongoing and unfinished process beyond feathers and flight, more than a thing to be added to a life list.
No matter that a famous eagle did not fly my way. I found instead the gull, a manifestation of wind and waves, of granite and lichen. And in that moment, alone at the point, watching a kittiwake being a kittiwake in its rightful place, I wanted absolutely nothing more from the world.
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"I do not enjoy watching birds in a crowd and from roadsides" - yep, I'm there too. It can be fun, a great big party, so it's good to do once in a while - but what I like best about being in nature is just choosing someplace to go to and looking around to find what's there. Nice on the Kittiwake!