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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

End of one year list, beginning of another

With the end of 2019, so too came the end of my first decade tracking my bird year lists. While I traveled a lot throughout the year, I didn't go as far as some years, with just three states/provinces visited (Washington, Oregon, British Columbia). As a result, it's perhaps not surprising that 2019 was a tie for my second lowest year list count at 192 species. I fell short of my goal of reaching 200 species, and also fell just short of my goal of photographing 90% of the species on my year list, registering 88.5% with 170 species photographed.

Dave and my dad have also participated in the annual year list challenge, and my dad again won for the 8th time in the nine years he has participated, aided by some great trips to different regions. 

I added two life birds in 2019: the red knot while hitting the spring shorebird migration in Westport, and the lapland longspur during fall migration right on San Juan Island - a long sought after species for me, and a great photo op to boot!

Lapland longspur: one of my two lifers in 2019, and also one of my favorite bird photos overall for the year
I did manage to tally 144 species in San Juan County for the year, just above my annual average of 140 species, but still well short of the 176 species tallied by Phil! 

Ever since I started the year list challenge, January 1 has become a big day for birding. The last several years have been limited to San Juan Island, which alongside less than optimal weather has made for lower than hoped for Day One totals. This year, I was excited to be able to start the year list north of the border near the Fraser River delta, one of my favorite winter birding areas. On top of that, after a very stormy end to 2019, we got sunshine and no wind to start 2020!

The first and main stop for the day was the Reifel Bird Sanctuary, where despite not getting a super early start we still managed to beat the holiday crowds and tally 43 species at the preserve. The first unexpected find was a very cooperative flock of cedar waxwings.


It was so nice to start off the year with great photo ops of many of the common species; it feels so much better to add sunlit photos to the photo year list rather than dreary gray images!



Two more unforeseen additions were this fox sparrow and a flock of 30 (!!) greater yellowlegs:



About a dozen of us have also been participating in a photo year list challenge for the last three years. in 2019 we added the twist of no "hand of man" in the photos, meaning no birds sitting on wires, with buildings in the background, etc. The 2020 edition of the photo year list is now expanding beyond birds to include all vertebrates, and my first non-avian addition was this eastern gray squirrel. The first mammal I saw was actually a mink, which would have been an awesome addition as it's not guaranteed to make the list this year at all, but sadly he was too fast for me to get the camera up in time!

Mammal #1 for the year: eastern gray squirrel
One of the most hoped-for species at Reifel was the sandhill crane. We got a flyover early on in our visit, and I thought that was going to be it, but thankfully just before we left we came across five of them in just a perfect setting for photos.


After Reifel we made two other stops that were a bit disappointing in their lack of birdiness, and the best species added over the rest of the day indeed came alongside the road and not at one of our stops: a rough-legged hawk. (Yay for the no hand of man rule!)


Sadly after one awesome day it looks like the weather will be turning again, but we've still got a couple days of play before heading back home and to work, so fingers crossed there is still some good birding to be had despite the weather! Day one, though, certainly did not disappoint, with 54 species on the bird year list and 37 species on the vertebrate photo year list.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Abundant Wildlife at the End of December

Normally I associate this time of year with bad weather, short days, and hunkering down inside, but the last week has proven that wildlife in this region can be epic regardless of the season!

On December 21 we headed out on the water with friends before taking off for the Christmas holiday, and were surprised to find an active group of 10+ humpbacks in the Strait of Georgia. Humpbacks, like transient killer whales, were rare when I first started spending time here in the early 2000s, but both have been increasing dramatically in recent years. Even with the recent influx of humpbacks, we expect them to be gone and off to their breeding grounds by December, but perhaps with the increasing population some of them will start staying year-round. Things are changing so fast in the Salish Sea!

The first group we came across of about half a dozen whales was super active at the surface: breaching, lunging, tail slapping, and trumpeting. My friends who have seen humpbacks at their breeding grounds said it looked like a male rowdy group; it makes sense their hormones might be kicking in even if they haven't left for warmer waters! These types of behavior are amazing to see regardless of the season in the Salish Sea, but even more astounding given that it was December!


BCX1233 "Coon"


MMX0047 "Bullet"





There were several "new to me" humpbacks in the group, including one that particularly caught my eye due to the very white flukes:

BCZ0297 "Pulteney"
It turns out this sighting was extra cool, because this was the first time this whale was documented in the southern Strait of Georgia/Salish Sea!

You may be wondering about the humpback naming system, both the alphanumeric designations and the common names. The "BC" refers to whales that have been added to British Columbia/DFO humpback whale catalogue. The X, Y and Z refers to how much black or white there is on the tail: “X” = less than 20% white; “Y” = 20 to 80% white; and “Z” = more than 80% white. The common names come from various sources, but in the case of Pulteney, it's in reference to the Pulteney Lighthouse on Malcolm Island off Northern Vancouver Island. Not only is this where this whale is commonly seen, but the dark marking between the white flukes looks like a lighthouse.

But there were more than just humpbacks up there in the Strait of Georgia! We also got to check out the impressive sea lion (both Steller and California) haul out at the Belle Chains, and a pair of eagles in perfect lighting on a nearby rock.

A very vocal pup!

California sea lions - uncommon in the San Juans, but there were plenty of them up on this BC haul out!

Sea lions always have the best facial expressions >.<


After a trip down to Portland to visit family and friends for Christmas, we are now back in wildlife mode up north, and today spent time with the bald eagles that congregate along the Nooksack River in the winter to take advantage of the spawning chum salmon. I've been here a couple of times before and it never disappoints, but it was awesome to have more time to spend today. While it's impossible to capture in the photos the experience of having ~50 eagles visible in all directions, the shots speak for themselves in terms of the kinds of behavior that can be witnessed here!

Very close fly-by from an immature

Probably my favorite shot from the morning encounter - the smaller/compressed version really doesn't do it justice, but hopefully it gives you an idea!

Lots of multi-eagle interactions

This one is taking flight with a salmon carcass






I feel so lucky to live in such an amazing part of the world where there is so much wildlife to watch. Here's hoping 2020 starts off with some amazing encounters as well, but it will be hard to top the end of 2019!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

November 10: A memorable day on the water

Things have been changing so much and so quickly in the Salish Sea; the transformations are astounding. When I first started spending time up here 20 years ago, both humpback and transient killer whales were rare sights. Now, they are around almost daily - even in November! With a friend up visiting for a long weekend, we headed out on the water with Maya's Legacy today and our sightings rivaled a good day during the "peak season" (whatever that is anymore!)

Early in the morning a report came in of the T18s near Orcas Island, and luckily they didn't travel too far too fast. We caught up with them at the west end of Spieden Channel, where they were first split into pairs with T18 Esperanza and T19 Spouter together, and T19 Mooyah and T19B Galiano about a mile further to the west.

18 year-old male T19C Spouter
A little while after we got there, the two groups merged and started making their way northwest up Haro. 

From left to right T19B Galiano, T18 Esperanza, and T19C Spouter

They were zig-zagging a bit, but their final surfacing before we left was perfectly lined up with the Turn Point l=Lighthouse. What a sight!

The T18s in front of the Turn Point Lighthouse
As we reversed course back through Spieden Channel we slowed down along Spieden Island. With its exotic wildlife, it rarely disappoints, but it was exceptional today. There were hundreds of Mouflon sheep, sika deer, and fallow deer out; more sika deer than I had ever seen, in fact!

Sika deer buck
It's also rutting season, which means there's plenty of drama unfolding! This male was bleating at these two very unimpressed females.

Male fallow deer bleating
We were distracted from the exotic wildlife when we spotted a family of river otters running along the hillside! They darted down into the water but 7 of them tried to all climb out on this little rock at the same time, some of them sneaking a curious look at us as we looked at them. One of the collective nouns for a group of otters is a "romp", and watching them today, you could see why!

A romp of sea otters

Down at Green Point there weren't any Steller sea lions hauled out, but there was a gang of them in the water. This one looks vicious in the photo, but he was just yawning.


We only got a quick look at the sea lions, because just across San Juan Channel was a humpback whale! We were shaking our heads in bewilderment at so many sightings on a chilly November afternoon! It was BCY0160 known as Heather, who seemed to just be doing circles.

BCY0160 Heather
It was just a short ride back to Friday Harbor from there, but I kept my camera out anyway, and I was glad I did! Eight ancient murrelets were flying amazingly fast, keeping pace with us for about a minute!

Ancient murrelets in San Juan Channel
By the end of the day, by my count, we had seen eight mammal species and about another dozen marine bird species - not too shabby!

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Day of the Dead ~ 10th Annual Tribute

Today is Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), where every year I take a moment to remember the Southern Resident killer whales we've lost over the previous year. You can find all my previous Day of the Dead tributes here; it's hard to believe I've been doing this for a decade! I think it's so important to both remember the stories of the whales we've lost and to honor them; so many of them, both in life and in death, fuel our fight for a brighter future for this unique population of whales.

J17 Princess Angeline

J17 was one of the iconic whales of J-Pod from the very first day I met them, and it's still hard to picture J-Pod being without her, even after a season with her absent. With distinct saddle patches on both sides (one with a possible healed gunshot wound) and a distinct slope to her fin, she was one of the first whales I learned to identify. Her namesake was Chief Seattle's daughter.

Close pass from J17 at Lime Kiln in 2005
For the first 10 years of my knowing her, her family group was made up of herself and her two daughters, J35 Tahlequah and J28 Polaris. I always thought of them as a curious and playful threesome with whom I had many memorable encounters over the years.

J17 as I knew her for a long time: flanked by her two daughters J28 Polaris and J35 Tahlequah, shown here in 2007.

J17 was always good for a cartwheel - this one in 2016

It was such an exciting few months at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 when their family group doubled in size, with all three females having calves. First J17 gave birth to J44 Moby, followed by J28 giving birth to J46 Star and J35 giving birth to J47 Notch. I have one of those orca mobiles I bought at The Whale Museum many years ago, that has three females, each with a calf. Ever since this spate of births in their family group I have always thought of the mobile representing the J17s and their three little ones at the beginning of 2010. For J17, this was her first living calf in over a decade.

J17 with her son J44 Moby in 2010
Five years later J17 became a mother again during the "baby boom" year, giving birth to another daughter, J53 Kiki. (Kiki's name also comes from Chief Seattle's daughter Princess Angeline, who was also known as Kikisoblu.) With J28 also having given birth again, for a brief time this family group was at its largest size with 7 whales: Princess Angeline as the matriarch, her three daughters (J28, J35, J53) and a son (J44), and two grand-offspring (J46 and J54).

J17 Princess Angeline and J53 Kiki - a photo I always felt was a symbol of hope for this population. Apparently others have felt the same, as the photo has since been used by Greenpeace, Oceana, and shared on social media by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Sadly, before the end of 2016 the J17s were struck by tragedy, and it has followed them in the years since. First was the loss of both J28 and her son J54. Then last year was the infamous 17 day-vigil by J35 carrying her deceased calf, which undoubtedly took some type of toll on Princess Angeline herself, who was still a nursing mother at the time. Her body condition declined after giving birth to Kiki, and never recovered. By the end of 2018 she had "peanut head", and by summer of 2019, she did not return to inland waters with J-Pod.

My last photo of J17, taken in March 2019

She's one of the most prolific Southern Resident mothers I have known, and the population is extra lucky that her family line seems to be able to produce a lot of healthy females, as there has been a male-bias sex-ratio into the population in the last couple decades. Because of these two facts, her legacy will hopefully be a long one. Despite the matriline having been fractured by recent deaths, her lineage could play a big role in the future and potential recovery of the Southern Residents in the future reproductive successes of J35 Tahlequah, J46 Star, and J53 Kiki. These three seem to be taking care of each other, too, as there was especial concern over Kiki, just 4 years old at the time of her mom's death. But in 2019 she has looked very robust, and has been spending a lot of time with both Tahlequah and Star, with Star having been observed sharing fish with her on several occasions.

Princess Angeline was 42 at the time of her death. While she was likely at the end of her reproductive life, the loss of her as a grandmother will undoubtedly be felt. We've already seen her family group become less cohesive after her death, but we hope her descendants carry on her strong maternal skills and that the J17s again become a matriline of seven whales or more.

K25 Scoter

Scoter was the eldest son of K13 Skagit and a true mama's boy, never far from her side. He's one of the first young males I got to watch grow up, but was notorious for his broad but relatively short dorsal fin.

K25 Scoter in 2005 at the age of 14. He was a real "late bloomer", with a shorter dorsal fin than most males his age.
K25 Scoter (with a much taller dorsal fin 10 years later in 2015) following close behind his mom K13 Skagit

Scoter seemed to enjoy the years L87 Onyx spent with K-Pod, as Onyx was particularly associated with the K7 matriline. While Onyx associated a lot with K7 Lummi, Scoter's grandmother K11 Georgia, and K13 Skagit, the two young males were also regularly seen together.

K25 with L87 in 2008

One of my most memorable encounters with Scoter happened in 2010 when I was aboard the Western Prince. We were parked and watching foraging whales when suddenly he appeared out of the depths right off our port side, carrying a salmon in his mouth. This sequence of photos remains the best I've ever taken of a Southern Resident with a salmon, and this photo was used in the book Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.



Scoter was satellite tagged by NOAA at the end of 2012, and his tag transmitted for an impressive 97 days, supplying the first detailed insight into the winter movements of K-Pod. While we knew Ks and Ls spent a lot of time on the outer coast in the winter, occasionally making trips to California, for the first time we had daily or near-daily updates on where exactly the whales were and how they were using the outer coastal habitat. The data from Scoter's tag was key in finally getting the critical habitat for Southern Residents extended to include the outer coast, and I believe will also be key in demonstrating the continued importance of the Columbia-Snake River Basin to K and L Pods, as it showed how much time they spend near the mouth of the river. Unfortunately, part of the tag remained embedded in Scoter's dorsal fin, leading to an extensive tag re-design by NOAA, but leaving Scoter with a permanent scar for the rest of his life.

K25 with satellite tag in December 2012 - Photo by NOAA
When his mom died in 2017, we knew K25 was an "at risk" whale. Adult males often perish shortly after their mothers, and with his strongest female associates being his two sisters who already had offspring of their own, Scoter was a perfect example of the social context playing such a key role in an individual Southern Resident's prospects for survival. Like J17, Scoter was observed with "peanut head" by the end of 2018, and failed to return with his family group when Js and Ks finally returned to inland waters in July 2019.

My last photo of Scoter, taken September 2018
Scoter was 28 at the time of his death. He leaves behind a brother (K34), two sisters (K20 and K27), and two nephews (K38 and K44). The K13s spent so much time in inland waters over the years that I feel like I've gotten to know them as well as I know J-Pod. His one-of-a-kind dorsal fin will be missed, as there is truly no other whale quite like Scoter.

L84 Nyssa
 
Nyssa was part of the so-called "back page whales", the portion of L-Pod who traditionally appeared on the last page of the Center for Whale Research ID guides and also spent the least amount of time in inland waters of any of the Southern Residents. Despite rarely visiting the Salish Sea, he was one of the easiest of all Southern Residents to identify with a single large notch, a bold check-marked shape saddle on the left, and finger marking on his right side saddle patch. He was often the first whale from this elusive group of whales I would ID, leading me to exclaim, "The back page Ls are here!"
 
L84 off San Juan County Park in 2016
When I first met Nyssa in 2000, he had just lost his mother L51 Nootka the year before. Her body washed ashore near Victoria in September 1999 and she had a prolapsed uterus, having recently given birth to L97 Tweak. Being a neonate, Tweak had virtually no prospects for survival, but his/her big brother Nyssa along with L74 Saanich were seen trying to take care of and feed the little calf in the days after Nootka's death. They were not successful, but Nyssa maintained a close relationship with his closing living relatives in his uncle Saanich and great uncle L73 Flash over the next decade.

L84 Nyssa (right) with L73 Flash in 2007
The 2000s have not been kind to the "back page" Ls. Since 2012, Nyssa has been the last living member of the L9 matriline, one doomed to extinction after his mother died leaving no females capable of reproduction. He beat the odds and continued to survive by finding a surrogate mother figure in the living matriarch of the other "back page" matriline, L54 Ino, who took in both Nyssa and another orphaned male L88 Wavewalker. Despite the fact these whales have such strong matrilineal ties, these whales collectively taught me that they will "create" their own families if need be, making a matriline of their own when their direct relations have died out. 

L84 Nyssa with Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research in 2015
My most memorable encounter with Nyssa happened in November 2014. My friend Julie and I had just bought our first boat Serenity a couple weeks prior. We weren't confident enough to take it far off the dock and thought for sure we would have to wait until spring to have our boat "christened" by an encounter with orcas. When word came in of members of all three pods milling off Kellett Bluffs, however, it was too great of a chance to passed up, and despite the choppy sea conditions we braved heading out as far as we had yet gone to see whales.

The whales were very spread doing long dives with unpredictable surfacings, and it was very fitting that the first whale to come close enough for us to identify was J2 Granny. We tell the story that Granny christened our boat (and our fledgling research efforts at the Orca Behavior Institute), but the part of the story that doesn't often get told is that on that day Granny was traveling with L84 Nyssa. Truly, he was part of the christening as well, which is also fitting, since his story gives us so many different glimpses into the social complexity of the Southern Residents that fuels all of our research questions at OBI. 

Nyssa on the day he and Granny christened out boat Serenity in 2014, with Lime Kiln lighthouse in the background
While both J17 and K25 had look malnourished in the months preceding their deaths, Nyssa's loss came as more of a surprise, as he had appeared to be in good health in recent encounters. A unique whale til the end, even the announcement of his death was unusual in that the Center for Whale Research declared him missing before they had ever encountered L-Pod in 2019, basing their announcement off photos provided by others on the outer coast. Sadly, it would true to be accurate, as Nyssa failed to return to inland waters with the L54s and L88 when they did finally make a rare visit to the Salish Sea in September. Nyssa was 29 at the time of his death. As the last living member of the L9 matriline, he leaves behind no living relatives and with his death leads to one of the several impending matriline extinctions within L-Pod.

New Additions

Since it's a bittersweet process to remember the whales we have lost (one from each pod this year), I traditionally end these posts with a nod of welcome to the newest members of the Southern Resident Community as well. In 2017 and 2018 there were sadly no whales to welcome, but thankfully this year we have had two new little ones born to help spark some hope among the continued losses.

One of them is L124 Whistle, the third offspring of L77 Matia. In a likely first, this little whale was first identified by helicopter, when a local news time broadcast footage of the Southern Residents in Puget Sound back in January. There had been no calves born since 2016, so it was clear this was a "new" whale, too tiny to be any of the others! Incredibly, Whistle's natal group (the L12s) has not been confirmed in inland waters since the end of February, so I have yet to meet this little whale! The L12s used to spend so much time here, and I hope in 2020 they do again so I can meet this little guy before he gets too big!

The other new addition is even sweeter, being a female calf born to J31 Tsuchi in May. Tsuchi has always loved spending time with calves, but her first in 2016 was stillborn. Fortunately, this pregnancy was successful, and it has sure seemed like we humans aren't the only ones excited to welcome J56 Tofino, as J31 and her rambunctious baby have spent time with whales from many other matrilines, and it truly seems as though all of J-Pod is enamored with this little calf. Thankfully both mom and baby appear robust and energetic, and we hope this is just the beginning of a long life of successful motherhood for Tsuchi.

One of my all-time favorite whale photos (and that's saying something!): J31 Tsuchi with J56 Tofino in the foreground and J47 Notch behind, taken in August 2019.