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Monday, May 7, 2018

The Best of Spring in the San Juans Part 2: Yellow Island Wildflowers

Six years ago Phil, the caretaker of Yellow Island, invited three of us local bloggers out to visit during prime wildflower season to see how we would each portray the island and its wildflowers in our unique style. (You can see my post from that visit here.) Phil is nearing the end of his tenure as caretaker of The Nature Conservancy Preserve, a post he has held for 19 years. In honor of his retirement, we made another visit out together.

The three bloggers with Phil in 2012
The bloggers return with friends in 2018
I've never had a visit to Yellow Island that isn't spectacular, but first I want to say a few words in tribute to Phil, who is one of the most inspirational regional naturalists I know. He's not just passionate about one species or genre, but truly appreciates all aspects of nature, and enjoys they all through photography, citizen science, audio recording, and simply observing or being. Living on Yellow, he of course has a passion for plants, and you can read here his reflections on his years of seed collecting on Yellow Island. He has done countless citizen science surveys of both birds (on eBird) of marine fishes (while diving, for REEF). For years we've had a friendly county year list competition to see who can document more birds in the county, and despite spending a lot of time on his small island instead of my more diverse habitat here on San Juan we are usually pretty darn close! He serves on the local Marine Resources Committee. He's become proficient at making nature recordings, and has contributed so many bird song recordings that the Macauly Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology did this profile of him. He basically captured my happy place in sound form with this early morning recording of singing birds and the blows of a group of passing killer whales. Basically, he's a pretty incredible guy, a treasure to our community, and it's an honor to call him a friend! (Are you blushing yet, Phil? ;) )

Now that you have a glimpse as to why we wanted to visit him in his element for one last wildflower season, let's get to the flowers! The day we scheduled to go out dawned gray and rainy and I feared it would stay that way, but as if on cue as soon as we met at the dock for the short ride over to Yellow the sun broke through the clouds! The conditions were perfect for photography with bright light to capture the raindrops on the flowers.

Camas (Camassia sp.)

Camas (Camassia sp.)

Blue-Eyed Mary (Collinsia sp.)
I had to try black and white to capture this row of raindrops on a blade of grass - I like how it turned out:

Part of the spectacle of Yellow is the shear abundance of flowers, particularly on my favorite side of the island known as Hummingbird Hill. It's hard to try and capture in a photograph, but I try on every visit. Given how many photos I have, I can only imagine how many Phil has after all these years! That's the beauty and joy of photography though - you can always go back for more and try to see and capture something different, no matter how many years you are shooting the same subject or location.

Yellow has not only the abundance but the variety of wildflowers, giving a unique opportunity to see so many species in one place. While one photographic goal is to capture the multi-colored landscape of various species at once, another is to get nice portraits of individual species, both those that are abundant and those that are easy to pass by.

Large-flowered Blue-Eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora) - probably my personal favorite shot of the day

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida)

Broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium)

Prairie star (Lithophragma parviflorum)
Meadow death-camas (Zigadenus venenosus)

Naked broomrape (Orobanche uniflora)
This last one is a tiny little flower, a species I learned about from Phil on that visit six years ago and that was flowering again in the exact same patch of stonecrop. It has no leaves of its own, so instead of conducting photosynthesis to get nutrients, it parasitizes other plants, with stonecrop being a favorite host. Despite being wide-ranging in both Washington and across North America, it is very easy to overlook!

It's truly hard to capture in words what this gem of an island is like. It's one of my favorite spots in the Salish Sea, particularly in the spring. I hope you'll  learn more about visiting Yellow Island for yourself here. I promise it's worth the trek!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Best of Spring in the San Juans Part 1: Fox Kits

There are so many things to love about this time of year in the Salish Sea: the longer days and warmer temperatures, the return of migrant birds, the generally calmer waters, and the increase in whale sightings are just a few for me. But there's a couple other classic elements of a spring in the San Juan Islands, and one of them is the emergence of fox kits from their dens. Viewing foxes here has become increasingly popular, especially in the spring, so much so that the San Juan Island Visitor's Bureau had me write a blog for them about the topic. So if you want to know the details, you can read more about fox-watching on San Juan Island at the link above.

Sometimes we like to think we live in a wilderness here in the Salish Sea, but it's truly a very urban ecosystem that we are lucky enough to share with all kinds of wildlife. For better or for worse many of our regional animals are adapted to living near humans, but we should still do what we can to minimize our impacts on them and their behavior. As such, I made several visits to the regular fox dens at the south end of the island until I found a time where there were both not many people around. It was an overcast day, but two nearby dens were both active - I've heard from others that one family has six kits and another two, but they were all mixing and playing together.

While they're all of the species "red fox" they come in all different colors from orange to brown to gray to black. One of my personal favorites was this silver one with a single white sock (chasing its brother/sister):

But it's also hard to resist this face:

Much of the activity happens when mom or dad shows up with food. The kits seem to know the boundaries of where they're allowed to wander, but they go racing out to meet their parents as they come in for a visit.

Whatdja bring me, mom?!
More and more kits quickly gathered around - looking first at her mouth to see if she brought in any prey....

But then settling for a nursing session...all six of them at once! What a patient mama.

She tolerates their frolicking for a little bit before moving on, and they follow her to the edge of their invisible perimeter. (Side note: several other adults were visible sleeping in the prairie - my imagination says that they move away from the ends to get some actual rest without kits pouncing on them begging to play.)

Amazingly she makes a loop back right past us, totally unconcerned about our presence.

As she heads back out on the hunt most of the kits return below ground, but this one stopped for a moment to look out at the great big world beyond the den:

I just love having these guys as neighbors, and they are one of the highlights of spring here for sure!

Friday, March 23, 2018

March 18th: J-Pod in Boundary Pass

On the morning of March 18th word came in of lots of whales southbound in the Strait of Georgia. J-Pod had been up north for over a week; could this be them finally coming back down? Luckily for me there was still space available for Maya's Legacy trip out that afternoon to go and see! We headed north in nice calm waters to Boundary Pass, and it didn't take us long to spot our first fin: J27 Blackberry.

J27 Blackberry in front of Saturna Island

After spending a few minutes with him and the J41s who were in shore, we fell back to the next group made up of the J17s, J38, J45, and L87. They were all spread out and slowly moving down Boundary Pass. As a freighter came around the corner, they could have easily moved to get further away from it. Instead, J38 Cookie swam directly at it. For a moment, we thought maybe he would surf the freighter wake. He didn't, though we heard that later in the day L87 did on a different ship! It really makes you wonder: surely a vessel that loud would have some impact on their ability to hear and be heard, yet often they do nothing to avoid those or any other ships, or even seek them out. We are spending so much effort trying to make the seas quieter for these whales, and in the meantime some of them are choosing to swim right alongside the loudest ships in our waters!

J38 Cookie and freighter

Behind this group and inshore came some of the J16s. J26 Mike and J36 Alki were on our offshore side.

J36 Alki
We had moved from group to group in part to search from the J16s. Inshore of us were J16 Slick with her other two daughters: J42 Echo and J50 Scarlet. They went down for a dive, and then something amazing happened.

The trio of whales had been hugging the shoreline, but after a long dive, they surfaced maybe 75 yards away aiming right at us. We had a woman on board who is facing her second battle with cancer and whose favorite whale is J50 Scarlet. Slick and Scarlet came right alongside the boat. Surely it was a coincidence - but then again, I've seen things exactly like this happen so many times that you begin to wonder.

J16 Slick approaching
J50 Scarlet surfacing behind J16 Slick
J16 Slick and her youngest, J50 Scarlet
J16 Slick from behind
While we stayed parked with our engines off, the whole family group converged and surfaced on the other side of the boat.

Despite being overcast the lighting was exquisite, and I snapped some of my favorite pictures ever of J26 Mike.

Just beginning to surface
J26 Mike
J26 Mike
After this incredible pass, our time was up, and we slowly made our way back across Boundary Pass watching out for more of the overall very spread out whales. We ended up seeing whales from every matriline to confirm that all of J-Pod was present. On our way home, we got to head by Spieden Island, and while there's always something to see, this swing by had it all!

Hauled out harbor seals

The least common of the three exotic mammal species on Spieden: the Japanese sika deer
Family of river otters

While Mouflon sheep can be seen on the island year-round, we saw two things you don't get to see every day. One was the cute baby lambs that grace the island in the spring:

Tiny mouflon sheep lambs!
And the other was a pair down on the rocks. They do this sometimes to lick the salt, but these two seemed to be also eating the seaweed!

Of course, no trip to Spieden Island in the spring is complete without a visit with the Green Point Steller sea lions. The sun even peeked out to make for perfect lighting.

Throughout the afternoon J-Pod continued their way around Turn Point and down Haro Strait, and in the evening they were audible on the Lime Kiln and Orcasound hydrophones with some great vocalizations. Here's a clip of what we heard

All in all, you couldn't ask for more on a Sunday afternoon, let alone one in March! It was such an unexpected treat all the way around.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Part 2: An Epic Encounter With the T2Cs

Now that you've met the T2Cs in my previous post, the stage is set for the amazing encounter we had with them from shore at Reuben Tarte County Park!

Perhaps in part because they travel slow on account of Tumbo, when the T2Cs show up they seem to hang around for many days at a time. I actually got to see them three times over the course of five days. First, on March 7th, as they passed Reuben Tarte:

Second, on March 9th as they headed north past San Juan County Park:

But the real encounter for the ages was on the morning of Sunday, March 11th when word came in from a friend of a small group of orcas heading north from near Friday Harbor. When we got out to Reuben Tarte County Park, we were one of the first ones there, but more and more "orcaholics" gathered on the shoreline over the next hour. Blows were visible well to the south and it was clear they were heading in our direction, but very slowly. Before they were anywhere near close enough to ID, I just had the feeling it was the T2Cs again, and that it would be worth the wait.

Watching through binoculars, it was at first the mom and three offspring traveling together with Tumbo trailing behind. As they approached O'Neal Island, however, T2C1 Rocky split off to travel with Tumbo, and they headed out into San Juan Channel while T2C Tasu and her two youngest offspring went inside of O'Neal. The three whales were closer to shore and reached us first, but when they surfaced right in front of us they stalled out. My guess is they either corralled a seal or perhaps pinned one to the bottom, because the two brothers immediately reacted. Both Rocky and Tumbo picked up speed and became surface active on their way towards the others. 

Inverted tail slap from T2C1 Rocky

Rocky reached the group first and my somewhat educated but still wild guess is that he and the others were taking turns pinning the seal to the bottom. Mom and the two youngsters would surface while Rocky disappeared on a long dive, and then vice versa. Meanwhile, as he so often does, Tumbo held back, nearby, but not part of the action. Then, I don't know if the seal bolted or if they already had it, but all of them veered towards shore right where we were all gathered on the rocks.

Heading right for us!

Baby T2C4 did a series of dolphin leaps - always such a cool thing to see from an orca!

They all came in for an ultra-close pass - here are some zoomed out photos to give a little perspective.

And some zoomed in shots of whales, up close and personal!

T2C Tasu

Love it when you can see them underwater!

Underside of a tail fluke
T2C3 Lucy and T2C4 - an amazing perspective to get, especially from shore!
T2C1 Rocky
If we had any doubts about whether their hunt had been successful, our questions were soon answered. Gulls started coming down to the surface to look for scraps, and a bald eagle even swooped down and grabbed a piece of meat from the surface!

Gulls coming in to enjoy the spoils
But the most compelling proof was when one whale surfaced with intestines draped over their back - kinda gives a new meaning to "playing with your food"!

I'm not sure if they made more than one kill or were just enjoying the celebration, but it was clear they weren't in any hurry to go anywhere, and as they drifted a little ways off the rocks, the whole group got more surface active with tail slaps, spy hops, and breaches.

Tail slap from T2C2 Rocky

Just when it looked like they were going to go north, they turned and started coming back towards us. In the end, they were "milling and killing" right off Reuben Tarte for just over an hour!

Big size difference: 16 year-old Rocky and 1.5 year old T2C4

Mama T2C Tasu

They eventually did make their way back south down San Juan Channel, leaving all the human observers breathless on the shoreline. There were smiles all around!