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Monday, January 19, 2015

Birding Griffin Bay

The only bird I added to the year list last week was a pileated woodpecker (83). When I found out our boat was done getting some work done on it, I decided Saturday would be a great day to go for a spin before taking it out of the water again. Since it was in the water on the other side of the island, it was a chance to explore new territory in Griffin Bay, where I got to be on the water side of some of my favorite birding spots like Fourth of July and Jackson Beaches! Even though I've done pretty well on all the expected local sea birds between January 1st and my last ferry trip off island, I was hopeful to add another species or two. During the hour and a half we puttered around the bay, we turned up over 20 species, which I thought was pretty good! They included....

Bald eagle
Ancient murrelets - we saw about 30 of them!

Brandt's cormorants

Common loon

Long-tailed ducks

Other non-photographed highlights included marbled murrelets, common murres, rhinocerous auklets, surf and white-winged (84) scoters, and Pacific loons. 

If only we had been a couple days later - today there were both resident and transient orcas right where we started birding! Soon enough.... :)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Birding on the Mainland

Yesterday we took a day trip to the mainland and got to spend some time visiting some birding sites I've been wanting to visit for a few weeks. I had been slow in adding any species to my year list on the island this week, with the lowly rock pigeon (67) being my only addition. I knew some off-island bird-watching would help me reach my goal of reaching 100 species before the end of the month, and I started off on the ferry ride adding rhinoceros auklet (68) and common murre (69). Then driving along Highway 20 I added a rough-legged hawk (70).

Our first birding destination was along the Nooksack River near Deming, Washington. Several friends have taken phenomenal photos at the Mosquito Lake Road Bridge, so that's where I wanted to go. I heard eagles right when I stepped out of the car, but my first focus was on all the other bird around: black-capped chickadees (71), a pair of American dippers (72), Steller's jays (73), and American crows (74). Okay, now on to the eagles!

There were about a dozen perched in the tree right alongside the bridge, with more eagles visible basically anywhere you scanned. They congregate along these rivers in large numbers from December-February to feed on the dead and dying salmon that have just spawned. The eagles are most active feeding in the morning, then spend the rest of the day roosting in nearby trees. With the ferries, it was hard for me to get there too early, so they were mostly all roosting. But there were a lot of them - I counted more than 70 - and even if some of them were this far away, it was still an impressive sight:


Every so often an eagle would decide to change positions, at times giving us a nice flyby on the bridge, and then causing some commotion as the ranks got reshuffled at the new perching site.



I was very thankful that one eagle did come down and land on the river bank close to where we were watching:


He/she proceeded to walk along the shoreline (I don't think I've ever seen an eagle walk before - it's more of a swagger!), then wade out into the shallows, presumably looking for a fish carcass.


We spent about an hour watching the eagles until heading to our next stop down in Stanwood, WA. Of course I was birding from the car along the way and added Eurasian collared-dove (75), American kestrel (76), and Brewer's blackbird (77). Also many more eagles, easily putting our tally for the day at over 100 birds!

There have been lots of fantastic reports coming from Eide Road in the last few weeks, and despite the weather being misty and foggy I was hopeful when we parked and I could see several people with cameras set up on tripods nearby. Sure enough, my most hoped-for bird of the day was not only there but perched right out in the open - a long-eared owl! Not only year bird #78, but North American life bird #362!


Long-eared owls are widespread across most of the country but are considered rare west of the Cascades. Even where they are found, they're in small numbers and sightings are sporadic. They're nocturnal hunters that roost during the day in dense thickets, often buried so far in the bush they're highly camouflaged. There was actually a second owl just a few yards away, and if someone hadn't pointed it out to us, I'm pretty sure I would have missed it, even if I had been looking hard for it - even after he pointed right to it, it took me a minute to see it!

Find the owl! No wonder they're so uncommonly seen...I wonder how many I've walked right by in my time?
I'm amazed at how approachable some birds are. The first long-eared owl was perched right beside the trail, no more than 10 yards away from where the people were, yet he could barely be bothered to open his eyes to glance at us as we ogled him (I'm assuming this was the male - someone else there said it was a pair and the one in the bush was the slightly larger female).


While enjoying the owl I heard an Anna's hummingbird (79), then when we walked further down the road we saw two short-eared owls (80) - another bird I love to see, but these guys weren't nearly as cooperative for photographs. By this time we had to go run some errands, but I made a detour through Fir Island where a flock of snow geese (81) flew overhead, just as I hoped they would. The birding day ended when we stopped to eat a late lunch at Bay View State Park on our way back to the ferry, where greater scaup (82) were in view along with some loons, common goldeneye, and great blue herons. There were rafts of thousands of other ducks on the in the bay, but they were too far away in the dimming light to identify.

I thought adding 15 species was pretty good on the day, but it's only helped me keep pace with Dave (84) and Dad (79). It's been a pretty dreary start to 2015 here in the San Juans, but with some sunshine forecast in the coming week maybe I'll get out to do a little more birding on the home front.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Kickin' Off the 2015 Year List

January 1st brought the beginning to another year list, and the New Year's Day tradition for birding for most of the daylight hours. Stepping out into the yard before breakfast, my first bird of the year was a common raven (1) followed shortly (and somewhat surprisingly) by a Pacific wren (2) and golden-crowned kinglet (3). The usual feeder species helped round out the list at 8 species before heading out to meet the rest of our family birding group.

Our first stop was Sportman's Lake, which turned up almost all of the expected waterfowl in a single stop! Some additional bonuses included a pair of bald eagles (19), a belted kingfisher (21), and a pied-billed grebe (24).

Next was a walk at Three Meadows Marsh - the moment documented by the one non-birder in our group, my mom :)


As you can see, it was frosty out, but we would definitely take the sunshine! The first year bird at the marsh was a surprising Lincoln's sparrow (25), one of the best species of the day. My pishing also turned up the hoped-for marsh wren (29), but we didn't have any success in getting a Virginia rail talk back, though Keith amazingly saw one!! But it's still a "miss" on my year list.


Next up, Jackson Beach turned out to be a fantastic stop for our first shorebirds and sea birds of the day including greater yellowlegs (33), common goldeneye (36), and another great find - a pair of long-tailed ducks (39). Along with a couple of the common grebes and loons, and a northern harrier (44) flyby, I was well on my way to my goal of 60 species on the day.

Cattle Point was next, where we spent almost an hour and a half. The first species when we got out of the car was another great one - peregrine falcon (45). We filled in the other expected seabirds by scanning with my dad's scope, including the hoped for but by no means expected marbled murrelet (50) and ancient murrelet (52), with decent flocks of both species!


I also had to pull my camera out for the first time of the year to photograph this pair of bald eagles, two of six we saw from Cattle Point!


Leaving Cattle Point I had 58 species on my list, and we went over to the Redoubt Road at American Camp. I was hoping for meadowlarks or a shrike, but there was hardly a bird in sight. There was yet another pair of bald eagles in the distance, and a small flock of golden-crowned sparrows (59), and that was it. 

On our way to False Bay I thought some birds we flushed off the side of the road didn't quite look like robins, and I'm glad we stopped, because they were varied thrushes (60)! That helped me reach my goal of 60, which I've managed to reach on January 1st each of the last four years.


These are likely my best-ever photos of a varied thrush, too, as they're usually skittish and/or hiding in the tree branches.


The light wasn't great at False Bay - there's no way we could have picked out a Eurasian wigeon among all the wigeon there, if there was one around. But we did still add northern pintail (61), dunlin (62), and western sandpiper (63). 

Dad scanning False Bay

The day still wasn't done, as a stop at the grocery store turned up the expected house sparrow (64), and then at home there was a downy woodpecker at the feeder just before dark (65). Not a bad total for the day!

Since the first, the weather has been gray, wet, and windy, and despite putting in a few more hours birding the only addition has been a ruby-crowned kinglet (66) in the yard. There's been several other great species reported on the island in the last few days, though, so as soon as it gets nicer you know I'll be out there looking! As of today, that puts Dave ahead of me at 73, but there's a loooong way to go yet!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

End of 2014: J-Pod Visits, Year List Recap

As another calendar year winds to an end, I thought my bird and whale sightings had about wrapped up for the year. While in Portland for Christmas I did have a nice walk at the Crown-Zellerbach trail that turned up about 30 species including the likes of sandhill cranes, cackling geese, western scrub-jays, and ring-billed gulls that aren't common species on the island. On our way back north, a very chilly walk at Nisqually NWR turned up the usual duck species, three bald eagles, a peregrine falcon, and this great blue heron, who we watched eat a salamander:



Turns out that would be the end of the birding for the year, so let's take a look at the year list totals:


2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
Total # Bird Species
233
203
222
192
201
Dave's Total
237
206
275/205*
192
179
Dad's Total

230
204
222
250
# States/
Provinces
6
4
5
4
5
# Life Birds
23
3
6
3
11
# SJ County Species
133?
157
145
149
142
# Species by Month





January
87
114
105
110
86
February
19
13
52
6
57
March
25
12
3
14
8
April
21
25
12
20
13
May
37
17
24
10
9
June
24
2
14
5
6
July
1
4
0
1
1
August
2
4
3
2
0
September
3
5
0
1
5
October
2
1
6
0
11
November
4
4
0
22
5
December
8
2
3
0
0
* World total/ Europe total

I just barely snuck into my target range of 200+ species this year. After an astonishing tie last year, this also feels like the first earned "win" in my annual year list challenge against Dave in England.  Not surprisingly, I got trounced again though by my now retired and free to travel a lot more Dad. :) The high totals on my list in February and for life birds were boosted by the trip to Southern California and Mexico, with another unusual spike in October when I made it east of the Cascades for my birthday trip. I'm actually surprised that with the Baja trip I didn't end up with even 10 more species than on last year's list. In 2015 the target will be the same 200 species mark, and we'll kick it off for the second year in a row on San Juan Island instead of in Oregon.

Surprisingly, the holidays didn't mark the end of my whale-watching for the year. My first full day back on island, December 30, included a visit from J-Pod! My boat is out of the water for the time being, but luckily a friend let me tag along as he headed out to look for the whales. We met up with them off Stuart Island, heading north.

J34 Doublestuf and J22 Oreo
The whales were SUPER spread out, with just ones and twos over at least 5+ miles. We were out there for over an hour, and probably saw 6-8 different whales during that time, when all of the 25+ members of J-Pod were out here somewhere.

Luckily, one of the whales we got to see was J27 Blackberry, who had been satellite tagged two days prior.

J27 Blackberry passes the Turn Point Lighthouse on Stuart Island
You can read more about the tagging project and follow his latest tracks on NOAA's website here. From the tag, we learned that earlier in the day, around 4-5 AM, Blackberry went waaaay up into Eastsound on Orcas Island, very unusual for the residents! But they've been taking lots of unusual travel patterns lately, as they've been spotted near Orcas Island and in Spieden Channel quite a lot this year.


The satellite tagging issue remains a controversial one, but I'm a strong supporter of it in hopes that the data it yields about winter travel patterns of these endangered Southern Residents leads to the increased protections they need. Data from whales tagged in previous years are the driving force behind a current petition to NOAA about expanding the Southern Residents' critical habitat range to include the outer coast from Washington to California. You can read more about why I support tagging on a previous blog post here.

J27 Blackberry with satellite tag visible as a bump on the right side of his dorsal fin - click to see a larger view

While for the most part the whales were in foraging/traveling mode, we did see one huge breach from Blackberry! I only caught the blurry end of it, but love the arcs of water off his pec fins so much I wanted to post it anyway:


It was such a beautiful day to be on the water - very cold, but flat calm waters and bright sunshine. And as we say in the Pacific Northwest, "the mountains were out" :)

Mt. Baker and the Turn Point light station
It's always a pleasure to see J2 Granny, and she spent some time hanging out near us too:

J2 Granny
Just about when it was time to leave, we saw a nice big spyhop:


We didn't know it at the time, but nearby the Center for Whale Research was getting their first looks at a brand new baby: J50 was born to J16 Slick sometime in the last couple days! Check out their website at the link above to see some awesome photos of the new calf. After a very difficult year for the Southern Residents in which their numbers dipped to 77 and no successful births for over two years, I can't help but hope that J50 is a good omen going into 2015. Slick has certainly been a prolific mama as this is her sixth known calf. She's tied for the oldest documented mother at age 42. Her other living offspring are J26 Mike, J36 Alki, and J42 Echo.

Thank you all for continuing to follow my whale and wildlife adventures, and I'm sure there will be plenty more in store for 2015!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Two Weeks, Two Strandings

On December 4th came the sad news that a dead killer whale had washed up near Comox, British Columbia. It took a few hours before we knew the identity of the whale, and sadly we learned it was J32 Rhapsody, an 18 year-old female in J-Pod.

J32 Rhapsody breaches in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in August 2013
Often, when a whale dies, we may not know for weeks or months. For Southern Residents, who are always in such tight family groups, our best evidence of a whale death is typically the rest of its family returning to inland without it. It's unusual for us to know right when a whale dies, and even rarer for the body to be recovered. A large group of whales, presumably J-Pod, had been seen near Comox on December 3rd. When she was first seen floating off the beach on the morning of December 4th, Rhapsody had probably been dead less than 24 hours. 
It's sad when we lose any whale, but particularly when it's a breeding-age female, the age/sex class so critical if this population is going to recover. Earlier this season, rumors were running rampant that Rhapsody might be pregnant, because she looked particularly robust in several breach photos. She's always been a round whale, and there's no reliable visible signs of pregnancy on orcas, so we didn't know if she was really carrying a calf or not, but at 18 years of age, we were all surely hoping she was. The gift in her death will be the knowledge we could gain from her. Was she fertile or infertile? Was she pregnant, or has she ever miscarried? What's in her stomach? What are her toxin loads? What diseases does she carry? Why did she die?  

J32 Rhapsody right off the rocks at Lime Kiln in June 2014

A necropsy occurred two days later with dozens of people, including Ken Balcomb, in attendance. The first news to emerge from the day is that several of Rhapsody's teeth have been illegally sawed off and taken as souvenirs by someone overnight. The next news is that Rhapsody was indeed pregnant, with a full term calf. It's a devastating blow to this population, particularly because we later find out the calf was female. About a week later Ken Balcomb posts an informal summary of the necropsy; the official report is probably at least weeks away, since numerous lab tests are still pending. In short, the fetus preceded Rhapsody in death. She appeared to get an infection from difficulty in expelling the calf, and this ultimately resulted in her death.

As 2014 draws to a close, we have gone 28 months without a successful birth among the Southern Residents. L120 was the first known birth in two years, in September, but he/she only lived for seven weeks. With Rhapsody's death, we now know we've lost not only a breeding female, but another potential calf as well.

It's a tough blow. The Southern Residents are down to just 77 whales, lower than when they were listed as endangered in 2005. But the silver lining is that this seems to have sparked a new, stronger wave of dedication and activism, and as the momentum is building, I can only hope that we see big things happen in 2015, for the sake of the orcas. I will definitely be in the middle of it all, doing everything I can.

There are a lot of photos of Rhapsody lying dead on the beach, so if you want to see those you can easily find them elsewhere. I prefer to remember her as she was in life - a vivacious young whale, full of so much potential:

J32 Rhapsody, August 2014

A week to the day after Rhapsody's necropsy, I'm at home on a Saturday morning when I read on Facebook a report of a small dead killer whale washed up on South Beach, here on San Juan Island. It can't be, I tell myself. But with J-Pod having headed west the day before, the doubts creep in. I know it's probably a Dall's porpoise, but I have to go look. I brace myself on the drive down for what I might see.

I arrive at the same time as another local whale lover, and we're the first ones on scene. We see an eagle sitting on the beach next to a carcass and start heading that way. At first it looks like a sea lion, but as we get closer, I can see the pectoral fin and tail flukes sticking up in the air. My heart jumps to my throat for a split second as we get even closer, until I can see for sure that it is in fact a Dall's porpoise. It's an amazingly fresh animal - dead, but completely in tact. 


It's fascinating to see an animal like this up close. The fear that chased me down here starts to give way to wonder at seeing a cetacean like this up close.





It's an adult female, a little over six feet long and probably weighing about 300 pounds. There's no sign of trauma on her anywhere - no rake marks from transients, no wounds or signs of disease. The only thing I notice is that it looks like she hardly has any teeth!


I learn later that Dall's porpoise have very unusual teeth to begin with. The teeth are very small and are separated by growths called "gum teeth". So maybe this isn't so unusual, though I the expert that does the necropsy confirms that some of her teeth were indeed missing.

A crowd has begun to gather by this time, including some members of the stranding network and other curious whale folks who had the same fears I did when they heard the report. Among them is one of our local whale watch captains, who is celebrating a big birthday and has the extended family in town. This proves to be fortunate, because we have to find a way to get the animal down the beach to a truck so it can be transported to the Friday Harbor Labs where the necropsy will occur. A little ingenuity goes a long way, as we fashioned a sling out of some driftwood and straps out of someone's car and took turns carrying her the quarter-mile or so to the parking area.



As we load her into the back of a truck, I think we all feel a moment of sadness. It was a huge relief that we didn't have another dead killer whale on our hands, but the loss of this porpoise is a sad thing to witness, too.

Her necropsy occurs two days later, and while I don't attend, I get a full report from a couple friends. It turns out this stranded cetacean was pregnant, too, but with a male calf no where near full term. It's determined she was an older animal that died of a bad lung infection. Her stomach and intestines were empty, indicating that she probably wasn't able to eat for some time because of the disease.

We get the opportunity to learn an amazing amount from cetaceans when they strand, but after two such experiences in two weeks, I'm definitely ready for all of the local whales, dolphins, and porpoises to stay in the water, alive and well, where they belong!

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Surprise Visit From Residents

Last year, we were treated to a superpod traveling past Lime Kiln on Thanksgiving Day. This year, it sounded like the Puget Sound area would be treated to the same thing. On the day before Thanksgiving, all 78 members of the Southern Resident Community were documented heading east from Victoria and then south towards the Sound. The whales did indeed spend Thanksgiving and the day after traveling around Puget Sound in several groups, but by Saturday we had reports of orcas around the San Juan Islands, too! At first, it sounded like transients. When I heard from a friend they were heading towards Reuben Tarte County Park, I headed out to take a look.

With strong northeast winds, San Juan Channel was solid white caps. I wasn't sure if the whales were still coming or had already past, but I stood out there in sub-freezing temps and high winds scanning for about 15 minutes. Just about the time I couldn't feel my hands anymore, I spotted something that looked more like a whale splash than a white cap. Keeping my eyes trained on the spot, I spotted what I thought was a blow. I was just on my way home from getting groceries, and of course it was one of the rare times I didn't have my camera or binoculars with me, but a few minutes later I was sure. It was definitely orcas!

Once they started making their way north, they passed me by in a hurry. It looked like a group of about half a dozen animals traveling tightly together with an adult male trailing behind them. It was tough to see any saddle patches in the choppy water, but something about them felt more like residents than transients, though with orcas having been spotted in Deer Harbor and Westsound earlier, transients seemed a lot more likely. I didn't see any more coming, however, and was so cold, that I had to give it up after I lost them in the rough seas as they continued north. I heard a little bit later, however, that a second group of about as many animals followed behind them - now I was pretty convinced they were residents! A bit later I got confirmation from another friend who had picked them up - J-Pod and K-Pod!

The unofficial San Juan winter whale watchers were in full alert mode, with everyone giving each other updates as best we could to make sure everyone got a chance to see the whales. When I heard they went west through Spieden Channel, my thoughts immediately went to taking the boat out. I was afraid it was too windy after the water conditions I saw at Reuben Tarte, but I went to look on the west side and was pleasantly surprised by how calm it was - the wind was coming from the opposite side of San Juan Island.

The timing ended up working out perfectly for a visiting friend of mine and I to jump out and pick up K-Pod just off Henry Island before sunset.

Found 'em! Orcas hugging the shoreline of Henry Island
By this point, J-Pod had disappeared somewhere, perhaps having gone north. We had all of K-Pod traveling together in two large groups.

K21 Cappuccino on the left

The boat is so low to the water that I've actually had a bit of a hard time getting my photos in focus! The lighting was so pretty, though, that I just snapped away and hoped for the best, and did get a few to turn out!

My favorite shot of the short encounter!

K26 Lobo
All too soon, the sun went down. The light changed quickly and, already cold, it suddenly got a lot colder!

K26 Lobo and K44 Ripple

We let them pass us by and then headed back to port. It was short, but especially this time of year, so sweet!


Sunday, November 30, 2014

The New Adventure: A Boat!

The idea of buying a boat has been in the back of my mind for a while, because after all, I do live on an island! All of a sudden, the right circumstances aligned, and we purchased a 17' Alumaweld Talon with some friends:


You wouldn't think November would be the best time of year to buy a boat - I sure didn't - and it probably isn't the best, but I've been surprised by how many nice days there have been to get out on the water. Don't get me wrong, it's been cold out there! But the water has been pleasant.


I've been telling people the San Juan Island suddenly got a whole lot bigger, because I'll now have a way to explore some of the smaller outer islands. But of course, one of the main goals is to have another platform for wildlife viewing! The birding this time of year is fantastic, as we get a lot of over-wintering sea birds in the Salish Sea.

Pelagic cormorants with a loon fly-by in the background

In fact, it didn't take too long to get my first year bird from the boat - an ancient murrelet (201)!

Ancient murrelet

Surf scoter

A pair of marbled murrelets

I've also gotten to take several trips up towards Spieden Island and it's exotic wildlife, feral populations that have survived from an exotic game ranch that was briefly there several decades ago. There have been literally hundreds of deer and sheep on the southern slopes of Spieden when we've gone by!

A herd of Mouflon sheep and a flock of starlings
Some resting fallow deer, including a couple males with impressive racks
A young male Mouflon sheep
There have been Steller sea lions in the water up by Spieden, too, and on one afternoon there were about 15 of them hauled out at Green Point:


Depending on which way the wind is blowing, we get calmer waters by going either north or south. On one day, we got to head down past Lime Kiln Lighthouse - it's always fun to see my favorite shore-based whale-watching spot from the water!


This time of year, I reasonably thought I might have to wait a few months until I got a chance to see whales from the new boat. Amazingly, it only took about 10 days from when we acquired the boat! With word of a superpod milling in northern Haro Strait on a beautiful sunny morning, I just had to play hooky from work for a few hours and spend a short time with the whales.

It was pretty darn exciting to pull out of the harbor and spot blows on the horizon. Who would be the first whale I'd see from our own boat? Turns out it was L72 Racer:

L72 Racer
Nearby was her son L105 Fluke, adult male K21 Cappuccino, and another young male L84 Nyssa. They were doing long dives and actively foraging, so they were zig-zagging all over the place. Nyssa is part of the group of L-Pod whales that don't make many visits to inland waters, so these are probably the best photos I've ever gotten of him!

L84 Nyssa

L84 Nyssa with Lime Kiln the background

Right before it was time to head back, we stopped the boat to watch the whales slowly mill their way south as they headed away from us. Out of no where, we were surprised by J2 Granny who suddenly popped up right next to us! This, more than anything else, made it feel like our boat had been properly christened!

J2 Granny says hello to Serenity