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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weekend Birding

For the last few weeks its been nice and sunny during the work week and gray and drizzly on the weekends. It's been the source of much grumbling on the island, but of course it's not enough to keep me from getting out and doing some birding - not this time of year!

The first year bird I have to report I actually saw on the drive home for work - an American kestrel (144) along Beaverton Valley Road. I had also been out trying to find a rufous hummingbird that so many others had been reporting, without much luck. If you can't go to the birds, I thought, why not try to bring the birds to you? I don't know why I hadn't done it earlier, but I put up our hummingbird feeder at home. It took just three hours for a pair of rufous hummingbirds (145) to stake it out! This male spent the better part of the next three days chasing away all other male hummingbirds. He's either moved on or given up since then, but I've still been seeing females visiting regularly.

My friend Katie also reported that the barred owl nest near her house is occupied again this year, after it was empty last spring. I got to go take a quick peak, adding another year bird (146) in the process:

Peek-a-boo! See the owl?
I also went to Three Meadows Marsh where as hoped I found lots of swallows - both violet-green (147) and tree (148). There were a couple hundred of them! I was also surprised to already see the first wood ducks (149) had arrived.

I thought I might find more swallows at False Bay Creek, but I only saw one - about a half a mile away! The after work stop (in the sunshine, being a work day) wasn't fruitless for the year list, however, as I did see one Wilson's snipe (150). I also heard a Virginia rail. I realized most people who drive by on Bailer Hill Road probably have no idea that rails are lurking in the reeds just a few yards away! I like things like that.

Yesterday I spent the day on Whidbey Island, where I did a little birding in Langley. Here's the view from the Langley marina, with the Cascade Mountains in the background and a flock of sea ducks in the foreground:

When I realized about half the ducks were goldeneye (the other half were scoters), I was hopeful I might find a Barrow's goldeneye among them. I was surprised when I got the binoculars up that they were ALL Barrow's goldeneye (151)! I did find a few common goldeneye off on their own. Most of the scoters were surf scoters, but I found a pair of white-winged scoters in there, too.

Barrow's goldeneye

In addition to the ducks, I saw a great blue heron, a pair of kingfishers, and about ten double-crested cormorants. A few of the cormorants were drying their wings - which I had never gotten a nice photo of until now:

The next few weeks should be exciting - the spring migrants will continue to arrive, and we're all hopeful the orcas will start spending some time here, too!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Signature of All Things

There have been some great bird sightings on the island lately - unfortunately most of them have not been mine! The best of the bunch is a long-eared owl that has been seen at least twice near False Bay Creek, where I do monthly bird surveys. Unfortunately numerous visits out there both during the day and at night have not turned up any owls for me, though I have seen other neat species such as western meadowlarks and a northern shrike.

Flooded pasture along False Bay Creek

Lots of Canada geese, but no long-eared owl at False Bay Creek

I did see an American kestrel (144) one afternoon as I drove home from work, which was a nice find as it's an uncommon species here on the island. It's amazing how many species were in the first 50 on my year list the last bunch of years but aren't even on my list yet, simply because all my Pacific Northwest birding this year has been exclusively in the San Juan Islands. As a result, I still don't have black-capped chickadee on my list this year!!

This afternoon I went out for a one hour walk at English Camp, hoping to find a rufous hummingbird or some other early spring migrant. Not only did I fail to find a hummingbird, I hardly saw any birds at all! Excepting the 75 bufflehead and 25 surf scoters out in the bay, I only saw/heard 40 other birds - not species, birds! It may sound like a lot to non-birders, but when you're hiking well over a mile they are few and far between. Since an hour's birding only turned up 16 species, I started turning my attention to other things, because even when the birds are scarce there's always something to investigate! This time, in part because of the book I just finished reading, I noticed there were mosses everywhere!

The book in question is The Signature of All Things, a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). Set primarily in the 19th century, it follows the life of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a famous botanist. She follows in the footsteps of her father, becoming a plant expert, and in the early part of her life is able to study specimens from all over the world in her father's gardens and greenhouses. While part of her wants to travel the world and see all the amazing trees and orchids she has grown to love in their native habitats, circumstances dictate that she is confined to her family's estate in Pennsylvania. Frustrated, she feels like she already knows every tree and flower on thier property from her childhood explorations, when she makes an interesting discovery on a boulder she has passed thousands of times.

Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression at the center of the boulder, where all the water pooled.

Just across this ocean - which was half the size of Alma's shawl - she found another continent of moss altogether. On this new continent, everything was different. This corner of the boulder must receive more sunlight than the other, she surmised. Or slightly less rain? In any case, this was a new climate entirely. Here, the moss grew in mountain rangers the length of Alma's arms, in elegant, pine tree-shaped clusters of darker, more somber green. On another quadrant of the same boulder still, she found patches of infinitesimally small deserts, inhabited by some kind of study, dry, flaking moss that had the appearance of cactus. Elsewhere, she found deep, diminutive fjords - so deep that, incredibly, even now in the month of June - the mosses within were still chilled by lingering traces of winter ice. But she also found warm estuaries, miniature cathedrals, and limestone caves the size of her thumb.

Then Alma lifted her face and saw what was before her - dozens more such boulders, more than she could count, each one similarly carpeted, each one subtly different. She felt herself growing breathless. This was the entire world. This was bigger than a world. This was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel's mighty telescopes. This was planetary and vast. These were ancient, unexplored galaxies, rolling forth in front of her - and it was all right here!

In the book, Alma goes on to study the stories that play out in the world of mosses. That may sound like a boring task, but only when you are caught up in the fast, loud pace of day-to-day human life. In the moss world, things move much more slowly, but are no less dramatic. There are wars waged over prime territories, and she documents their advancements and retreats. There are clear winners and losers, which leads Alma to begin wondering why certain species are successful, why others are not, and what causes some mosses to succeed where others fail. Mosses, after all, are an amazingly diverse and hardy lot. They can thrive in areas where nothing else can even begin to grow, as we can still see today wherever we look:

Mosses can make a living where other plants can't - such as on wood, stone, or nowadays, pavement

As she continues her life as a bryologist, Alma does eventually get the chance to travel beyond Pennsylvania, and in the process meets an interesting cast of characters. While she wants to explain everything in terms of science, she meets others - such as artists and missionaries - that are convinced that not all the amazing things we witness can be measured and that some of the most compelling discoveries come when we leave the world of science behind.

The book is a captivating one from start to finish, as Alma is a naturalist who lives at a time when the worlds of science and religion are both starting to change drastically, and it's all due to looking carefully at the world right beneath our feet.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Birding North of San Diego

It took a day or two to recover from our time in Mexico - there was a lot of sleeping and a lot of shaking sand out of everything, but what small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime. What was most amazing about our first full day back is that that evening we saw a gray whale breaching off our hotel at Moonlight Beach! It was a pretty spectacular sunset, too.

We still had several more days to spend in the San Diego area, and we visited with some family and friends while we were there. On February 15th we went for a hike at Los Penasquitos Canyon. I didn't have my camera with me, but my eyes and ears (and binoculars) were enough to add California quail (131), western scrub-jay (132), Say's phoebe (133), acorn woodpecker (134), and red-shouldered hawk (135) to the list. The acorn woodpeckers were the most amazing - there were several dozen of them cackling away all over the park!

On the 17th I got to visit a very special place to me - Batiquitos Lagoon. This place, not too different from several other lagoons along this part of the coast, isn't too far from where my grandpa used to live. I used to visit here regularly as a kid, when I was just getting into birding, and as a result I probably got more life birds at this one spot than any other single location I've ever been! I remember another birder with a scope here teaching me the difference between western and least sandpipers at this lagoon when I was probably 12 or 13 years old.

Since my grandpa passed away, I hadn't been back to this lagoon, so it was awesome to visit again after about a 12 year absence. It was much like I remembered it.

The birding was like I remembered, too - excellent! While walking here I added Nuttall's woodpecker (136) and white-tailed kite (137). We saw the kite on our way up the trail, but on our way back we saw it again, this time harassing a peregrine falcon! The kite is flying through the trees here, agitating a the perched falcon:

 I even found another life bird - an Allen's hummingbird (138) in with all the Anna's hummingbirds. 

Another Batiquitos life bird, 12 years later: an Allen's hummingbird
There were lots of people enjoying the lagoon, but we only saw one other birder - appropriately a young girl, probably about 12 years old! She was impressive and reminded me in several ways of a young version of myself. She also gave us a tip about some American white pelicans that she saw the day before, and that gave me enough of a head's up to drive around to the far side of the lagoon where we saw half a dozen of them (139).

Being so close, I wanted to drive by my grandpa's old house, where I also saw lots of amazing birds over the years, including my first great horned owl perched on a lamp post on his street, a hooded oriole in his backyard, and a roadrunner on the hillside behind his house. Looking down this same hill, I saw a pair of Cassin's kingbirds (140), not only another tally for the year list but a life bird, as well.

We headed then to Carlsbad, where we camped for a couple nights with some friends from San Juan Island who work up here in the summer and camp host down there in the winter. We weren't there long before we met their resident osprey, who flew overhead several times carrying the largest fish I've ever seen an osprey carry!

Our first morning there, we spent half an hour doing an informal sea watch. In addition to some bottlenose dolphins cruising the surf, we saw, I kid you not, about 5000 black-vented shearwaters (141). They flew by in a steady stream that took about 10 minutes to pass! We also got some great eye-level views of some brown pelicans cruising the cliffs:

We also visited the Oceanside Pier, where in addition to seeing a very vocal great-tailed grackle (142), we got an even closer look at some brown pelicans:

They weren't being intentionally fed, but they were stealing fish from the fishermen! I tried to get an even closer look, but I couldn't get my binoculars to focus...

After a tour of Stone Brewery, a beach walk back at camp yielded the last year bird of the trip - a couple nice flocks of sanderling (143). Finally, on the 19th, after nearly two weeks in California and Mexico, it was time to head back to the comparatively chilly northwest. It was such a memorable trip - I hope you enjoyed virtually traveling along via my blog posts!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Heading Back North

On our last day in Baja - already two weeks ago today! - I got up extra early. People had been giving reports of a beautiful moonset on previous mornings and I decided to fully take in our last hours there. It was a bit cloudy, but still impressive as the moon disappeared into the lagoon:

Almost simultaneously, the sun was rising in the opposite direction:

After another delicious breakfast, we had a few more minutes to take in the whales off the point before the panga ride back to Kuyima. As an added bonus, a big mixed flock of shorebirds flew up, too!

Marbled godwits
 Included in the group was my last year bird for Mexico - a few short-billed dowitchers (130):

Marbled godwit, willet, and short-billed dowitcher

All too soon it was time to go. The planes were waiting for us at Kuyima:

Luckily the weather cooperated for another smooth flight back north, and the scenery was stunning for the whole flight. Here was our last look at Laguna San Ignacio:

A few more scenic shots, looking east towards the Sea of Cortez:

As we began our descent, it was back into civilization at Tijuana. A bit of a culture shock, even after just four days away!

Luckily our trip wasn't completely over quite yet. We had some more friends to visit in San Diego and some more birds to see first!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mating Whales and Mangrove Birding ~ Day 3 in Baja

It was hard to believe we had already arrived at our third and final full day at Laguna San Ignacio. Time felt both suspended and going by too quickly while we were there. 

A panga off our camp at Punta Piedra
By this point we were all well-versed in gray whale behaviors, in both English and Spanish. Espia (spy hop), brinca (breach), and, our favorite, cola (tail).

Our group had fun playing off the double meaning of the word cola in English and Spanish. In addition to calling out when we saw a cola, we had a Cola Cero (Zero) for when it looked like you were going to see a tail but didn't, a Cola Lite for when the tail barely lifted above the surface, and a Semi Cola for when just half the tail flukes came up.

Cola Lite

Semi Cola!
We also learned to recognize several things on the surface when the whales weren't even visible, like a footprint (or fluke print) where the movement of the whale's tail creates an upwelling at the surface, helping you track the whale while it was swimming underwater:

Gray whale fluke print
Another common behavior we observed was a bubble blast, where the whale exhales underwater creating a burst of bubbles at the surface, a behavior that supposedly is also accompanied by a vocalization:

Bubble blast - somebody's down there!
And of course, we were all very familiar with the distinct heart-shaped blow of the gray whale, a unique spout shape created by the angle of the double blow holes on the whales' heads.

Beginning of a heart-shaped blow
Heart-shaped blow with the Three Virgins Volcano in the background
Here's a nice shot of the blowhole. Baleen whales have two blowholes, just like we have two nostrils. In toothed whales, like orcas, the two nostrils have fused into a single blowhole. I thought it was interesting to see there are whale lice right around the edge of the blowholes; I would have thought they'd get blown right out of there by the force of the exhalations!

Our morning whale-watch on the last day was highlighted by a mating group of whales. We saw a female being pursued by about 4-5 males, and I heard one other group saw a female being pursued by 9 males!

Pursuit! 2 males surface right behind a female
You still get amazingly close to the whales when this is going on, but you don't want to get too close. Let's just say they seem to be a little less aware of their surroundings when they've got other things on their mind.

Pec wave off one of our other pangas - I don't think this was part of a mating group, so they were safe being that close!
When mating pursuits turn into actual mating, you start seeing lots of rolling at the surface. It's hard to figure out exactly what all the body parts are that you're seeing, and who they belong to.

One body part, however, was totally unmistakable - the so-called pink floyd, or whale penis. According to one of our guides, the site of a pink floyd makes women gasp and men fall silent.

A belly-up male, showing his six foot long pink floyd
After our exciting whale watch, the tides were just right to visit the mangroves by boat. It's bizarre to see such a change in landscape between the stark desert and the lush mangroves.

San Ignacio mangroves with the Santa Clara Mountains in the background
The bird life changes noticeably, too! We switch from looking at pelicans and terns to all kinds of species of herons and egrets. The shorebirds like both habitats, however:

Willets and marbled godwits
I knew this was my best chance to add some of my hoped-for life birds on the trip. I was all eyes as we slowly motored through the mangroves:

It didn't take long to spot my first life bird of the day - a tri-colored heron (year bird 123):

Tri-colored heron
Next we saw a pair of eared grebes (124), and then this guy crossing the channel:

Turns out it was a clapper rail (125), another life bird! We would hear several more of them throughout our trip.

It's interesting to me that so many heron-like birds of the southeast United States find there way to the west coast only here in Mexico. I totally lucked out and saw all of the species I was hoping to see:

Little blue heron adult (top left) and immature (botton right) - year bird 126 and another life bird
A distant look at a yellow-crowned night heron (year bird 127 and another life bird!). It was only a quick view but the facial pattern was unmistakable
We also got much better looks at white ibises:

Back at camp I had been told about the elusive mangrove warbler, a colorful little bird of the mangroves that is incredibly hard to see. When we got on board our panga, I told our boat driver (half-jokingly) I would love to see a mangrove warbler, and could he please find me one? He gave me a thumbs up - he would find one.

I have to reiterate that our boat driver, Chope, is a local fisherman. He and the other boat drivers amazed me with their knowledge of local wildlife that went beyond just the whales. It makes sense that someone who makes their livelihood from the land and water around them would be familiar with all aspects of their local landscape, but perhaps I've been jaded by the reality of many American fisherman who wouldn't necessarily know the difference between a marbled murrelet and a surf scoter. I was continually impressed by the depth of knowledge of the natural world the local fishermen had, and they turned out to be a much better resource for information about the local bird life than the American naturalists, who tended to specialize on the whales. I turned to our boat driver to confirm my IDs of the clapper rail and little blue herons, and he also pointed out to me the song of the savannah sparrow (128), which sounded much different here than the race of savannah sparrow back home on the island. 

As we were cruising along, Chope suddenly stopped the boat and pointed into the bushes where a quiet chipping sound could be heard. He indicated it was a mangrove warbler - not even singing, just making it's call note! It sounded way back in there, was there going to be any hope of seeing it? He proceeded to "pish" at the bird, in apparently just the right way, because the little guy made his way forward and hopped out onto a branch for perfect viewing! I couldn't believe it! We only got the quickest of views, but it was more than enough - I was thrilled.

Later, I learned that the mangrove warbler (129) is actually considered a sub-species of the yellow warbler rather than a species in its own right. So, it wasn't my fifth life bird of the day, but another year bird, though it will remain probably my favorite bird sighting of the trip just based on how it came about. I had binoculars up rather than a camera to confirm the ID of the bright yellow body with an all-chestnut head, but a friend of mine snapped a photo which I'll hopefully be able to share in the future.

As with every day at Laguna San Ignacio, by lunch time we had seen enough wildlife to fulfull a whole trip, but the day was only half over. While lounging on the shoreline before our afternoon whale watch, we had a close pass of a mom and calf right off the point. Often the whales were a little further out than this, but this shows why Punta Piedra is the "Lime Kiln of Baja"!

Here's a close up of mom and baby - a very young one! It was so tiny, in whale terms anyway - probably still 12-15 feet long! Those dimples on the head are hair follicles. Whales are mammals, and they still have remnants of the hair that once covered them when they were terrestrial creatures! Each dimple has a single hair coming out of it - I made a point to touch a gray whale hair at one point when given the chance!

It was, by the way, somewhat of a San Juan Island reunion down there at San Ignacio Lagoon. Us whale folks tend to stick together - here's a photo of all of us who were on San Juan Island last summer and reunited here at Punta Piedra:

The afternoon whale watch was a fitting grand finale to our panga trips. It was a pretty laid back boat ride with more beautiful viewing, though we had several people on board who had yet to have an encounter with a friendly gray whale. It was nearing the end of our trip, and we were among a group of whales with one other panga from our camp. We were trying the Jolly Rancher bag shake one last time, and our guide joked that we should all lean over one side of the boat to make the other panga think we had a friendly whale. "No way," one of the passengers said. "That would be really bad whale karma!" No sooner had she gotten the sentence out then out of nowhere a friendly whale popped up RIGHT next to our boat. Not only that, a second whale surfaced right by our other panga at the exact same time!

Three ladies who got to touch their first gray whale right at the end of our last boat trip!
I was so fortunate to have had another friendly encounter the day before, so I mostly deferred the touching to the rest of our boat group who hadn't had the experience yet, though I did lean over once and get another very wet arm to get one more feel of one of these blubbery leviathans. I was of course snapping away the whole time with the camera! Here's another close up of whale lice surrounding barnacles. I have to say, at the time you hardly notice them, but as I've looked at them in my photos, I've been a little bit grossed out by them! Click to see an even larger view - I'm kind of glad I wasn't the one person who got a whale lice stuck to their finger.

This seems an appropriate final shot for this blog, showing a friendly whale off the other panga from our camp. It gives you a little bit of a size comparison!

I read somewhere that being in a panga next to a gray whale is a bit like being in a Volkswagen Beetle next to a semi-truck. Maybe that's why I was so comfortable out there, being a Beetle driver myself! Really, despite being so out-sized, fear is never an emotion that overcomes you out there next to these gentle giants!

Next up, it was time to head back to the States, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a lot more beauty to take in on our way back! The final day in Baja and the trip back north will be the next post, followed by a recap of a few more days (and lots more birding) near San Diego.