The Steller’s Sea Eagle is one of the most fierce diurnal birds on Earth, which is why they are such formidable hunters, having tracked prey through several ice ages. Could you imagine a human-sized or even larger raptor similar to the Steller’s Sea Eagle? Well, they existed, and even today, from time to time, we hear of people sighting a thunderbird. The First Nations Peoples of North America and most First Nations People worldwide believe that all animals are spiritual, divine beings composed of or possessing spiritual energy. And all First Nations Peoples in the northern hemisphere have folklore of the thunderbird or a similar mythological bird. Various nations have different oral traditions about the mysterious thunderbird, which they both highly respect, and some may fear them. Personally, I have never sighted a thunderbird, but I would be happy to photograph one if it happened to grace me with its presence.
A magical bird that has graced my presence during my annual Hokkaido Photo Workshop is the Steller’s Sea Eagle. The Steller’s Sea Eagle is the heaviest and one of the most fierce raptors on our planet; their plumage is blackish brown-black all over except on the shoulders, rump, tail, thighs, and forehead, which are white. These raptors have a razor-sharp, wickedly hooked huge yellow bill that is the largest of all eagles. They prefer the taste of sweet trout, salmon, or other fish but will eat sea lions or just about any land species when fishing is slow.
Young human children and house pets such as dogs and cats are carefully watched when venturing out on their own when The Steller’s Sea Eagle’s food supply becomes scarce. There are even fables of children going missing during these periods due to insufficient safety protocols being followed. It’s far too common that cats, dogs, and some young livestock and even deer go missing when there’s foul weather, and the fishing is slow. These raptors have even been known to attack the Ezo Red Fox, the Red-Crowned Cranes, Whooper Swans and are always seen in conflict with the fourth largest raptor on our planet, the White-tailed eagle, that hold their own against these larger raptors. But I have seen the Steller’s Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle, along with ravens huddle for warmth against high winds and cold arctic air blasts. But as soon as prey becomes their primary focus, or a member of the uneasy cabal catches a fish, a rodent, a rabbit, or any form of edible prey, their raptor instinct comes alive. The successful hunters immediately try to land and devour their prey, but on many occasions, they take to the air to defend their catch while others seek higher elevations to start their divebombing or a sneak attack from below or a blind spot in the hunter’s line of sight in order to strip the prize away. This is why one of the main events on my Hokkaido Photo Workshop/Tour takes place from the deck of a ship photographing the Steller’s Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagles.The Steller’s Sea Eagles are huge, on average, the heaviest raptor on our planet, weighing up to and over 10 kg (22 pounds). They are also tall, measuring up to 94 cm (3 ft), sometimes even taller, with a massive wingspan of up to 250 cm (8 – 9 ft). I have personally photographed a Steller’s Sea Eagle I swear had a wingspan eclipsing 10 ft that I witnessed from my chartered helicopter while I was on assignment capturing landscape shots between Hokkaido and Russia. Suddenly, this enormous blur of white and black strafed us, and both the pilot and I were astounded at the size of the monstrous Steller’s Sea Eagle, which could have been the largest Steller’s Sea Eagle on the planet ever photographed. I asked the eagle to stay still, so I could break out my measuring tape, but the eagle had places to be and prey to hunt, I assume.
The Steller’ Sea Eagle is the champion of raptors, known as glacial relics that have survived several ice ages. Somehow they seem immune to the passage of time. They are such extremely rare and formidable birds of prey representing near evolutionary perfection, and with its deep piercing voice, ra-ra-ra-raurau and those who have been in their presence “in the wild” have heard the echoes of the Steller’s dinosaur legacy. Wildlife Conservationists, Ornithologists, and birders believe part of their evolutionary success may be their narrowly defined habitat and hunting grounds. Most of the year, The Steller’s Sea Eagles usually call northeastern Siberia their home, but during winter, the Steller’s sea eagles venture to a warmer climate and the better winter fishing grounds of Hokkaido, Japan.
On some occasions, when the seas are calm, I use zodiac boats, sometimes with clients and other times alone.
When I am leading the expedition, we can get up close and personal to the feeding frenzy that we can clearly hear the battle cries of the raptors as they exchange barbs and slashes for their fishy prize. If the conflicts end with a clear victor, and you are close enough in a zodiac, you will be able to see the brilliance of the Steller’s Sea Eagle’s brown and white plumage, the shimmer of the pack ice, and the luster of fish scales all blending together in a medley of visual artistry. However, during some conflicts, there is no clear victor, except us photographers who have captured still images and videos of unforgettable exchanges between two mighty raptor species on the pack ice.
Once when I was out on the pack ice in a Zodiac alone, I was so close to the feasting raptors that one Steller’s Sea Eagle locked eyes with me with a freshly caught fish pinned down to the pack ice. As it was preparing to feast on its hard fought for catch, the Steller’s Sea Eagle loudly shrieked at me; I believe declaring the fish was solely its property. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and set me on edge, a mix of adrenaline and apprehension. I had unwittingly entered the sphere of predation, and I felt that I could be the next human victim of the dinosaur contemporary; yes, these raptors have latched onto a few unfortunate souls. A moment later, a raptor buzzed right over my head while I was photographing in the Zodiac, and I quickly put down my camera and raised my monopod should the need for defense arise. And from that day forward, I never travel alone in a Zodiac. When leading Hokkaido Expeditions, and my clients, team, and I are in Zodiacs, everyone watches each other’s back. This is the birding experience of a lifetime, one I know will come again on my annual Hokkaido Photo Tour Pilgrimage in 2022-2023. February 2021, I’m taking a sabbatical at my 100-year old traditional Japanese home along the Sea of Japan in Niigata prefecture, where I am enjoying birding and oceanscape sunsets.
Wildlife conservation in Japan is taken seriously by wildlife photographers and authorities; we work hand in hand. The Steller’s Sea Eagle is protected by law and is designated as a national treasure of Japan, listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Endangered Species. Around 5,000 remain in the wild, and close to 3,000 visits Japan every winter. So if you wish to visit and photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagle on pack ice, you’ll need to make the pilgrimage to Hokkaido, Japan, to make your dinosaur raptor dream a reality. Many professional wildlife photographers know, and enthusiasts know I am a local and well-experienced Hokkaido photography workshop leader. I have spent over 20 years photographing in Hokkaido.
In closing, the gear I recommend for photographing the raptors is two camera bodies, a medium telephoto or a super-telephoto. From my experience in Hokkaido on boats, I prefer zoom lenses over a fixed focal length. My choice of lenses is the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR or the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Sport with a x2 teleconverter giving 600mm. Both of these lenses are excellent, and I recommend the equivalent focal range from other camera makers. And if you are photographing wildlife on land, I recommend, if possible, to have a super-telephoto such as a 600mm f4 or an 800mm f5.6 or a 400mm f2.8 with a x2 teleconverter giving you 800mm.
Every time Matthew Diaz thinks Blain Harasymiw (Hair-some-you) is running low of wildlife adventures to tell him stories about and show him pictures, there always seems to be more. Blain’s stories of the Steller’s Sea Eagle and photos are some of the most captivating, and once 2022 is here, Blain will be back in Hokkaido on the pack ice leading some of his favorite expeditions on Japan’s north island.