Most of us would consider our chances of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning as highly unlikely. The odds of such an event occurring in the life of an individual are ridiculously long. Another event that would carry similar long-shot odds would be spotting a Steller’s sea eagle in south Texas; yet, it appears that event has actually taken place.
The fun started on March 10th when a photo of a Steller’s sea eagle was posted on the Facebook page of the Barnhart Q5 Ranch & Nature Retreat. According to the post, the bird was spotted on the Coleto Creek arm of Coleto Creek Reservoir and downstream from the Coletoville Road bridge in Goliad County. The snag on which the eagle was perched has been found and the location verified according to my contacts in the birding community. Those same contacts have told me there is no sign of photoshopping or other doctoring of the original image. More and more of the Texas birding community – who initially scoffed at the possibility of this species being seen in the Lone Star State – are coming around to the likelihood that the sighting is legitimate.
If true, how could a Steller’s sea eagle have gotten so lost? The first possibility is that it did not. Some have speculated that what was seen was a bird that escaped from a zoo or a falconer. It is a theory that would neatly sum up the mystery as to how this eagle ended up at least 5,000 miles from home; however, there are problems with this hypothesis. There are very few Steller’s sea eagles in U.S. collections. According to several veteran Texas birders to whom I spoke, there are less than 20 of these eagles in captivity in the United States. A quick search revealed that zoos in San Diego, Cincinnati, Denver, Boise, Louisville, and New England house specimens. These are some of the heavyweights of the zoo world in North America and not roadside menageries with a ramshackle enclosures that might make escape possible. None of these zoos have reported a missing eagle. These same birders went on to address the falconer theory and said this explanation is unlikely. One said, “It would be an extremely tough bird for a falconer to even obtain.” To sum up, the idea that this bird is an escapee has lost a lot of steam.
Another possibility as to how this eagle found its way to Texas is that there is something wrong with it. Occasionally, individual birds lose their ability to navigate properly. It is almost as if their internal compass suddenly ceases to operate correctly. This loss of navigational ability has led to sightings of species far outside of their normal ranges. One such recent example is the case of a great black hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga) – a bird that is native to South America, Central America, and Mexico – that ended up in Maine in 2019. This incident ended on a sad note when the hawk was found near frozen one cold January day. The bird was taken to a rehabilitation center but suffered frostbite on its feet and had to be euthanized. The only explanation for how this species managed to get 2,000 miles from its accepted home range is that something in its internal navigation system went haywire. We can only hope that a happier fate awaits the Texas Steller’s sea eagle.
So, if you are in the Goliad area, you might want to take a ride out to Coleto Creek Reservoir and see if you can catch a glimpse of this magnificent, wayward eagle. While you are out, you might want to buy a lottery ticket as well. As this Steller’s sea eagle has proven, sometimes long-shots pay off.
Steller's sea eagle. (2021, March 02). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steller%27s_sea_eagle
Facebook. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from https://www.facebook.com/BQ5RANCH/photos/a.2097168407009460/4136167156442898/
Great black hawk. (2021, March 15). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_black_hawk
Maine's great Black Hawk - rescued! (2019, January 31). Retrieved March 16, 2021, from http://www.10000birds.com/maines-great-black-hawk-rescued.htm