Monday, February 21, 2022

Nearly Beaten and Busted searching for Boris

I have never worked so hard on a bird, enduring nine days of freezing temperatures, snow, and wind.  The last three days I have stood out on a bridge over the Back River in Maine waiting, looking, and hoping.  I joked to a person next to me, saying that this was like going to Ocho Rios in Jamaica, camping out on a top of a building overlooking the main road and waiting for Keith Richards to pass (he owns a house nearby on the island) and thinking, maybe I could get a photo, maybe he'll stop and get out of his car.  Maybe...I do not know what will happen.

I have never been on a bird stakeout filled with such vitriol.  Yesterday, after hearing apparently something from a call (they did not note details) we had police watching us, not to see if we were doing anything wrong, but to protect us.  Had we been threatened? Nothing happened of note yesterday, we were harassed and taunted by roaring motors. This morning, however, we were greeted with a new sign chained to the bridge and it had an ominous look.  Why would you take the time to make a sign and chain it out on a bridge in the middle of the night?

Others had a dead crow thrown at them this week.  I almost got into a fight with some guy this morning at 7AM , as he told us "we were going to get someone killed here on this bridge." As I noted that he was the one stopping in the middle of the bridge and causing a traffic issue, but I got the feeling that was NOT what he meant.  The guy next to me thought the person who was going to get killed was maybe me, as in he (or someone) was going to shoot me (or someone).  The man stormed off in his pickup but zipped by a little later at 70MPH gunning his engine.  Officer Chad did not show up today, it made us a little uneasy.  It made me uneasy at least.  Yesterday he put up warning signs, handed us reflective vests, and placed warning cones, but the swearing at us continued.  Asshole, F u, motherf$^, you name it.
Arrowsic Bridge outside Georgetown Maine

I ask .....Are we that dangerous?  We stayed behind the white line.  Why are people so angry? What is their problem? I got a discount for being a birder at my motel, people seemed polite, it is not all Mainers.  I do not know why some hated us so.  It was not this bad in Boothbay.

All this fuss to find the hold grail of birds and one that noted ornithologist David Sibley described "if seeing this bird was rated between a scale of one and a ten, it would be an eleven."  

The story of the Steller's Sea Eagle, a Russian bird never seen in the lower 48 even Canada for that matter, named either Boris or Stella, (no one knows its sex) is a long story that may even involve doctored pictures for a supposed Texas detour, that was maybe made up, but what are the odds of fraud for a bird so outlandish, so un-probable, to have it then, show up a few months later?  
Think about that......It is like winning the lottery twice in a row.

 If I was going to make up a sighting through a photoshopped picture in Texas, it would NEVER be a Steller's sea eagle, it is just too crazy.  

Its journey from the Russian Kamchatka region or northern Japan to Alaska to maybe Texas, then to Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia (briefly), to Massachusetts , and now Maine has been massive with or without Texas and something no one ever dreamed would happen.  Seeing this bird in Washington state would be crazy, but Maine?

It has been a ghost, showing up, disappearing, and/or showing up where no one can see it.  People not wanting the hoards of birders to visit their yards, delayed intel, no intel.  I have spent 9 days looking for it, on three trips, and all I had to show for it were frozen fingers, a stiff back, and just shivering.   There are no bathrooms and no places to eat.  The stakeout is not really fun, but you have to try to see this bird.  This is the best bird EVER.

Oh though the birding gods through Boris mocked me. Twice the bird had been seen the morning I got there, and sat in a tree for hours the day before.  But for me nowhere.  

Yesterday, even the unthinkable happened, having controlled my liquid intake, a 1230 after 6 hours on my feet, I decided to make a break to town, go get a sandwich go to the bathroom and come back quickly, and I had to go. What could happen?  I left at 1231, I drove down the road fast and when I got a text while pulling into the grocery store, .......... the bird seen at 1235.  Now I was swearing.  Of all the luck.

I came back quickly, without food, but I had to go, so I went.  The bird made a 10 second flyover, then maybe sat in a tree for a few seconds before it was done.  "Keith Richards" did not even slow down to look at the crowd.  Not even everyone on the bridge saw it.  It was like a select few.  Many were taking a warmup break in their cars and they were like me, out of luck.  Afterwards, there was even some dispute.  One guy took a photo but it was a Juvie Bald Eagle, so did they even see it.  Was it mass hallucinations?  I don't know, all I know is that I saw a bathroom, and no bird.

I watched futilely the rest of daylight and a Facebook friend even gave me a potential lifer beer for luck as he drove past me on the bridge.  It at least was not a dead crow.   It was nice and it edged the pain back in Bath as I drank it as just a plain old beer.  I certainly needed more alcohol but watched a silly movie and fell asleep.  I am beginning to think alcohol and birding do not mix.  

I felt beaten, though, and then after a groggy night, and a morning which I could not drink coffee as I had to restrict liquids, I decided I'd hang on for another day, see what happened.  I could stay until 10 and catch the normal flight, and even later and go home through Detroit.  The day unlike the other, went fast.  Hardly anything was flying.  I watched the sky, the river, the cars honking at us or gunning past us.  I watched a bluebird sing, heard the titmice, and we talked of Keith Richards for some reason.

Someone spotted a harbor seal, the day before we had a mink swim and then scurry past us down below.

Red breasted mergansers fed below us....

and the best bird....a red throated loon, as I had not seen one of those for a couple of years, it was a worthy consolation prize, or so I thought, but seeing this bird is like getting soda crackers instead of a birthday cake.  

We all hoped the tide would come in and get the birds moving but the tide came in and nothing flew.  Nothing moved. 

Ten o'clock came and went, the weather was nice, quite nice, even too nice,  the nicest day in Maine so far, and generally after the shipbuilding plant shift change was over, we were stopped being swore at, someone brought coffee ,and I told stories.  I looked at the late flight and the price had gone up to 1800 dollars to get to Tampa for the last seat, I could not leave, that was too much.  It was like I was stuck there, Groundhogs Day movie or something, I needed to figure out like Bill Murray how to get the day moving.  This was Hell.  Hell for birders, is the never ending --never seeing stake out, when you are constantly moving to a new site but never ever seeing the bird.  One birder after another who had been there for days left.  We began to wonder, what if the bird IS dead?  Would the USFWS even find them for killing a raptor.  One guy thought they would not have the correct gun.  I know that was wrong.  I grew up in rural Wisconsin.  They all have a GOOD RIFLE for this, don't fool yourselves.
picture from the NPR article NOT mine.

I did not pray to the birding gods, there was no dance or pagan ritual to do, I was just stuck on a bridge waiting, watching, hoping, for something that was never coming.  I was tired, sore, sick of Maine, just plain sick, mostly of the locals harassing us, and sick of birding.  My faith had been tested and I lost, the birding gods had done me in.  My nemesis bird was now named Boris.  I'd been beaten by a bird!  

I soldiered on, but was having severe bin-fatigue and then at 211 PM, something odd happened.  Tate, a regional birder, younger guy, dressed like he was more out at the beach than a bird stakeout in the cold quietly and with little doubt stated flatly, "got our bird."

There was the mad scramble to get on it, four eagles at distance ketteling high up in the sky but after days of doubt of how to recognize the noble creature in flight, there was no doubt, even at this distance.  It was a clear as seeing your mother, as knowing home, or seeing your own toes.  It was a Big bird with white forewing patches catching the light so bright, even flying straight at you you could see the dark head, white mid-wing, dark wings.  We moved around on the bridge to get angles and watched the aerial show for 20 minutes as it circled lazily a long ways out, coming a little closer but not much and then all the birds vanished.  It was done.  I had seen Boris, the grandest eagle, and on a February 21, 2022, I saw three species of eagles in the lower 48 states, Bald, Golden, and Steller-sea eagles, we had a golden fly over which itself is a great bird.  Few can ever say that,  Yes, it would have been nice to have taken a photo, see it perched up close but, I was just lucky to have seen the bird, so it did not matter. I saw the blasted thing, it was a glimpse, a long glimpse I guess, but had no doubt, and I enjoyed the show, helped as many people get on it as possible, and well, survived Boris and Maine.....whew!!!!

God was talking to Adam in heaven, they were planning about Eve and how she'd look when Adam saw a old shriveled up being in the corner.  "Who is that?" Adam asked.  
God looked at the being and sighed.  "That is Keith Richards, he was here when I got here."

Many say that there is some higher meaning to this bird, and maybe the Rolling Stone analogy is mine.  It is just lucky to see somebody famous pass us by in life.  The eagle story now has me in it.  I saw it, and we are connected.  I saw Jesse Jackson ahead of me in a SAS flight line in Sweden once, we are connected.  I passed Alice Cooper at the door of a hotel in Iceland, and we are connected.  I can still see his cheap plastic $1 shoes and now .....I saw Boris the eagle in Maine.  I do not think there is anything more than that.  There was no nirvana, and no spiritual awakening, I did not have an epiphany, nothing like that at all.  I saw a bird.  

The bat falcon is pretty rare bird and well, I felt the same, more just relief again, like this after some more brutal punishing stakeouts.  I am not sure what I feel, actually, besides painful fingers, sore legs and back, and well, I need clean clothes.  I smell.  Having chased so many birds, maybe each one now loses some of the punch.

Uber birder and lister Paul Sykes got his Steller's on a glacier in Alaska after a helicopter ride years ago, I asked him in 2016 what he felt after that, or any thoughts on such a crazy chase?  Maybe what was his better chase?  He looked at me and said, "we don't think that way."  He just wanted to know what the next bird was and where to get it, Paul apparently had no higher meaning to his Steller's, just a check on a checklist. 
You know what I really felt?  The taste of a damn nice lifer beer.  Wow, a beer had never tasted so good!  It was one I earned, really earned, and now, my life can move on.

Tate, you saved my birding soul, I was even starting to think I was NEVER going on a bird chase again.  Many thanks to whoever and wherever you are, I owe you some sanity and another magnificent bird.



  1. I love the shirt. I have one just like it. Congratulations on the bird, but I think you are just a little crazy freezing almost to death in Maine in the winter to see a bird. Where does this bird hang out in the SUMMER?

    Steve Reniere

    PS: If you need to warm up your welcome to come visit!!!

  2. Steve
    No one knows where it will go, stay in Maine, go north, who knows, guess we'll see

  3. Great story, as usual, and showing the value of perseverance. Congrats


Butterfly Week 2024

  BUTTERFLY WEEK came late to the prairies of NE South Dakota this summer, it has been raining since, well, since spring.  It has rained and...