Fishing season officially opens this weekend, but to pull those really big carp from the water, a rod and reel just won't do. What you need is one of these: a Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeëtus pelagicus
), the biggest member of its genus. This particular bird is a two-year-old captive-bred female that a friend of mine recently acquired. Six more years remain before she'll molt into her full adult plumage of solid dark gray, with a white forehead and tail, and matching "trousers" and "epaulettes." Drab though her current plumage may be, she's anything but unimposing. Her massive 20 pounds assure that; next to her, a Golden Eagle looks like a dark Redtail.
Steller's Sea Eagles range along coastal Siberia, from the Kamchatka peninsula to Sakhalin Island and the Amur River Valley and adjacent China and North Korea, wintering as far south as Japan's Ryukyu Islands. They occasionally wander into the Kodiak, Pribilof and Aleutian Islands, and as far as Midway Island in Hawaii. Apparently, a single bird has been living for several years in Dillingham County, Alaska. Like the Bald Eagle (H. leucocephalus
) and the other Haliaeëtus
species, Steller's Sea Eagles subsist mainly on fish, which they capture on the wing, scavenge, or strongarm from smaller predators. Ducks, hares, and other non-piscine creatures are taken, possibly more frequently than is generally assumed, and these eagles are hardly above eating carrion or human garbage. Like their two close relatives, the Eurasian Gray Eagle (H. albicilla
) and the American Bald Eagle, adult Steller's Sea Eagles have a characteristic white tail, yellow eye and deep, keel-like yellow bill. The Steller's bill is even proportionally larger, almost toucan-like, and the tail is wedge-shaped, with 14, not 12 feathers. It is often held out at a peculiar angle, much like a pygmy owl (Glaucidium spp.) does. When mantling over prey, a Steller's wags its tail about in a unique and somewhat comical fashion. A Korean subspecies, with white tail feathers only, was once proposed, but it was likely just a morph. The minor controversy may never be resolved satisfactorily, since the population was extirpated some 40 years ago.
Steller's Sea Eagles are moderately social, and form strong pair bonds. One or more huge stick nests, which are often rotated periodically, are constructed in trees. In late winter, the female lays two white eggs with a greenish cast. Incubation begins once the second egg is laid, and lasts 35-36 days. Both sexes brood the eggs and young, which begin to fly at about 45 days of age. It seems quite rare for both nestlings to survive to fledging, and siblicide is probably not uncommon.
Eight species of Haliaeëtus
eagles are generally recognized. They are less closely related to the typical Aquila
eagles than to the kites, particularly those of the genus Haliastur
. The widespread, fish-scavenging Brahminy Kite (H. indus
- above) of Australasia seems to represent a transitional form between kites and sea-eagles. The three large, northern Haliaeëtus
species form a distinct subgroup, and four smaller, tropical species (sometimes placed in their own genus, Blagrus)
form another. The eighth species, the Central Asian Pallas' Sea Eagle (H. leucoryphus
), exhibits characteristics of both subgroups, and has no very close relatives.
Of the Blagrus subgroup, the Southeast Asian White-bellied Sea Eagle (H. leucogaster
- above) is closely related (and considered conspecific by some) to Sanford's Sea Eagle (H. sanfordi
) of the Solomon Islands, and the well-known African Fish Eagle (H. vocifer) is likewise closely related to the Madagascan Fish Eagle (H. vociferoides
). Another genus of small sea eagles is well-distributed in Southeast Asia, with two species: Icthyophaga humilis
and I. icthyaetus
_____________________All Photos by CPBvK