So large is the Steller’s sea eagle that occasionally, on a frozen bay, one of these birds can be mistaken for the hunched form of an ice fisherman. It is the bulkiest of all eagles, weighing up to twice as much as a bald eagle, and soaring over the coasts of northeast Asia on a seven-foot wingspan. The plumage of a Steller’s sea eagle is an exercise in contrasts: deep blacks cut by lines of crisp white behind an enormous, bright orange bill.
These are salmon eaters, mostly, but they also hunt some of the common bird species in their range, such as gulls and murres. In winter many individuals are drawn south as far as the Sea of Japan, where they seek out concentrations of rotting autumn-run salmon. That’s where I saw this one, along the Avvakumovka River in Primorye, Russia, where it had its pick from thousands of decaying Keta salmon clogging the shallows and pools of that waterway.
Sometimes, Steller’s sea eagles scan the coastal forests for carcasses of deer that succumbed to the rigors of winter or were killed by predators. Occasionally, they get too close to an Amur tiger’s kill, and their bodies are found broken in the snow where the tiger flung them, these kings of the air felled by the kings of the forest.
This post originally appeared 16 November 2017, on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wild View photo blog.
This text was originally published 13 October, 2014 as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s WildView Photo Blog series.
It was the depths of winter in the southern Russian Far East, and I was making my way through the soft whiteness and open forest towards the Avvakumovka River on a morning hike. I stumbled over an unseen obstacle along the way; a log I assumed, but when I looked down was taken aback. There was a frozen salmon peeking out of the snow. I stared at it curiously. I was at least half a mile from the river: why had I just kicked a salmon? I continued on.
When I reached the river I understood. There were countless fish carcasses visible in the patches of open water; the remnants of a massive keta salmon run that had ascended the Avvakumovka River the autumn prior. And there were eagles everywhere: mostly white-tailed sea eagles, but also Steller’s sea eagles and the occasional golden eagle. They fought like siblings over the salmon carcasses: one bird would rise into the air with a dead fish, and three more would chase it. Occasionally a salmon was lost in the struggle, spiraling earthward and snagging in the fingers of forest canopy before reaching the ground.
By the end of that morning hike I had discovered a total of three salmon carcasses hanging from the trees; rags of bone twitching in the breeze.