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Friday, March 13, 2020

March 9: J-Pod in San Juan Channel

Word came in Monday afternoon that J-Pod was in Boundary Pass, but instead of taking their typical route southwest towards Turn Point, they veered towards San Juan Channel. With the sun shining and the winds calm, it was just too tempting not to duck out of work early and get on the water! While we had heard they were very spread out, about half the pod grouped up right as we got on scene north of Yellow Island.

J38 Cookie

Historically, visits were few and far between this time of year, and we would expect the Southern Residents to be around more starting in April. In recent years, that has completely changed, and we now see them more in October-March than we do from April-July!

Interestingly, this mixed sub-group contained some members of every matriline. It's definitely something I've noticed in recent years, particularly with the losses of some of the older females like J2 Granny, J8 Spieden, J14 Samish, and J17 Princess Angeline: J-Pod is a lot less likely to travel in matrilineal groups, and more often travels in mixed groups.

In typical Southern Resident fashion, the whales were very surface active, which also delighted passengers aboard the inter-island ferry that came by:

As the whales neared Friday Harbor the large group we were with fanned out, but a smaller group of whales came together and were presumably in pursuit of salmon, but the way they were circling and lunging at the surface together made them almost look like transients!

As these whales continued on, we spotted a couple blows closer to San Juan Island and headed over there to find J16 Slick with her son J26 Mike. The lighting was perfect for those epic backlit blow shots, the ones I will never get tired of!

As Slick and Mike passed Point Caution, they were lined up perfectly for a shot in front of Friday Harbor, and the Olympic Mountains in the background were icing on the cake!

J16 Slick and J26 Mike in front of Friday Harbor

Interestingly, as the whales so often do when they come down San Juan Channel in the winter, they stalled out right at Friday Harbor. Suddenly they all turned to cross over towards the Shaw Island shoreline, where they again grouped up, this time heading north.

J26 Mike crossing San Juan Channel
It was at this point that we got a look at J-Pod's youngest member, J56 Tofino, along with her mom J31 Tsuchi. Tofino was in a very energetic mood, breaching over and over and over again! Such a great sight to see.

J31 Tsuchi and J56 Tofino

J56 Tofino catches some serious air in front of the Conservation Canines research vessel
We knew it was going to get dark soon, but it was just too beautiful of an evening to leave. It was truly one of those moments that you dream about: the evening light, the quiet waters, and all of J-Pod traveling together, the sound of their blows echoing across the channel.

It was an unforgettable night 💙💙💙

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Winter Water Birds

After a sunny start to 2020, it has been a very wet and windy year so far! This weekend we finally got a break in the weather, so we took advantage to get out on our boat to go birding in Griffin Bay, adding half a dozen species to the photo year list in the process! Here are some highlights from this morning on the water.

Mew gulls

Ancient murrelet
Marbled murrelets

Long-tailed duck

Long-tailed ducks

Common murre

Common murres

Pigeon guillemot

Red-necked grebe

Back on land - Cooper's hawk

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!