Episode 381: Out of Place Birds

Thanks to Richard from NC, Pranav, and Alexandra for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

ABA Rare Bird Alert

One Reason Migrating Birds Get Lost Is Out of This World

Inside the Amazing Cross-Continent Saga of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle

A Vagrant European Robin Is Drawing Huge Crowds in China

Bird migration: When vagrants become pioneers

A red-cockaded woodpecker:

Steller’s Sea Eagle making a couple of bald eagles look small:

Steller’s sea eagle:

A whole lot of birders showed up to see a European robin that showed up in the Beijing Zoo [photo from the fourth article linked above]:

A robin:

Mandarin ducks:

Richard’s pipit [photo by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23214345]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

We’re talking about some birds again this week, with a slightly mysterious twist. These are birds that have shown up in places where they shouldn’t be, sometimes way way far from home! Thanks to Richard from NC for inspiring this episode and suggesting one of the birds we’re going to talk about, and thanks to Pranav for suggesting we cover more out of place animals.

Last week we talked about some woodpeckers, and I said I thought there was another listener who had suggested the topic. Well, that was Alexandra! Let’s start today’s episode talking about the red-cockaded woodpecker, another bird Alexandra suggested.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is native to the coastal southeastern United States, where it lives in pine forests. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss since the pine forests get smaller every year, and not only does it need old-growth pine forests to survive, it also needs some of the trees to be affected by red heart fungus. The fungus softens the interior wood, which is otherwise very hard, and allows a woodpecker to excavate nesting holes in various trees that can be quite large. The female lays her eggs in the best nesting hole and she and her mate raise the babies together, helped by any of their children from previous nests who don’t have a mate of their own yet. When they don’t have babies, during the day the birds forage together, but at night they each hide in their own little nesting hole to sleep.

It’s a small bird that doesn’t migrate, which is why Beth Miller, a birder in Muskegon, Michigan, couldn’t identify it when she spotted it on July 1, 2022 in some pine trees near a golf course. She took lots of photos and a recording of its calls, which she posted in a birding group to ask for help. She knew the bird had to be a rare visitor of some kind, but when it was identified as a red-cockaded woodpecker, she and nine birder friends went back to the golf course to look for it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the bird again. It was the first time a red-cockaded woodpecker had ever been identified in Michigan, although individual birds do sometimes wander widely.

While bird migration isn’t fully understood, many birds use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way to new territories and back again later in the year. Humans can’t sense magnetic fields but birds can, and being able to sense Earth’s magnetic field helps birds navigate even at night or during weather that keeps them from being able to see landmarks.

But sometimes birds get lost, especially young birds who have never migrated before or a bird that gets caught in storm winds that blow it far off course. If a bird shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range, birdwatchers refer to it as a vagrant, and some birders will travel great distances to see vagrant birds.

One interesting note is that birds navigating by the earth’s magnetic field can get confused if the magnetic field is disrupted by geomagnetic storms, including solar flares, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections. Very recently as this episode goes live, the aurora has been occasionally visible across much of the world. The aurora is caused by charged particles from the sun reaching Earth’s atmosphere, causing a colorful glow or shimmer in the night sky, and it’s usually only visible at or near the poles. This month it was visible in places far away from the poles. Fortunately, a really strong geomagnetic storm like the ones this month can actually make it easier for birds to migrate. Instead of getting a scrambled sense of the earth’s magnetic field, a strong geomagnetic storm can temporarily knock out a bird’s ability to sense the magnetic field at all, and that means it uses landmarks, the position of the stars and sun, and other methods to find its way.

Sometimes a bird just flies the wrong way, like the Steller’s sea eagle that showed up in Alaska at the end of August 2020. Steller’s sea eagle is native to the coast of northeastern Asia and is increasingly threatened due to habitat loss, pollution, climate change, poaching, and overfishing, a real problem if you’re an eagle that eats a whole lot of fish. Only about 4,000 of the birds remain in the wild. It’s a huge eagle, one of the biggest in the world, with a big female having a wingspan over 8 feet across, or almost 2.5 meters. Some unverified reports indicate birds with a wingspan over 9 feet across, or 2.8 meters. It has a huge yellow bill and feet, and is black and white in color. It’s related to the bald eagle but is larger and heavier, and its head is black instead of white.

To an eagle as big as Steller’s sea eagle, the distance between the eastern coast of Russia and the western coast of Alaska is very small, so it’s not all that unusual for birders to see one in Alaska. The difference in 2020 is that the bird was far inland, not on the coast. Then, several months later, a Steller’s sea eagle was reported in Texas. Texas! Very far away from Alaska and the northeastern Asian coast.

No one could definitively say if the Texas bird was the same one seen in Alaska, but a few weeks before there had been a massive storm that could have blown the eagle to San Antonio. It was the first time a wild Steller’s sea eagle had been spotted in Texas.

But the bird wasn’t done traveling. In late June 2021, a ranger in eastern Canada spotted the sea eagle. It was seen by multiple birders and photographers, some of whom got pictures good enough to compare to the Alaska photos from the year before, and it was the same bird! A few months later it was spotted in Nova Scotia, Canada, and in mid-December 2021 it arrived in southern Massachusetts in the United States for a few days. By the end of 2021 it was in Maine.

Since then the eagle appears to divide its time between Maine in the northeastern United States and Newfoundland, Canada, not too far away.

Richard from NC suggested that sightings of Steller’s sea eagle might explain the mystery of Washington’s eagle. I go into detail about Washington’s eagle in the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. There is a rare color morph of Steller’s sea eagle that is almost all black, which matches Audubon’s painting of Washington’s eagle, but Steller’s sea eagle always has a yellow bill, not a dark one as Audubon painted. Still, it’s a very interesting theory that matches a lot better than the theory that Washington’s eagle is just a big juvenile bald eagle.

Eagles are spectacular birds, but even an ordinary bird turns into a celebrity when it shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range. That’s what happened to a European robin at the beginning of 2019. We talked about the European robin back in episode 333. It’s a common bird throughout much of Europe and parts of Asia, but it’s only been documented in Beijing, China three times. The third time was when one showed up in the Beijing Zoo in 2019, at least 1,500 miles, or 2,400 km, away from its usual range. Birdwatching is an increasingly popular hobby in China, and hundreds of birders showed up at the zoo not to see the animals it has on display but to see a little robin that someone in England would barely glance at.

A few months before that, on the other side of the planet, a Mandarin duck showed up in Central Park in New York City. Birders showed up soon after to look at it. The Mandarin duck is a beautiful bird related to the wood duck native to North America, but it’s native to China and other parts of east Asia. The male has a red bill, rusty red face with white markings, and purplish feathers on his sides, while the female is softer and more muted in color. Both males and females have a purplish crest and the male also has a reddish crest on both of his wings that sticks up like a sail when his wings are folded.

In other words, the male in particular is a spectacular duck, and the duck that showed up at Central Park was a male in full breeding plumage, looking his best. Since Mandarin ducks are so attractive and increasingly threatened in the wild, many zoos and private owners keep them, and the Central Park duck did have a band on his leg that indicates he might have been an escaped bird. But no one ever claimed him and in March of 2019 he flew off for good.

Vagrant birds show up in weird places all the time, especially in spring and fall when most migratory birds are on the move. Sometimes a vagrant bird returns to the mistaken area in following years, brings its mate and offspring, and essentially founds a new migratory route. This is what scientists think has happened with several species of songbird that breed in Siberia and migrate to southeast Asia for the winter.

Richard’s pipit is a medium-sized songbird with long legs, a long tail, and a relatively long bill. It’s mainly brown and black, with lighter underparts. It looks like a stretched-out sparrow. It migrates to southern Siberia, Mongolia, and a few other parts of central Asia to nest during the summer, and flies back to India and other parts of southeast Asia to spend the winter. But a small population flies west instead of south and spends the winter in Spain, Italy, and surrounding areas instead of in India.

For a long time scientists thought the birds seen in Europe were just lost. They’re still quite rare in Europe compared to their high population in Asia. Then a team of scientists caught 81 of the birds, installed leg-bands on all of them and GPS loggers on seven of them, and released them again. The birds migrated north to breed, then returned to Europe instead of Asia to spend the winter, where some were caught again and their leg-bands recorded. So just remember that when a bird shows up where it’s not expected, it might not be as lost as people think.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 060: Steller’s Menagerie

This week we’re going to learn about all sorts of animals first described by Georg Wilhelm Steller in the mid-18th century and named after him, from the common Steller’s jay to the mysterious Steller’s sea ape.

Steller’s jay. It looks like someone photoshopped a frowny line over its eye:

A male Steller’s eider in breeding plumage, looking spiffy:

Steller’s sea eagle will MESS YOU UP:

Steller’s sea lions. Looks like the cover of their latest album:

A drawing of a Steller’s sea cow, one of the only drawings that was probably made from an actual animal before it went extinct:

An alive dugong, just to show you what Steller’s sea cow probably looked like, only bigger and fatter because it lived in colder water:

A Northern fur seal not taking any of your crap:

Baby Northern fur seal, just because it’s so cute:

A shih-tzu. Look at those whiskers! Also, adorable topknot:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about animals named after Georg Wilhelm Steller. Steller was a German botanist and zoologist who lived in the 18th century. In 1740 he was part of an expedition to the Bering Sea between Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, which you may remember from our mystery bears episode, and Alaska. On the way back from an unscheduled trip to Alaska after they got lost, they were shipwrecked on what is now called Bering Island, where half the crew died of scurvy, and the other half managed to build a boat from the wreck of their ship and sailed it back to Kamchatka. During the several years of this expedition, Steller took careful notes on the animals and plants he encountered.

A number of animals are named after Steller. We’ll look at a bunch of those today. Four are still around, one is extinct, and two… are mysteries.

Let’s start with the birds. Steller’s jay is closely related to the blue jay. The bottom half of the bird looks a lot like a blue jay, blue with black banding on the wings and tail, but with blue underneath instead of white. The top half of the bird looks like a completely different bird, gray with a darker head, white or blue streaks on its face, and a tall floofy crest. It lives in western North America as far north as Alaska, and a bluer version also lives in Central America. It likes forests although like blue jays, it lives around people comfortably and eats pretty much anything, from acorns, seeds, and berries to bugs, small animals, and the eggs and babies of other birds.

Next, Steller’s eider is a type of sea duck that lives off the coasts of Alaska and eastern Siberia. The hen ducks are brown and black like the females of most duck species, but the drake is a lot more interesting to look at. His tail is black, wings are iridescent purply-black laced with white, his breast is cinnamon brown with a black spot on the sides, and his head is white with a black eye ring, a dark green tuft of feathers on the back of his head, and a black throat band. That is one flashy duck. Of course, that’s just during spring and early summer when the males are trying to attract mates. The rest of the year, males look a lot more like females. The term for the opposite of breeding plumage is eclipse plumage.

Steller’s eider dives for its food, mostly crustaceans, clams and mussels, and insects. In the winter, it gathers in huge flocks, and all the ducks in the flock will dive and surface at the same time, creating a huge splash and spray of water. It likes tidal flats, bays, and shallow lagoons, and builds its nest on the edge of ponds.

Steller’s sea eagle is closely related to the bald eagle. It’s a big, stocky bird that’s dark brown with white leg feathers and tail, and white on the shoulders of its wings. It has a heavy yellow bill and huge yellow talons. It lives off the coast of northeastern Asia most of the year, but nests around eastern Russia and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It mostly eats fish, especially salmon, although it also eats a lot of water birds like gulls and ducks, small mammals, and carrion. Its wingspan is as much as 8 feet across, or 2.5 meters, but there are reports of some birds with wingspans over nine feet across, or 2.8 meters. That’s not much bigger than a bald eagle’s wingspan, but Steller’s sea eagle is much heavier and larger-bodied than the bald eagle. Steller’s sea eagle lives up to the bald eagle’s reputation of being kind of a jerk, though, because it steals food from other Steller’s sea eagles.

Both Steller’s eider and Steller’s sea eagle are threatened by habitat loss. Fortunately, Steller’s jay is doing just fine.

There’s another bird named after Steller that has never been definitively identified, Steller’s sea-raven. During the winter he spent shipwrecked on Bering Island, Steller wrote in his journal about a bird he called a white sea-raven. He didn’t say much about it, just that it was new to him and that it only landed on cliffs along the island’s coast, so he couldn’t get a close look at it. No one knows what bird he was talking about.

A lot of people have made suggestions, of course. One researcher thinks it might be a type of cormorant, since the word for cormorant in German means sea-raven, and in fact that’s what the word cormorant means in the original Latin too—corvus marinus. Cormorants are black birds with usually small white markings, so the cormorant Steller saw might be a white or mostly white species that is now extinct, or he might have seen an albino bird flying around. Then again, the bird might have been something else entirely. Since we don’t have more to go on than this brief description of a white sea-raven that likes ocean-facing cliffs, it’s hard to know what to look for.

Now let’s move on to mammals. Steller’s sea lion is a giant pinniped, the word for members of the seal family. It lives along the coasts of Russia and Alaska as far south as central California. Females grow to about ten feet long, or 3 meters, and males are a little longer and much heavier. Males have thick manes around the neck, which is why it’s called a sea lion. It mostly eats fish and sometimes swims up rivers to feed on salmon and trout. Commercial fishermen used to kill Steller’s sea lions, because clearly no one but humans should be allowed to catch fish, and that and overfishing led to a steep decline in sea lion numbers in the late 20th century. Fortunately, though, after it was listed as a protected species its numbers started to recover.

Steller’s sea cow was not so lucky. It was a sirenian, related to dugongs and manatees. Sirenians evolved around 50 million years ago and share a common ancestor with elephants. Their front flippers have toenails that look like elephant toenails, which is neat. They’re fully aquatic like whales, have a tail instead of hind legs like seals, and like both they’re mammals that breathe air. They live in shallow water and graze on aquatic plants. Occasionally they do eat a jellyfish, but who hasn’t accidentally eaten a jellyfish, right? The sirenians living today grow to around 13 feet long at most, or 4 meters, but Steller’s sea cow was more than twice that length, up to 30 feet long, or 9 meters.

Steller’s sea cow was a type of dugong, and had a whale-like notched tail instead of a rounded tail like a manatee’s. Instead of teeth, it had chewing plates made of keratin that it used to chomp lots and lots of kelp and other plants. Its hide was thick with a thick layer of blubber underneath to keep it warm in the cold water. It had a long upper lip covered in bristles that helped it grab plants. Its forelegs were flipper-like and small.

Like the mysterious sea-raven, Steller discovered the sea cow while he was shipwrecked on Bering Island in 1741. It lived there and around some of the other islands in the Bering Sea, although fossil and sub-fossil remains have been found that indicate it used to be much more widespread. Unfortunately, once it was discovered by Europeans, it was hunted to extinction within 30 years of its discovery, killed for its oil-rich blubber and for food. But Steller’s sea cows have occasionally been spotted after that, although no one has provided actual proof. Many of the sightings may have been of hornless female narwhals, which live in the area and are about the same color and shape as the Steller’s sea-cow when seen from the surface. But in 1962, some whalers spotted six animals in shallow water off the coast of Kamchatka, and whalers can probably be relied upon to recognize a whale when they see it. These animals looked like dugongs. In 1976, a sea-cow carcass reportedly washed up on shore not that far from where the whalers’ sighting had taken place. Some workers at a nearby salmon factory went out to look at it and described it as more like a dugong than a whale, but no one thought to keep the body. After that there were a couple of expeditions to look for surviving Steller’s sea-cows, but while none were found, the coast of Kamchatka and its numerous islands are rugged and hard to explore.

The last animal we’ll talk about is the real mystery, called Steller’s sea ape. He only saw it once off the Shumagin Islands in Alaska on August 10, 1741, but he did watch it for more than two hours and took careful notes. I’ll quote part of his description.

“It was about two ells in length; the head was like a dog’s head, the ears pointed and erect, and on the upper and lower lips, on both sides, whiskers hung down which made it look almost like a Chinaman The eyes were large; the body was longish, round and fat, tapering gradually towards the tail. The skin was covered thickly with hair, gray on the back, reddish white on the belly, but in the water it appeared entirely reddish and cow-colored. The tail was divided into two fins, of which the upper, as in the case of sharks, was twice as large as the lower. Nothing struck me more surprising than the fact that neither forefeet as in the marine amphibians nor, in their stead, fins were to be seen… For over two hours it swam around our ship, looking, as with admiration, first at the one and then at the other of us. At times it came so near to the ship that it could have been touched with a pole, but as soon as anybody stirred it moved away a little further. It could raise itself one-third of its length out of the water exactly like a man, and sometimes it remained in this position for several minutes. After it had observed us for about half an hour, it shot like an arrow under our vessel and came up again on the other side; shortly after, it dived again and reappeared in the old place; and in this way it dived perhaps thirty times.”

Two ells would be somewhere around five feet long, maybe a bit more, or just over 1.5 meters.

This description sounds a lot like a seal of some kind, but all seals have forelimbs. One suggestion is that it was a young Northern fur seal, and that either Steller missed seeing its forelimbs or it was an individual born without them. I’m not sure why the suggestion is that it was a young seal, though. Baby Northern fur seals are black at birth and lighten to brown as they grow, with older males having some gray patches. All appear black in the water, not reddish. Adult females only grow to about 4 ½ feet long, or 1.4 meters, and males about seven feet long, or 2.1 meters, so at five feet long Steller’s animal was already a fully grown female or a nearly full-grown male. Young and female Northern fur seals don’t have the long whiskers Steller describes, although males do—but only when full grown.

So while it’s possible Steller’s sea ape was a small male Northern fur seal with no front flippers or flippers that Steller inexplicably didn’t see, there is one other issue. Steller would have known perfectly well what a Northern fur seal looked like. They’re threatened now due to overhunting and habitat loss, but in the mid-18th century they were plentiful throughout the Bering Sea.

So either Steller saw a Northern fur seal that was so malformed that Steller didn’t recognize it, or he described a different animal. Or, as deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler suggests, it was a hoax.

Here’s the situation: Steller and the Danish captain of the ship St. Peter, Vitus Bering, did not get along. The expedition was primarily for charting and exploring the region, not describing new animals, and Bering considered Steller primarily the ship’s physician. When the ship got lost from the rest of the expedition and ended up off the coast of Alaska, Steller had to beg Bering to let him explore this new land. He only got ten hours to do so. And when the crew was stricken with scurvy, Bering refused to allow Steller to treat the crew. I don’t know why he didn’t think the ship’s physician shouldn’t be allowed to do his job. This was before people understood what vitamins were, and while many cures for scurvy were available, no one knew why they worked. When people don’t know how things work, sometimes they’re suspicious of them.

We have Steller’s journals so we know how he described Bering. It wasn’t flattering. Steller’s sighting of the sea ape was only about six weeks after his ten-hour shore leave, and the description of the animal was similar in many ways to his description of Bering. Three months later the ship wrecked and the crew was marooned for eight months. Steller spent the time turning his notes into a book. Bering spent the time dying of scurvy. Steller didn’t include the sea ape in his book.

Thaler points out that Steller didn’t just name his mystery animal a sea-ape, he named it the Danish sea ape, Simnia marina danica. Bering was Danish, the only Dane on the ship in fact.

I have no doubt that Steller was poking fun at Bering in the name, but I’m hesitant to say he made the whole sighting up. For one thing, the details not only point to a real animal, they aren’t malicious or even humorous. He described the sea ape playing with some kelp, swimming back and forth under the ship, things like that.

I think Steller sighted a real animal and took notes, probably because he was so bored he would have taken detailed notes on anything. Maybe he knew he was watching a Northern fur seal and amused himself by comparing it to Bering. Maybe he didn’t know what the animal was but some aspects of it reminded him of Bering. Maybe he left it out of his book because he knew it was a caricature. Maybe he left it out of his book because he didn’t have enough information to include it. Maybe he meant to add it later, when he hopefully would sight more of the animals. I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that someone else saw a Steller’s sea ape in 1965.

In June of 1965, a British man named Miles Smeeton, which was apparently his real name, was sailing his yacht near the Aleutian Islands when he, his wife, his daughter, and a friend all saw a strange animal they couldn’t identify. It was around five feet long with reddish-yellow fur, a dog-like head, and long whiskers like a shih-tzu. It dived underwater when the ship got near. No one saw any limbs and they were all convinced it wasn’t a seal or a sea otter.

So who knows? Maybe there’s a limbless mammal swimming around in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, just waiting to be discovered.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!