This Spoon-billed sandpiper hatched somewhere in the Arctic of northeastern Russia, in the spring of 1988, a diminutive fluff camouflaged among the tundra vegetation. A few months later she flew south for her first winter, aiming instinctively for the intertidal mudflats of Southeast Asia.
About two thousand miles into her journey—still in Russia—she found herself on a wide, sandy beach washed by the Sea of Japan. It was the first day of September, and she was mixed in with other migrating shorebirds, some possibly making this trip for the first time as she was. Someone else was on that beach that day: a young boy named Anton, and Anton had a slingshot.
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 post first appeared on Scientific American as part of my East of Siberia series.
Years ago I conducted songbird research at the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve: summers of sweat, field camouflage, and pulsing masses of biting insects in this humid, temperate rainforest. There were only two of us on the field team, me and a botanist—a bright, friendly woman who described the vegetation at the same study plots where I recorded the vocalizing bird species.
Our goal was to document how songbird communities changed when a forest was selectively logged. We’d sit quietly under enormous pines at designated locations, up to a dozen of them in a morning. Occasionally we’d find bird nests but most of our detections were vocalizations: melodious song from birds unseen in the dense vegetation. I’d scribble down the exotic-sounding names of species like Siberian blue robin, Mugimaki flycatcher, and Asian stubtail.
Our work was based out of remote research cabins in the reserve, and we’d move from one location to the next every week or two when we’d completed all the necessary bird surveys. Late in the season we arrived at Perevalnii, an area of Korean pine forest near the Sikhote-Alin divide, and found a cabin of typical construction for the reserve.
It was a cozy, single room of hewn log walls with an aging iron woodstove and two single-person sleeping platforms separated by a narrow table. The ceiling was low to trap the heat in winter, and the walls were studded with nails to hang bags of rice, salt, and anything else edible—a precaution to keep food safe from the rodents who also called this cabin home. Two futon mattresses, brought inside when needed, hung over a support beam in the covered vestibule to air out between use and to keep rodents from nesting among their soft innards.
We fell into our routine when arriving at a new place. I piled some firewood near the woodstove then hung a mosquito net from the door frame, while the botanist took inventory of supplies left by past visitors.
I rolled out my air mattress onto one of the narrow sleeping platforms, laid my sleeping bag upon it, and got ready for bed. It was only dusk but this was the field season: we had a very early morning ahead of us. But I was not in bed for long.