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Friday, March 15, 2019

March 9 ~ Birding Semiahmoo

Last weekend we headed off island to run some errands. I thought it would be a ferry ride like any other, but it turned into a very memorable one: after 18 years of riding these ferries regularly, I finally saw orcas from the ferry! And not once, but twice on the same trip!

T124As outside of Friday Harbor
T123s near Blakely Island
While I'm glad that drought is finally broken, I have to say it's actually not so great to see whales from the ferry, because of course the ferry keeps going while I would rather stay and watch!

After getting our errands done, we had enough time to make a visit to one of my favorite regional birding spots at Semiahmoo. As hoped for, we saw a lot of birds, some of them new to the year list, and the icing on the cake was the beautiful evening light.

Common loon
We got a scoter hat trick, seeing all three species there (surf, white-winged, and black).

Black scoters - far away, but awesome because they are uncommon to see. Cameo appearance by a few brant!
White-winged scoter

On our drive we saw multiple pairs of bald eagles at nests - it's that time of year! This one perched on top of the tower at the end of Semiahmoo Spit and was calling to another bird (presumably its mate) flying above it.

It took a little longer than expected to add black-capped chickadee to the photo year list, but I finally got a photo of one. We've only got chestnut-sided chickadees on San Juan Island, and while I've seen several other black-cappeds, there was never a chance to photograph one without the "hand of man" for this year's challenge.

Two of my hoped-for species for the trip to Semiahmoo did not disappoint: greater scaup and brant.

As the light was fading it was getting time to head back for the ferry, but it was hard to leave with scenes like this:

Semiahmoo Spit

Just a couple more photographs before warming up in the car, for good measure:


Northern pintail in flight

Friday, March 8, 2019

March 3 Double Header: T46s and T90s/T101s

Last weekend we headed out on the water with Maya's Legacy on a beautiful day. With heavy winds to the north, we headed south down San Juan Channel and made a stop at Whale Rocks, my favorite sea lion haul out.

With a report of whales in Puget Sound, they made the decision to go for it - a bit of a long trek, but new boating territory for me! It was awesome to check off my bucket list going under the Deception Pass Bridge on a boat.

We're starting to see signs of spring, but winter is still keeping her grip on the region, as evidenced by the snowy foothills providing a backdrop to our journey:

When we got on scene with the T46s (and T122 who travels with them) we started by watching the two males T46D and T46E traveling together. It was impressive to see them with all the houses in the background, as it really shows how urban these whales are!

T46D (left) and T46E (right)
T46E (left) and T46D (right)
The T46s are such a cool family for many reasons. One is that T46 Wake was part of the last killer whale capture in Washington State in 1976. She was released and is still plying the same waters as one of the most successful mothers on record. As we discussed on the boat while we were on scene, if she had been taken into captivity as many other whales were in the 1960s and 70s, there would be nearly 20 fewer transient killer whales in the region, because that's how many living descendants she has.

T46 Wake with her son T46E.
Another reason the T46s are so cool is because they actually "disappeared" for 13 years, where they left the area and weren't seen during that time. When they returned, there was actually some confusion about the whales that were present. Two of the returning whales were given new designations as T122 and T123, but were later determined to be the likely offspring of T46. T122 still travels with the T46s, and was actually determined to be the same whale as T46A, a calf who was seen in 1982 before the long gap in sightings.

It's long been my dream to be able to name a killer whale, and my dream recently came true when my suggested name for T122, Centeki, was voted to be her name among the local whale community. (An effort is under way from naturalists, captains, researchers, and others in the region to give common names to many of the transient/Bigg's killer whales in the region that don't yet have them.) Centeki is one of the 13 lunar phases recognized by the Coast Salish people, and I thought this was appropriate given the confusion over her identify after her 13 year absence.

T122 Centeki, named by yours truly!

While we were on scene in Saratoga Passage, the whales appeared to be in travel/passive hunting mode, but shortly before it was time to leave it became clear they were on the hunt. Four of the five whales in the family group made quick work of a harbor seal, which we got a brief glimpse of as one of the whales lunged through the surface with the seal held in its mouth. As they shared the spoils, gulls came down to partake in the scraps. I thought this was a unique perspective of gulls fighting over a piece of seal meat while an orca surfaces in the background:

One more look at the impressive 16 year-old male T46E, with his wavy dorsal fin:

As we started making our way back north towards home, reports came in of another group of whales picked up between us and Friday Harbor. At this point, the trip was already running long, so why not just keep it going, especially when more whales in calm waters and beautiful lighting are right in front of you? Too good to pass up!

T101 and T101B under Mt. Baker
It was the T90s and T101s, and we watched them make their way into Cattle Pass from Iceberg Point.

Spyhop from T90B
The whales just added to what was already a stunning scene, with seals, sea lions, porpoises, and birds actively feeding in what was shaping up to be a pretty dramatic sunset!

Pelagic cormorant flyby
Sunset over the Cattle Point Lighthouse
While it ended up being a much longer trip than expected, it was a particularly memorable one! I absolutely love being on the water this time of year when things are still pretty quiet, especially as the whale sightings start picking up. It's looking like the heightened transient/Bigg's killer whale sigthings are continuing so far in early 2019, so we'll see what the rest of the spring will bring!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

February 16 with the T69Ds and T90s - Plus: Why I Support Whale-Watching

While whales have been around occasionally, I hadn't seen any since the end of October, and for an orcaholic like myself, full whale withdrawal was beginning to set in. I was able to get out on the water for the first time in 2019 last weekend, right towards the end of a long streak of winter weather, meaning there was still snow on the ground, transforming typical scenes like Spieden Island into something completely different.

Steller sea lions on Green Point
Spieden Island under a dusting of snow

We joined several other boats in a search for a group of transient killer whales that had been seen several hours before, and as luck would have it, they were found! It was so great to see some dorsal fins again, and even cooler with the snowy backdrop - a bucket list item for me, to see killer whales in the snow!

We recognized the T90s, but there were other whales present as well, and it wasn't until we got home and pulled out the older but more complete transient ID guide that we realized we had seen the T69Ds - new whales for me!

From left to right T69D1, T69D2, and T69D
The T69s are more often encountered on the western side of Vancouver Island, but like many other transient matrilines, have started venturing into the Salish Sea a bit over the last few years. While we were on scene, the group of 7 whales was in steady travel mode, meaning we often got to see lots of fins at the surface all together!

From left to right: T90B, T90C, T90D, T69D1, T90, and T69D

Before we left, we got some of those classic backlit blows:

And this shot of pelagic cormorants on a log was too fun not to share as well:

It was a refreshing afternoon on the water and spending some time with some killer whales was rejuvenating to the soul, but looming over the encounter was the threat of a moratorium on the viewing of Southern Residents and a permanent increase in viewing distances from 200 to 400 yards on both sides of the border, as Governor Inslee's bill based on an Orca Task Force recommendation moves through the state legislature and vessel working groups in Canada consider the same options. The scientific merits of these recommendations are dubious at best; I can and have gone into the scientific details elsewhere, but the short version is that speed matters a lot more than proximity in terms of noise levels around the whales. I want to take a moment hear to share something else, however: the fact that whale-watching changed my life.

A whale watch trip my family took in Alaska when I was 12 truly redefined the course I would take. It was the first time I saw orcas in the wild and since that day there has been no going back for me. Coming home from that trip, I did  research about other killer whale populations and learned about the Southern Residents. A couple years later we came to the San Juan Islands and it was from a boat I would meet the whales that would become my life's passion. The generation before me was influenced by seeing whales at SeaWorld. My generation has been influenced by seeing whales in the wild.

I am far from the only one who has had a life-changing experience on a whale watch trip. I know this in part from my 6 years working on a boat and seeing these moments occur for people firsthand. I also know this because many of the people in our whale community have had experiences similar to the one I did, where a boat trip to see wild whales was a transformative experience.

Last summer just before J35 and J50 put the Southern Residents in the world spotlight, 12 members of my husband’s family did a tour with Maya's Legacy including myself and my husband....We were fortunate to be one of only two boats on the water with the T124As, but Captain Jeff started talking about how they were seeing less and less of the Residents and why... Coming from me was one thing, but for them to hear what was happening to our beloved Southern Residents from their captain and to see his concern and compassion was huge. They all wanted to know what they could do to help. We never saw Residents the whole week (in early July) that we were there, but the impression was made and I know they all went back to Arizona, Florida and even Italy and told the story of the Residents' plight to their friends and family. - Susan

Some are advocating that people watch whales from shore instead of on a boat, and while some of my best-ever whale encounters have come from shore, the reality is it's not as viable of an option as it was 15 years ago. When I first started visiting the San Juans, the Southern Residents passed the west side of San Juan Island on a near-daily basis during May-September. Now it's not uncommon for weeks to go by during that time with no Southern Residents seen from Lime Kiln. It's just not realistic to ask visitors to see whales from shore when sightings have become so sporadic.

We keep hearing (in large part from people who have never been whale-watching) about how whale watch companies are owned by businessmen out to exploit an endangered species: in it for the money with little regard for the well-being of the whales. I have met many of the owners of Pacific Whale Watch Association companies and I have yet to meet one who falls into this category. They all got into it for the same reason I got into it: out of a love for the whales, the wildlife, and this entire ecosystem. Yes, they make their living at it, but they are constantly assessing moment to moment and year to year what is best for the whales.

I had a trip booked with Maya's Legacy far in advance, had friends/family in town that were going with, and the weekend we went out wound up being 4 days after J35 lost her calf. Captain Jeff told our entire boat full that they were the only orcas in the area, and that we would not be within any kind of optimum viewing distance because of the circumstances. He offered to refund the entire boat. But everyone still wanted to go out on the water regardless and wanted to hear more about what was happening.... We were only out there for a brief time, witnessing through binoculars part of J-Pod foraging near the Fraser. Jeff got emotional while we were there. Some people don't get to see that.  And I guess that’s why it infuriates me to have them vilified and thrown under the bus. Because it seems, to me, the exact opposite, in more cases than not. But because this is also how they make a living, we just hear “exploitation”. - Amanda

I have had conversations with owners, captains, and naturalists over the last 18 years, and seeing firsthand how much they care is what has made me upset about vilifying what they do, scapegoating them as the reason the whales are in the situation they are in, and calling for more restrictions simply because you advocate for any and all orca protections without taking time to become familiar with both the science and the people involved. The whale watch industry has constantly gone above and beyond what is required of them to protect the whales. Do they make mistakes? Yes. Is it a work in progress? Yes. But they are the only industry I can think of that is voluntarily making sacrifices to benefit the whales.

Part of the reason I have been outspoken on this issue is because I've read all the science and I want to advocate for what's best for the whales. My greatest fear is that we will ban or further restrict whale-watching and walk away feeling like we have done something bold to help recover the Southern Residents, when in reality we will have failed yet again to tackle the major, yet more complicated, issues they face. 

Some people have assumed I'm being paid by the whale watch industry to have this opinion, but this is not true - in fact, it is at my own personal expense that I travel to these meetings to make public comment, and it is my own free time I give to writing letters, posting debriefs of the science, and encouraging advocacy. In the interest of full disclosure I did work for a whale-watch company as a naturalist from 2005-2010. I also volunteered on Soundwatch for several summers, both of which gave me perspective. I do go out on whale-watch vessels, with people who are friends and when there is extra space available anyway; this is not in exchange for my advocacy. My opinions and my work are not being compensated for in any way; they are my own, and they are based on my experiences.

Thanks to some common sense prevailing, the vessel bills have been altered to remove the moratorium on viewing of Southern Residents. They include a go-slow zone around the whales, a permitting system on commercial whale watch vessels, and an increase to a 300 yard viewing distance on Southern Residents. Ten years ago when the first vessel regulations went into place, vessels were the focus for years, because they were the low-hanging fruit: the easiest thing to address. Since then, we have still failed to seriously address the more major risk factors of salmon abundance and contaminants. Now that we have spent months debating vessels again, my hope is that we can finally move on. If we are serious about Southern Resident killer whale recovery, this conversation can no longer be about vessels, vessels, vessels. We must put that risk factor aside and finally talk about what can be done on the big ticket issues, even if they are complex and the sacrifices painful. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Winter Birding on Lopez Island

With so many microclimates and microhabitats in the San Juan Islands, there are very different places to explore and even different birds to see depending on which island you are on. Because of the convenience of the ferry schedule, when we decide to explore another island, we usually go to Orcas, but yesterday we decided to go for the extra early and extra long ferry rides in order to explore Lopez Island. Good decision!

Locally known as "Slowpez", Lopez is definitely the quietest of the larger ferry-served island with about half the population of Orcas and a third of the population of San Juan. It's also been nicknamed "the friendly isle", in part because every car waves to every other car as they pass each other anywhere on the island. I've only been to Lopez a handful of times myself, which means there are still parks I have yet to explore over there. After our visit yesterday, I think I actually prefer the Lopez over Orcas, because there are more coastal access points with dramatic landscapes and fewer in the way of hilly wooded hikes.

One of the main reasons for our trip was to go birding and try and add some species to our year and photo year lists. Our first stop in the morning was to Fisherman Bay, where both the species and photographic opportunities added up quickly!

Belted kingfisher in the early morning light at Fisherman Bay
Great blue heron at Fisherman Bay
Heading out the spit at Fisherman Bay
Abstract rock and tree reflection at Fisherman Bay

Our next stop was Shark Reef, which is on the opposite side of San Juan Channel of our regular stomping grounds at Cattle Point. Unlike Cattle Point, which is all open prairie, you hike through the woods to get to the rocky Shark Reef.

Boardwalk at Shark Reef
Shark Reef, on the east side of Cattle Pass
Next we searched for one of the main target species for our trip: the wild turkey! While they used to be found on other island including San Juan, currently the only flock of wild turkeys on the island makes their home on Lopez. We were just about to give up when we came upon a group of more than 20 of them! I'm not sure why they are so much more fun to watch than many other birds, but they are - I suppose it's because they're very expressive, comical, and have lots of social interactions.

Wild turkeys on Lopez

It's surprising to see such a large bird fly - not only over this fence, but even up into the trees above!
Our next stop was Iceberg Point, a place I amazingly had never visited before. There are miles of hiking trails there and we only got to go out to the point in one direction, so we will definitely have to go back. While the birding was decent, the scenery is absolutely stunning.

Iceberg Point

It also offered a different perspective on Cattle Point:

The geology is complex and amazing throughout the San Juans as well, and Iceberg Point was no exception.

Hummel Lake was pretty quiet, but seems to be one of the first locations swallows show up in the islands each year. With reports of some already in nearby Skagit County, the early arrivals might not be far off! We settled for this picturesque common merganser though:

Our last stop before heading back to the ferry was out to Spencer Spit, but we got waylaid on the way there at first by a northern shrike (which would only perch on fence posts, so sadly will not quality for the photo year list which has the theme of photos "without the hand of man"), and then by these sheep. Have you ever seen sheep run before? I don't think I have!

Unlike the ferry ride there, the ferry ride back was in the daylight, so we continued birding from the boat (as we again stopped at every island on our way home). 

An up-close view of double-crested and pelagic cormorants at the Shaw Island ferry terminal
No luck on the shrike, but I did get a rock pigeon picture "without the hand of man"! I like this theme because it makes me attempt different and more challenging photos, such as in-flight shots. The different challenge means the first rock pigeons I saw this year perched on a man-made structure didn't "count", but I like this result much better!

In the end we tallied 52 species on the day, the highest single-day total yet this year! Not at all a bad showing, and after a several year gap in visits, we will definitely we going back to Lopez sooner rather than later.

Portrait of a glaucous-winged gull at the Orcas Island ferry landing