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Monday, November 2, 2020

Day of the Dead ~ 11th Annual Tribute

Today is Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a time every year I take a moment to remember the Southern Resident killer whales we've lost over the previous 12 months. You can find all my previous Day of the Dead tributes here. I believe it's so important to remember their stories, as they all, both in life and in death, fuel our fight for a brighter future for this unique population of whales.

 L41 Mega

Every loss is sad, but some hit me harder than others, and L41 was one of those harder ones. I think it's in large part because he was such an iconic whale for me from the very beginning. When I first started watching the Southern Residents, there were only three adult males in the entire population (kind of hard to believe, because now we're seeing such a male-bias among viable calves that we're hoping for females all the time). One of those "original" adult males was Mega, so he was one of the very first whales I was ever able to identify. In addition to his tall dorsal fin, he was easily identified by the large notch in the middle of his fin.

Mega and "the girls" in 2005 - his sisters L77 Matia and L94 Calypso and elder female L25 Ocean Sun

Mega was part of a small sub-group of L-Pod known as the L12s. While occasionally given the tongue-in-cheek characterization of being "boring" whales (because they often are spread out and doing long dives, thus being less exciting to watch) , they've always been one of my favorite groups to see, perhaps because I have so many special memories of them.

The L12s, with Mega right in the middle

When I first got to know him, Mega had just lost his mom, L11 Squirty, but his sisters had yet to have any offspring of their own, so it was always the trio of siblings I looked out for. Adult males that lose their mothers have a dramatically increased likelihood of dying themselves, and those that survive seem to do so in large part because they find an adoptive mother figure to "take them in", so to speak. Such was the case with Mega. While he was often seen with his sisters, he was also often seen with his adoptive mothers L25 Ocean Sun, the matriarch of the L12 sub-group with no living descendants of her own (save for perhaps Lolita/Tokitae, the last Southern Resident surviving in captivity, who is theorized to be L25's daughter due to their proximity in capture photos).

L41 with L25

In another "it's hard to believe now", back in my early years the L12s were the whales I encountered most often after J-Pod, being known at the time for the "westside shuffle" and often spending hours hanging out in front of Lime Kiln. But those afternoons of seeing the L12s go north and south and north and south from Lime Kiln will be how I always remember Mega; while not every pass was like this, it seemed like more often than not he was right in the kelp.

The way I'll best remember Mega: wowing onlookers right off the rocks at Lime Kiln

My all-time favorite photo of him came during one of the first-ever trips I worked as a naturalist, when he broke off from the rest of his family group and swam right under the boat. I was standing on the roof of the vessel and perfectly positioned to watch him emerge, capturing this unique angle of the very beginning of his exhale.



Mega and J1 Ruffles were always the most iconic males to me, and it turns out that was a fitting association. Through genetic tests, it was determined that as of 2017, more than 50% of the living Southern Resident population was either directly or indirectly descended from those two males. While the adult male bottleneck that occurred in the early 2000s surely had something to do with it, it's also perhaps an indicator that either the older and/or larger males are the most desirable mates. Mega is the largest Southern Resident male among those measured by the photogrammetry research team, coming in at 7.3m / 24 ft.

2015 aerial photogrammetry photo of L41 by NOAA Fisheries/ SR3

Per Ford et al.'s 2018 paper on paternity in the Southern Residents, Mega is the probable father of the following whales:
  • J34, J35, J36, J37, J40, J44, J45, J53
  • K33, K34, K35, K36, K42
  • L95, L100, L101, L106, L112, L116

In that sense, perhaps for more so than any whale save J1, Mega's legacy will truly live on for many generations. 

For some reason, the L12 sub-group became more scarce in recent years, so much so that in 2019, it was the first year that I personally didn't see them at all. That means my last photo of Mega goes all the way back to September 2018, where he was traveling with his niece L119 Joy. Mega lived a good, long life - he was over 40 years old when he passed away. We can only hope all his descendants are blessed with the same fertility and longevity.

The last photo I took of Mega, in September 2018. He's traveling with his niece L119 Joy.

New Additions

To help counteract the nostalgia that comes from writing these posts, I always like to end with a note of welcome to the whales that have been born into the population over the previous year. In some years, there were no births to celebrate. In many years, the deaths outnumbered the births, sometimes by a lot. This year, there's joy in the fact that with the birth of two little whales in September, the population has actually grown by one.

J57 feels in some ways like a royal baby, born to J35 Tahlequah two years after the tragic loss of her previous calf that gained global attention as she carried the body for 17 days. Tahlequah certainly has celebrity status in the media, so J57's birth was big news.

The little dorsal fin of J57 next to mom J35 Tahlequah in September

I've only gotten one brief glimpse of J57 so far, but I have no doubt I'll see plenty more of him alongside the other calf, J58, who was born just a couple weeks later to a whale very close to my heart, J41 Eclipse.

Baby J58 between mom J41 Eclipse and big brother J51 Nova

2020 has undoubtedly been a rough year, for so many different reasons. But I'm trying my best to hold on to the glimmers of hope for 2021, including these two new little whales, and the word that there are other prengancies among the Southern Residents, so hopefully there are more calves on the way in the near future.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

A Getaway to Okanogan County

With 2020 in no way shaping up as planned, with two cancelled vacations we found ourselves ready for a little getaway after more than 6 months without leaving San Juan Island. Only interested in visiting unpopulated areas, wanting to see some new birds, but also to stay in the state of Washington, we decided to head due east from home, east of the Cascades into Okanogan County. While we had explored the Winthrop/Twisp area before, this time we decided to go further east, renting a home-base cabin 30 minutes east of Tonasket out in the woods. 
It didn't take long to start seeing new bird species to add to our photo year list; the most exciting one on the way to our cabin was a flock of mountain bluebirds.
While the goal of the trip was birding, the all-around change of scenery is much appreciated, including the vegetation. It's amazing how different the plant life can be just a few hours drive from home. I could spend all day looking at the trees and shrubs and trying to identify them - in fact we did spend an hour on one quarter-mile trail just looking at the plants! We've timed it well for the fall colors, too, which as been an added bonus.

Our plan has been a series of loop drives from our home base cabin, exploring all kinds of back roads in search of wildlife. The weather has been better than expected - in fact, hotter than expected, and we did not pack accordingly! But no complaints about the all-day sunshine and the amazing photographic opportunities that has helped provide.

Black-billed magpie in perfect light

One of the biggest surprises of the trip was finding a black bear! While we had visited suitable bear habitat, where we saw it was not at all where I would picture a bear - in the middle of farm country. I'm glad I got a photo before it disappeared over the hill, or I might not have believed I really saw it!

The mammal diversity has been better than expected as well. The black bear was the largest, and my second favorite is probably the smallest, the yellow-pine chipmunk.

 Another unexpected find was the ghost town of Molson near the Canadian border. Not only was the town, complete with original pioneer buildings you are free to explore, amazing in its own right, but it also neighbors a series of lakes where we found species I never would have anticipated on this trip, including blue-winged teal and Barrow's goldeneye.

The ghost town of Molson, WA

Molson Lakes, hosting an incredible diversity of waterfowl species

The trip turned up two hoped-for life birds, in addition to more than 15 species for the photo year list.

Life bird #1: White-headed woodpecker, a serendipitous find of a species I've longingly look at in the field guide for many years!

Life bird #2: The well-camouflaged gray partridge

The so-called game birds were among the target species for the trip. I figured California quail would be the most common, but I wasn't prepared for just how many flocks we would see! 

The ubiquitous California quail, ranging in flock size from half a dozen to more than 30

My goal was to see at least one other species which we did with the gray partridge, but we lucked out again by finding a group of chukar, too, a bird I've only seen twice and a lifer for Jason.

A brief look at a chukar

I've always been fascinated by the fact that birding seems to come in "spurts". You can go through extremely quiet stretches and then seemingly hit the jackpot, finding unrelated species all in the same place. Such it was on the chukar day, after seeing nothing much more than magpies and robins for 2/3 of the day, a flurry of excitement in one unplanned roadside stop turned up not only the chukar, but a flock of over 100 sandhill cranes migrating overhead, and our first golden eagle of the trip.

Sandhill cranes riding the thermals well overhead

Golden eagle! Another hoped-for species of the trip

I keep saying this trip was primarily about bird-watching, but really, it was about immersing in nature, enjoying all creatures great and small, and getting a much needed break from at all, at least as much as is possible in 2020.

Orange sulphur butterfly

Douglas squirrel

It was rejuvenating to get away for a bit, and also a great reminder that you don't have to go far to go exploring. I will definitely be reliving these warm, sunny days and all the cool critters we saw through whatever it is fall and winter has in store for us in the coming months.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

End of August Check-In

As this unconventional year has gone on, the motivation to blog has been low, even though spending time in nature and the outdoors has been my greatest solace. This has been my longest hiatus ever from blogging, but I've still been doing a lot of photography and do miss having an outlet to share my photos! So here's an attempt at getting back to it again.

While July was an incredible month (read: like "normal" aka the old days) when we had visits from all three Southern Resident pods including a two-week stay by J-Pod. August, by contrast, has been very quiet on the whale front for us, with just a single brief shore-based encounter a few days ago. But we've still gotten out on the water a few times and have also been doing a lot of bird-watching, especially looking for shore birds, on land.

On August 16, with my parents visiting, we headed out on the water with Maya's Legacy on a trip that will be one of the highlights of the summer. It was a hot afternoon (so extra nice to be on the water with the cooling breeze) and the sky-blue waters were like glass. We saw two humpback whales: Two Spot (CS631) in San Juan Channel and Valiant (BCX1068 calf 2017) at Salmon Bank.

Two Spot in San Juan Channel

Valiant, missing a couple chunks out of his very scraped-up flukes, survived an encounter with killer whales when less than a year old. This whale is also known to be the calf of BCX1068 Split Fluke, who is in turn the offspring of BCY0160 Heather, whales known to migrate to Mexico. It's pretty awesome that we are getting to know the life histories of Salish Sea humpbacks to this extent!

The distinctive flukes of Valiant with the Salmon Bank marker in the background

Next we were lucky enough to get to head out to Smith and Minor Islands, which I've only been able to visit a handful of times. They're offshore due south of Lopez Island and offer amazing wildlife viewing both on their shorelines and in the extensive kelp bed that surround them. One of the main highlights there are the tufted puffins, which nest in burrows on Smith Island. There have been higher numbers of them there this year; in the past, there may only be one or two pairs seen, but on our visit, we saw more than a dozen tufted puffins, though we weren't able to spot the lone horned puffin that has also been hanging out there.

I'm not sure I've ever even circumnavigated Minor Island, where a long sand spit offers a haul out for harbor seals:

Back on land, as I mentioned, we've been scouting out shorebirds in particular. As fun as that has been, it's hard to believe the reason we're seeing them is because fall migration has already begun! Time, this year more so than any other, has been so bizarre in how at times it has been passing so slowly and in others so quickly. In any case, we've been having a lot of luck turning up a nice variety of migrating species!

Least sandpiper at Third Lagoon

Least sandpiper at False Bay

Sanderling at South Beach

Semipalmated plover at Jackson Beach

Western sandpiper at South Beach

While there have still been a lot of orcas in the Salish Sea in August, we're looking at the likelihood of the first August on record without the Southern Residents here, as it has been all Bigg's killer whales. While I've been tracking their movements (and many interesting social groupings and family splits) from afar, my only encounter with them was on August 26 when we saw the T46s and two of the T137s pass Reuben Tarte County Park. It was short, but sweet, and the way this year has gone, I was thankful just to see some dorsal fins.

T46E Thor and T137B Tempest off Reuben Tarte

At the very least, the weather has continued to be amazing, so we've been going out for walks a lot in the mornings and/or evenings when it's a little less hot, and yesterday were successful in locating several species we had been trying to find all week:

Lesser yellowlegs at Jackson Beach - the 200th bird species I've ever seen in San Juan County!

Short-billed dowitcher at Jackson Beach

Long-billed dowitcher at Jackson Beach

This morning, we decided to take our boat out as well to bird San Juan Channel, and again the conditions were perfect.

A pair of marbled murrelets in Griffin Bay

Right at the end we found our target species, too: a dozen red-necked phalaropes.

Red-necked phalarope

While this year has ended up looking very different than originally anticipated, I've been continuing on with our photo year list challenge, which this year expanded from birds to focus on any vertebrate. The red-necked phalarope was species #175 for the year, not too shabby considering we've been exclusively San Juan Island based since March! We'll see if I can still sneak up to my target of 200 by the end of the year, and I'll also see if I can back to at least a semi-regular habit of blogging!

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!