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The Way I See it: More Than Meets The Eye: A Birder’s Journey

Steller’s sea eagle. Photo by Eleanor Ray.

On the last day of 2021, I drove to Maine to see a bird I’d never seen before. You may have heard about this one — a Steller’s sea eagle, normally a native of northern Japan and Russia’s far eastern shore, but now far off course in New England. This is the first time this species has been spotted on the Atlantic coast. 

To imagine this eagle, imagine a giant black raptor with a white tail, white leggings and epaulets, and a massive yellow bill, the kind you’d imagine on a kindergartner’s drawing labeled “Gyant EEGAL.” 

Driving to Maine is the kind of thing I do: I’m a bird-watcher (I look at birds with intention), a birder (I keep a list of birds I’ve looked at with intention), and a twitcher (I go out of my way to look at birds not on my list of birds I’ve looked at, uh, with intention). 

This time, I carpooled with a friend to keep fiscal and carbon costs down. When we arrived, scores of other birders were on the beach. We filled the parking lot with our scopes and trucks. The bird, far out on a rock, was so distant that, in the right light, it could have been a gnat on my arm at a picnic in Adamant. After faffing about for a while, we drove home. 

I went to see the bird because I felt a few itches that I wanted to scratch. I wanted to see this large animal. I had never seen one like it before. (I could argue that I still haven’t.) 

But I wanted to know the reality of it, to not just imagine it but also to see it near me. I wanted to prove to myself that this bird exists in nature, that the world I inhabit is also a world that holds these things. I wanted to feel connected to it, through my senses. 

That’s what my adult brain would say. But this bird, more than most other animals I’ve seen, spoke to the five-year-old inside of me. That kid went to Maine because he wanted to see the eagle do a victory roll. Who wouldn’t? 

I wanted to see it swoop down out of the heavens, wearing a golden crown, to my waiting arm, where it would hand me the rods of the king, and croak in a voice as deep and eldritch as the sea: “Behold, Richard, I have come with rumors of war and glory: attend to me, now, and ride!” Failing that, I wanted to see it at least sit on a tree within 20 feet, and if I was really lucky, swoop down to catch a fish.

But I saw a fly on a stone. Was that worth it? I lost a day driving to Maine. Environmentally, the costs were worse. If a mature tree averages 50 pounds of sequestered carbon a year, I just added the demand for four more mature trees to the environment, in one day. I started out 2022 deep in both carbon debt and the shame of knowing it. What did I receive in return? 

It’s difficult to say. The most common response to this question is this: little I could not have gotten at home. I could have attended to my local Cooper’s hawk in Blanchard Park, nestled in the sun above Wilder Street most winter mornings. I could have felt familiar, local, and connected there. I could have been awed by its nictitating membrane, or third eyelid, instead of striving for something exotic and strange. Gone deeper, not farther.

But this answer doesn’t satisfy me, because no matter how much I want to go deeper, to live locally, to enjoy my daily perambulations, I still feel the need, as Tennyson wrote, “to sail beyond the sunset … to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Why?

The answer isn’t the bird. It’s somewhere on the ride home, where, after eight hours of driving, we settled into a comfortable silence, listening to drum’n’bass and surfing through the night. Although the ink was already drying on my checklist, I felt content.

I didn’t need to go somewhere else and see another bird. I had gotten what I wanted: connection. I felt closer to my friend. I had even felt (somewhat begrudgingly) a part of the group of bumbling, privileged, rich, older, and mostly white people on the rock, enjoying nature and our shared hobby. I felt a kinship to the birder friends who had stayed at home, who texted “NICE!!!!!!” when I sent them a laconic Vermonter — “Seen.” — as a message. 

This connection is what the Steller’s sea eagle gave to me. And while I’m still not at the bottom of why I need that particular kind of connection in the first place, I’m glad for it. And, of course, glad I don’t need to drive another 10 hours to see it again.