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Black-legged Kittiwake and Steller's Sea-Eagle by Christoph Moning

The Eagle and the Gull

January 26, 2022  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  53 comments  | 

Black-legged Kittiwake (Norway) and Steller’s Sea-Eagle (Japan) © Christoph Moning (each used by permission)

Eagles are easy. It would be a breeze for me to rave about the eagle, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle, arguably 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 here from as far as Russia, making appearances along the way in Alaska, Texas, eastern Canada and New England, most recently the coast of Maine, where I saw it last week. 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, here in the Gulf of Maine, where my own encounter with the gull was 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.

The Eagle

Wherever it has landed and been found, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle has triggered a stampede of birders …

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, competition, camaraderie, joy and self-righteousness (some of which I might even be displaying here).

Wherever it has landed and been found, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle has triggered a stampede 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 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 Boothbay 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 an eastern white pine near the post office.

After about two hours of searching, I considered moving on to my destination in Downeast Maine. At which point birders began to leave the stakeout: the eagle was now perched near the Spruce Point Inn Resort and Spa — a 13-minute drive from the aquarium and a nautical mile (as the eagle flies) across Boothbay Harbor. 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 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 next morning I walked alone to the gull.

The Gull

At dawn, before the rain began, the 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 the 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 rightful place.

The Experience

My view was more like this. / © Sam Darmstadt

Back at Boothbay Harbor a day earlier, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle’s would afford 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. The eagle had left the point for a perch on a white spruce nearly a mile across Boothbay. From beside my truck, and only owing to my 60-power spotting scope, I could make out the eagle’s white tail, white wing flashes and (just barely) its orange bill. 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 for hours 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 at the aquarium I might not be writing this essay.

Regardless, I prefer the gull. 

Performing along the coast of Maine, and more than a thing to be identified or added to some list, the kittiwake became for me an experience — like all things in nature an ongoing and unfinished process, an unfolding beyond feathers and flight. 

No matter that a famous eagle did not fly my way in a crowd or parking lot. I found the gull, a manifestation of wind and waves, of granite and lichen. And in that moment, elated and alone at the point, watching a kittiwake being a kittiwake, I wanted absolutely nothing more from the world.

53 comments
  1. Judy Mirro says:

    The comments are as good as your story! Love this community.

  2. Jo Lafayette says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article. Is it OK to say you have a “peaceful” way of sharing your thoughts and experiences? It is always my pleasure to receive these musings.

    Jo

  3. Andrew nemethy says:

    Good one Bryan, thanks for standing up for not following the Madding Crowd. My relatives pitched their tent at the Spruce Pt. inn a few years ago so it was funny to hear the eagle had landed (one big flap for birderkind?) there. Happy to Let someone else capture the experience and as always, lovely writing.
    Batten down your hatches: that snow you were trying to avoid is going to seek you out this weekend. Does that make you a gull-ible escapee?

  4. John Lazenby says:

    Beautiful writing, Bryan.
    I hope it gets some circulation elsewhere too.

  5. Rollin s Tebbetts says:

    Awesome.

  6. CIndy Leavesley says:

    Hi Bry – Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary (or almost ordinary) is surely one of the lessons few of us really embrace as much as we could. It seems we can often indeed get lost and even jaded in what we so methodically can define and seek out as one of life’s “peak experiences.”

    But I would argue and agree with you that the best and truly “peak ” experiences are what you have just described, when we come upon them not seeking, just being, not expecting, just letting things unfold as nature so wisely intends.

    I think Thoreau said it quite eloquently… “Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.”

    We thought about going up to see the bird… for about five minutes… when we realized the experience would be as you described…instead we wandered our local woods and frozen pond and watched in delight as Lucy discovered she could indeed walk on water!

    Glad you got to have your well deserved time away.

  7. As always, Bryan, your words resonate with me. Thank you for this wonderful account!

  8. giovanna peebles says:

    Dear Bryan, such a great story! You write in a most delightful way about the magical wonderfulness of birds (and these two in particular) and the ridiculous zaniness (sometimes? Often?) of birding and birders. Recommend you send to the New Yorker for that short vignette section at the front of the magazine. It will delight so many. Hugs to you. Safe travels! G

    • Thanks, Giovanna. Yeah, wonderfulness and zaniness — we got that goin’. And I already have my New Yorker rejection (from years ago). But I’m grateful for the thought! 🙂

  9. David Morgan says:

    Thank you for the reference to form and flight. They are always there in a tireless presence. “Soul food” at their best!

    • You’re welcome, David. I think the form and flight it really what I loved. And think knowledge, familiarity, knowing how an organism goes about its business is immeasurably satisfying (at least for me). It’s a component of nature enjoyment. Thanks for reading and writing.

  10. Annie says:

    I am so glad I subscribed to your newsletter, I always find them fascinating and beautiful and informative! The only “rare” bird I have ever seen was a Hawk Owl ( I think that is what it is called ), that settled in Waterbury Center for awhile a few years ago. There were never the masses of people that are currently searching for the eagle in Maine, but those of us that were together on any given day watching the owl were like a little family, all of us thrilled to see it.

    • Lovely, Annie — thanks! Yes, these gatherings of birders are, well, I guess a bit like gatherings of any people, reflecting our best and sometimes not our best. I do recall that Waterbury Hawk Owl. It’s been a while since Hawk Owls have visited Vermont. Hmmmmm.

  11. scott sainsbury says:

    Hi Bryan,
    I’m “on the beach” unable to chase due to cataract surgery (all good). So no kittieagles at the moment. But your story reminds me of an encounter we shared with an enigmatic and magical circumpolar bird.
    The word was out that an Ivory Gull was visiting the north end of Lake Champlain. I drove up alone and looked for the bird from the Vermont side. No bird, but through a scope, a group of well bundled people could be made-out on the jetty south of Rouse’s Point..
    Investigating, I met several familiars on shore who said the bird was indeed present — and that none other that Bryan Pfeiffer was at the end of the jetty watching it.
    I picked my way along greasy step by greasy step, head down and watching each footfall on the ice-covered granite blocks. As I approached the half-marathon mark, I heard shouting ahead.
    Looking up, your group was in the background waving arms and yelling. In the foreground was a spectacular aura. It floated toward me on porcelain wings, so white and clean they were translucent . I think I reached out as it passed — just another arms length away at eye level. Incorporeal spirit on the wing.
    I’ve been privileged to see many spectacular birds here and abroad, but that ethereal messenger carried an epiphany and affirmation of my spiritual congruity with our natural world. It is always been at the top of my birding “moments of meaning” list.
    Many thanks for your intrepidness, your loud voice on jetties and all you share to inspire us.
    Now, if I could just get to Maine and see that eagle……

  12. Donna Cundy says:

    Great words, Bryan.
    That Eagle is like the Mona Lisa. Have you ever gone to see it? Its glassed in and roped off and far away, and people are pushing against you to see it, and it’s in a giant room full of tons of other beautiful art stacked to the ceiling that no one is paying attention to.

    And living out to sea, who knows? I might spy a Kittiwake!

  13. Karen Pick says:

    Wholly agree with your perspective. And you’ve totally made me want to come across a Kittiwake. Thank you.

  14. Juan A Sanchez JR says:

    Wonderful story, Bryan, Thanks for sharing your experiences (once again). I am always excited to read and learn from your writings.

  15. Lisa says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this on so many levels! Your story was both amusing, and thought provoking.
    Thank you!

  16. Such a good article, thank you. I too dislike chasing birds but I get sucked in now and then. No better birding than being able to truly appreciate the bird that’s in front of you.

  17. Diane Imrie says:

    This story helps me rekindle my love for birdwatching, and reminds me that I will make more time for it – thank you for that! In the meantime I will satisfy myself by feeding the bluebirds and hoping for a snowy owl spotting in Addison. Thank you for the wonderful writing!

  18. Ginny Garrison says:

    I love this story, Bryan. It is so true that it is the unexpected encounters in nature that bring the most joy. Your description of birding on the Maine coast also brought back vivid memories of my first birding trip, taken during a winter ornithology course at Bowdoin College. I still can feel the binoculars freezing to my face from my eyes watering in the wind, but being so excited by all the birds we saw!

  19. Meena Haribal says:

    Nice experience and article. I saw four of these in Tofustoko Lake in Hokkaido Japan, where nobody was chasing the birds. I was all alone along the shores of ko. Wind was buffeting and extremely cold, had lost one of the gloves so it was covered in my jacket. But with scope I watched the birds as long as I wanted. And then I as I walked towards Kitahama, I saw big flock of Smews! That was an experience in my life time!

    • Somehow it does not surprise me in the least, Meena, that you have seen this eagle (and Smews) so well — in their rightful place. Yeah, a lifelong memory to be sure. (I have eco-jealousy for it.) Thanks for sharing!

  20. Sarah Schwaegler says:

    This is such a beautiful, scentual story from one who fully appreciates that magic that only nature watching can bring. Your use of the written word is poetic and extraordinary! Many thanks for sharing. And, oh, yes, the photography… also exemplary! I was unfamiliar with either bird, so I learned something there, too.

    (PS Whoops I see you gave full credit to someone else for the photos)

  21. Dennis Paulson says:

    Great story, Bryan. That eagle is high on the list of world birds that I would like to see, but seeing it in a scope a half-mile away wouldn’t do it at al. Something like the experience of the person who took the photo at the beginning of your blog would transport me. As for kittiwakes, we see them regularly on pelagic trips off the Washington coast, occasionally (always with excitement) in roosting and bathing flocks at the outer-coast shoreline. I’ve seen them at their nesting colonies in both oceans and love the ‘kitiwak’ calls reverberating from the cliffs. They are indeed a jewel of the sea, although one that has declined in this area along with so many other seabirds.

    • Thanks, Dennis. Yeah, I so wish this eagle upon you and Netta (among other expressions of life we know all too well). That you have not seen it only attests to its rarity and remote habitats. Gosh, you’d think one might be more likely near you than here in Maine. Who knows, maybe this one will reverse course. After all, it would seem that a Steller’s Sea-Eagle can fly anywhere it damned well pleases!

  22. Maryella Rawnsley says:

    Love your story per usual. I always learn something from you Bryan and I thank you for that.
    I so love the Northern Gannet. I could sit and watch this bird fish for hours.

  23. Bryan, as you watch the bird at hand, I am watching the temperatures in Vermont. Will, they be hawkish or gullish. How will the forecasters comport themselves in the waves and turmoil of the thermometer? Will they turn on a dime or slowly come about? How will our woodstove react; spread its heat 8 feet across our living room, or shoot out in a burst of warming agility?

    Call me gullish if you want, but I think the euphoria of small beaked backyard bird watching and good books will warm me while the two of us (Maeve and me) watch the woodstove fire’s northern lights dancing in delight.

    I think you forecasted perfectly; The prize is not an experience, but the experience is a prize.

  24. Kit Hood says:

    Your story today was lyrical. Thanks for sharing.

  25. Rick Paradis says:

    Bryan,

    Rather than chase this eagle along the coast of Maine, I decided to spend some time reacquainting myself with the fellow who this bird was named for. Georg Wilhelm Steller was a German botanist who accompanied the Russian Vitus Bering on his historic 18th Century exploration of the eastern Siberian/western Alaskan region. Being familiar with plants and their purported values, Steller knew that some terrestrial species found in the region could ward off scurvy, the bane of seamen at that time. Trouble was, the crew including Bering scoffed at the idea that eating these plants would do any good. They ridiculed Steller often refusing to let him explore while they were nearshore. Many of them subsequently died of the disease, including Bering. Just another example where pigheaded beliefs trump good science I guess.

    Cheers, Rick

    • Awesome! Thanks, Rick — always an academic and an adventurer, you are! I’ve seen Steller’s Jay, of course. I suspect I’ll leave this earth not having seen Steller’s Eider — one of the most amazing birds on the planet. But, hey, we got kittiwakes — and lots of gifts close to home!

  26. Robert Mussey says:

    Your kittiwake story was marvelous, as marvelous as seeing them fly. About 20 years ago my wife and I were at the very farthest NW end of Kodiak island, Alaska, kayaking along among small islands near a friend’s salmon fishing lease. As we glided past one island, thousands of nesting kittiwakes boiled up into the sky as a bald eagle made a strafing run. It was trying to pick off one of the nestlings. The chaos of the sound and of the thousands of kittiwakes distracted the eagle so much that it was confused and made no strike. The next island had sea otters with pups which fled the eagle by swimming into the water with pups on their chests. Which experience was better? Take your pick, but The kittiwakes were special.

  27. NANCY W CHICKERING says:

    Such a vivid description of mood and beauty!! Loving you from a far and having fun playing with Ruth while you are gone!!

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