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Friday, April 24, 2020

And the World Keeps Turning

While it's been hard to find the motivation to blog in the last month, it hasn't been hard to find the motivation to go out into nature. Not only is April one of my favorite months on San Juan Island regardless, but it's been especially comforting to find some peace and sense of normalcy in these crazy times.

Before things really shut down and the stay at home order was put into place, we got out for one more on the water encounter with J-Pod in San Juan Channel back in mid-March. As we're quickly heading towards an unprecedented April with NO orca encounters, those two encounters from March are extra special and moments I replay often in my mind!

J-Pod in San Juan Channel on March 21st
Without whale encounters, the spring bird migration has received my extra attention, especially because I've been participating in two unique challenges over the last few weeks. One is an extension of our year-long challenge to photograph as many vertebrates as we can in 2020; since many of us are restricted to much closer to home for the time being, we're doing a mini 6-week photo blitz to see how many bird species we can photograph within 1 mile of our home. I had hoped to get 30 species, but am surprised to already have more than 50, with a week to go!

Hanging out with a red-breasted nuthatch in our yard
The other challenge is an extension of the year-long Fantasy Birding effort I'm participating in for the second year. What is Fantasy Birding, you ask? It's along the lines of fantasy sports, where you pick real-life players to be on your fantasy sports team and gain points based on the actions they take in real-life games. Here, you pick a region to virtually bird-watch in, and you score points based on lists real birders submit in that area to eBird. Again, due to everyone staying at home much more, we've started a sub-game called the Yard Squad Challenge. Captains chose birders from around the country (plus one international player per team) to bird their yards for four consecutive two week periods, and the race is to see which team can see the most species collectively. Both of these games, on top of the stay at home order, have meant daily bird walks from home and lots of time spent observing the changes in my neighborhood, whereas in previous years I might have watched the migration from further afield (like last year when we went to Westport!).

Watching migration from close to home means many more "first of the year" birds in our yard - like this yellow-rumped warlber

One highlight of this very local birding was a couple of weeks ago when, for every morning of the week, you could reliably see/hear all 5 of our local woodpecker species within a quarter-mile of our house: downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, pileated woodpecker, and red-breasted sapsucker.

The red-breasted sapsuckers have, in my opinion, the best drumming ditty of any woodpecker, made even better when executed on a man-made metal surface
A northern flicker briefly visits our suet - actually the hardest of our 5 local species to get a photograph of this year!

There's also moments like this quick visit from a sharp-shinned hawk to our feeder tree, which are likely to be missed when we're not at home as much. This juvenile was not successful in picking off any of our other visitors....this time!


And nothing says spring to me like the return of the swallows. Every year a pair of violet-green swallows checks out our nest boxes, but they have yet to use one. Will this be the year?


Thankfully, while some public lands are closed, other local natural areas have been open, so we have been able to go out and bird elsewhere on the island as well. This has turned up some other great finds that we definitely wouldn't have been able to see in our yard!

A bald eagle landing on a rocky shoreline with the Olympic Mountains in the background
A singing savannah sparrow


False Bay has been especially successful in turning up shorebirds this spring.

A flock of dunlin
Thanks to a tip from a friend and fellow birder, we also got to see a whimbrel there, a new species for my county life list! 


A few of our winter seabirds are still lingering, and some of them like this horned grebe are giving us a rare glimpse (for here) of their summer plumage before departing.


In late April/early May of each year, English Camp and the Mt. Young trail can always be counted on for many "first of the year" species, but this year was a personal record where in a single morning I added my first house wren, Cassin's vireo, chipping sparrow, Pacific-slope flycatcher, Townsend's warbler, and black-throated gray warbler all in one visit!

First singing house wren of the year at Mt. Young
I returned a day later to try for some audio recordings, and was surprised to find another species: a Townsend's solitaire! I only see one of these on the island every few years, and this time it wasn't a single one, but at least five of them.


Regardless of what's going on in our crazy human world, there's some comfort to be found in the fact that the cycle of life is continuing on in the natural world. I am very thankful all this is happening in the spring, as I can't imagine going through this without the ability to spend a lot of time outside in the sunshine! 


I will cut this post off here so it's focus remains on the birds, but there's another species that's an icon of spring on San Juan Island, and they deserve their own post!

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.