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Sunday, April 16, 2017

April Birds and Wildflowers

While the weather has been less than cooperative so far this month and the whales have been a bit too far from San Juan Island, we have taken advantage of some breaks in the rain and wind to enjoy the continuing spring arrivals and the first wildflowers of the season.

At Three Meadows Marsh we heard more birds than we were able to photograph (the marsh wren remains elusive, as does the Virginia rail which has always been the case - but so many friends have managed to photograph one this year that I've been hopeful!), but I did get a nicer shot of a yellow-rumped warbler.

Yellow-rumped warbler

I also was able to photograph my first tree swallow of the year. One cool aspect of the photo year list challenge is it gets me to attempt to take bird photos at times and of species I otherwise wouldn't even try. Swallows in flight? Yeah, right! But this year, this is my third swallow species I've photographed in flight, despite the challenges!

Tree swallow - photo year bird #137
 The other highlight was finding a pair of bushtits actively building a nest out of lichen! I've seen bushtit nests twice before, and all three times they've been built out of predominantly the same type of lichen. After staying still for a while, they were bold enough to continue working on the nest while we watched.

On the home front the feeders are more active than ever. I suspected the large winter flock of purple finches might have split up by now for the mating season, as the juncos seem to have done, but not so. They're still around in great numbers:

Meanwhile the woodpeckers are becoming more used our presence, leading to some fantastic photo opportunities!

Hairy woodpecker
Northern flicker
And every so often a new species turns out, like our first of the year American goldfinches a few days ago:

American goldfinch - photo year bird #138

Another surprise was a slate-colored junco! Considered part of the same dark-eyed junco species a our typical Oregon morph, the slate-colored is usually seen well east of here. Or perhaps it's a Cassiar morph? I didn't even know that was a thing until looking up the range of the slate-colored, and it's apparently somewhat of an intermediate between the slate-colored and Oregon morph, too subtle for me to really be able to tell where this one falls.

Yesterday I came across a birding hot spot at along an unlikely road near home. I pulled over to check out the swallows and ended up spending nearly an hour there and seeing/hearing more than 25 species, including killdeer, mew gulls, California quail, Canada geese, red-winged blackbirds, and three swallow species. I added a couple more to the year list, though my second attempt at photographing a northern rough-winged swallow this year failed again.

Savannah sparrow - photo year bird #139
Barn swallow - photo year bird #140
Today we headed out for a morning hike up Mt. Young. I thought it might be a bit too early for some of the common spring birds I find there, as well as for the wildflowers. Turns out I was wrong on both accounts! I was thrilled to hear the singing Cassin's vireos, Townsend's warblers, and Pacific-slope flycatchers, though less than thrilled with my attempts to photograph them among the dense foliage. The vireo and warbler are two species I don't think I've even photographed before, as they tend to stay deep in the branches or high in the treetops. Hopefully I'll have a chance to improve upon these shots later this season, which are both blurry.

Cassin's vireo - photo year bird #141

Townsend's warbler - photo year bird #142
I'm already surprisingly close to my goal of 150 species photographed this year, figuring I would probably be able to photograph about 75% of the birds I identified and going off my usual goal of 200 bird species a year. Right now I'm at 142 photographed out of 154 on my traditional year list, for a much better 92% thus far.

The flowers proved much easier to photograph, and many of my early favorites were in bloom!

Fawn lily, also appropriately named Easter lily
Calypso orchid, aka fairyslipper
A yellow monkey-flower species, always found on the same little hill each year
Shooting star on the Mt. Young summit

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Weekend Wildlife

With my parents up visiting, it was the perfect time to get out and about with the cameras to see what could be seen last weekend. While we didn't see any whales, we did see lots of other wildlife, starting with the 50 or so Steller sea lions that have been hanging out at Green Point on Spieden Island. Unlike my last visit, this time most of them were in the water, and some of them were very curious!

Spieden's terrestrial wildlife was also out in abundance, with one group of Mouflon sheep taking advantage of the low tide to be down on the rocks at water level. We thought they were probably licking salt off the rocks, but a closer inspection of my photos showed that some of them were actually eating seaweed!

Sometimes you don't appreciate the photos you take until you see them on the computer at home - that was the case with this snap, which gave me a laugh when I saw the surprised-looking expression on this mama Mouflon as her baby nursed (click to see a larger version).

There were so many deer and sheep out enjoying all the green grass, but we also spotted one bald eagle surveying the scene.

This is a great time of year for watching sea birds, too, because they've transitioned into their summer colors, like this common loon:

Same goes for these pigeon guillemots, though they've been sporting their "summer" plumage since February:

Back on the home front, more signs of spring seem to be appearing on a daily basis. While looking for year birds across the island didn't turn up any, at the end of the day I added two right in my own front yard! A yellow-rumped warbler drew me outside, but this singing orange-crowned warbler stole the show.

Orange-crowned warbler, photo year bird #135
On Sunday, we headed down to Cattle Pass, one of our favorite places to scope out birds - literally. Here's my dad scanning Goose Island, shortly before we found a flock of nearby shorebirds.

At first it appeared the shorebirds were all black turnstones, a species I've seen a couple times this year, though it feels like more occasionally than usual. Without more turnstone encounters, I hadn't turned up their sometimes companion, the surfbird. Until now! Three surfbirds were in and among the turnstones, adding another year bird to the tally.

Black turnstone

Surfbird, photo year bird #136

Surfbirds and turnstones can be difficult to tell apart. Turnstones are darker with reddish legs, while surfbirds are grayer with yellow legs. In flight, their wing patterns are also distinct, with the turnstones (top and bottom) having the additional white striping compared to the surfbird (middle):

As much as it felt like spring this weekend, it's back to feeling like winter this week with chillier temperatures, lots of rain, and heavy winds. I thought it was March that was supposed to be in like a lion, out like a lamb? In any case, the taste of warmer, sunnier weather has me more than ready for more days outside with the camera again!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Let the season begin!

After one of the coldest, wettest winters in recent memory, we've all been more than ready for spring to arrive! I had to send my camera off for some maintenance, so was worried the nice weather, spring migrants, and whales might start to show up while I was unable to document them! As luck would have it, I was down and out with the flu and there were many rainy days while my camera was gone, so I didn't miss much. A few spring migrants did begin to arrive, but Jason let me borrow his camera for our photo year list challenge.

First rufous hummingbird of the year - photo year bird #130
Thankfully, my camera returned in time for this weekend, because this morning for the first time in way too long the conditions were right to hop on the boat and see some whales! We met up with the T36s and T46s near Waldron Island and followed them over towards San Juan Channel.

The most impressive whale in the bunch was the huge 14 year old male T46E:

They were in quick travel mode until they reached O'Neal Island in San Juan Channel, when they suddenly fanned out and presumably made a kill, as they started circling and becoming more active at the surface while gulls came down to partake in the feast. Meanwhile, we saw some other boats further south in the channel and soon saw blows - they were with a second group of whales, heading towards us!

What followed was the closest thing to a transient "greeting ceremony" that I've ever seen - the group we were with lined up at the surface, hanging there as the other whales (later determined to be the T99s) approached. The two groups briefly faced each other about 20 yards apart, and then the surface erupted with breaches, cartwheels, dorsal fin slaps, pec slaps, spyhops, and tail slaps. They continued their rambunctious behavior as they started traveling again south down San Juan Channel, and quite frankly, they were behaving more like residents than Ts!

The two groups merge! Newly arriving whales on the left face off with the whales we were with, who started lots of splashing behaviors

The dark shoreline of San Juan Island made a perfect back drop for those huge blows!

As the whales continued on towards Friday Harbor, we peeled off and went over to check out the wildlife on Spieden Island. Amazingly, there were about 50 Steller sea lions at Green Point - 35 hauled out and easily another 15 in the water.

Steller sea lions at Green Point
We also saw some good bird activity including pigeon guillemots, marbled murrelets, long-tailed ducks, pelagic and double-crested cormorants, harlequin ducks, and rhinoceros auklets.

Rhinoceros auklet in Spieden Channel
On the terrestrial side of things, the Mouflon sheep were out in full force on Spieden, and some females had some very young lambs in tow!

That all made for a pretty spectacular day, but late in the afternoon we got word that J-Pod was vocalizing on the Lime Kiln hydrophones. Where did they come from?! After listening to some great vocals we just had to head out there and take a look. From Lime Kiln we spotted about 8 whales several miles offshore milling back and forth. They were too far for photos, but any day you see both resident and transient killer whales is a pretty spectacular day!

J-Pod has been around a fair amount in the last few weeks, not spending a lot of time here but transiting through the islands on a somewhat regular basis. My fingers are crossed that they keep it up and it turns into a whale-filled spring. It has certainly started out on a great note!

Friday, March 3, 2017

What's up with bluebirds on San Juan Island?

Last night the San Juan Preservation Trust held a fireside chat about their western bluebird reintroduction project, which is entering its 11th year. Some people may wonder why this project is still going on and what it's future may hold. We learned answers to a lot of questions last night, and in case you weren't able to make it, I thought I would post a summary.

Pair of western bluebirds on San Juan Island
There are historical records of western bluebird populations all throughout the greater Puget Sound region, including the San Juan Islands, from the 1800s into the early 1900s. Throughout the 20th century, however, primarily due to human development leading to habitat loss, many of this historic populations were extirpated. A strong population still exists near Olympia, but the large urban area of greater Seattle lies between that region and other areas that could still support bluebirds, like San Juan Island. When you have patchy habitat like this, it's unlikely the birds will expand and re-find the San Juans on their own; what's their incentive to cross Seattle? That's why the bluebird reintroduction project began, the first such effort for a migratory passerine species in the United States.

Relocation of birds from elsewhere in Washington happened over the first five years of the program, and a decent population took hold, having breeding success. Pairs and families who were "soft released" here after being held in aviaries were successfully breeding and rearing young, who were all banded so they could be tracked.

Banding a western bluebird nestling

After five years of reintroductions, the program entered a two year monitoring phase to see if the population was healthy enough to maintain itself. Sadly, this coincided with two El Nino years that led to very wet springs, leading to a population crash of our newly established but still fragile population. Not only did these rainy springs take a toll on our bluebirds, but western bluebird and swallow populations throughout the state experienced big fatality events. It was terrible timing for the island's bluebirds, and emergency reintroductions were started again to help support the population. It was decided that five more years of supplementing the local population would occur, to see with better luck if they could gain a foothold. 2017 and 2018 are the last two years of this second round of reintroductions.

Male western bluebird with worm
So far, things are looking pretty good. A sister program in Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island is helping bluebirds take hold in the region, and birds are beginning to move back and forth between these two pioneer colonies. The local population was about 30 birds last year, with one pair attempting to nest on Lopez Island for the first time. This past winter, for the first time on records, a small group of bluebirds actually overwintered on San Juan Island, being seen regularly on the west side and south end of the island, even despite our numerous cold snaps. 

Community enthusiasm was initally high about this project, but it's hard to maintain that momentum when efforts take a decade or more of work. Volunteers are needed now more than ever, however, to keep the program going, not only during these last two years of reintroduction efforts but to keep monitoring going beyond that. First of all, you can help by reporting any bluebirds you see. They bird are just starting to return now and more should arrive in the coming weeks, and it's hard to keep eyes out there everywhere to determine where exactly they might settle down to nest. Be aware though that mountain bluebirds might also be out there; they'll stop here on their migration but won't nest locally. They're often seen at the sound end of the island in March and April and are a more brilliant blue with no brown on them:

Mountain bluebird at American Camp

There are plenty of other ways to get involved, too. As outlined at the meeting last night, the Preservation Trust is looking for three types of volunteers:

1. Searchers, to help regularly survey likely spots birds will return in early spring
2. Nest box monitors, to make regular checks on nesting birds and their fledglings once pairs of settled down
3. Aviary assemblers, available at the last minute to help erect temporary aviaries for birds being translocated to San Juan Island

If you see any bluebirds, or are interesting in helping out by volunteering in any of the above ways, please contact Kathleen Foley at Please consider getting involved to help support the return of this beautiful little bird to the San Juans!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February 20 and 21: Birding Across Washington

After our two day guided trip in the Walla Walla and Pendleton area, we took our time getting home and, of course, did some more birding. Our first stop wasn't too far away at the Walla Walla River Delta where thousands of ducks and hundreds of gulls congregate in the winter.

Walla Walla River Delta
We added herring gull and California gull to the year list, but only got very distant pictures, so here's a slightly closer one of a ring-billed gull instead:

Near Pasco, Washington we stopped at a riverside park that had an incredible abundance of ducks - nearly all the common species and several uncommon ones all in one pond. Again I added a couple species (canvasback and ruddy duck) but didn't get great photos of them, though I finally got a decent shot of a gadwall for the year.

The rest of the day wasn't very birdy, so that night while staying in Ellensburg I did some research on what else had been seen recently between us and our ferry home. I was surprised to read that that very morning someone had seen a flock of 150+ Bohemian waxwings, a species we had been looking for all weekend, right there in Ellensburg! Thankfully she had posted great details about the location on eBird, so first thing the next morning, after another surprising dusting of snow, we headed over to check it out. Right in the very same berry-filled tree we got lucky - in with the house sparrows, robins, and starlings, was a Bohemian waxwing!

Bohemian waxwing - photo year bird #125
But where was the rest of the flock? We didn't have to wait too long before we saw them circling ahead. It was easily more like 200 or 250 birds, and they flew down in an amazing circling display, all briefly landing on the tree and grabbing a berry before taking flight again. We saw them do this two or three times before they flew off a couple block to regroup and, presumably, do the whole thing again.

At first you don't even see the birds in the tree, until you see the tree is just covered in Bohemian waxwings!
It's always amazing to me how incredible wildlife can be right in the middle of day to day life. This was in the parking lot of a feed store, and I think we got more than one strange look for being so excited and taking photos of the tree in the parking lot. It's both awesome that something so cool can happen right in the middle of an urban area and sad that so many people walk right by it without knowing the difference between the flock of waxwings and the flocks of starlings that frequent the area.

We went on to the airport area where gray partridges had been seen (another species we had been looking for all weekend), but didn't have any luck on this one, though I finally got a photo op of a mourning dove and also saw this cool sight of a black-billed magpie and bald eagle perched together:

Before leaving Ellensburg we made one more stop along the river, and lucked out by finding an American dipper, another hoped-for year bird. At this point in time the snow/rain really started coming down so we made a break to cross the pass and head back into the Seattle area. I never would have though I would get great gray owl, gray-crowned rosy-finch, and Bohemian waxwing on my photo year list before American crow, but that's just what happened! We have the very similar northwestern crows on San Juan Island, and other than voice location is really the only way to tell them apart. I had seen and heard several American crows so far this year but had yet to get a photo opportunity of one in a reliable location until this day. So there was the crow finally, an unlikely photo year bird #128! But that is why we go out there in bird, because you never know what you will see, or where, or when!

American crow, photo year bird #128

Near Marysville a couple of great egrets have been hanging out, well north of their typical range, so we stopped to see them:

Great egret - photo year bird # 129

Then one more stop before the ferry was back in our usual stomping grounds in the Skagit Flats. While we didn't turn up the gyrfalcon that's been seen there, we did see a trio of short-eared owls prowling the fields to make for an incredible 8 owl species trip. We also got great looks at several bald eagles in the late afternoon lighting.

With March right around the corner, the earliest of the spring migrants are starting to show up, so that will help keep the birding going in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I got my first glimpse of J-Pod a little over a week ago, and us islanders are hoping for a good spring start to the whale season, as well! We got another three or so inches of show yesterday, though, so winter hasn't quite loosened its grip just yet!