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Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Weekend Trip to the Saanich Peninsula

This weekend we made a quick trip over to the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island, BC. We visited the Butchart Gardens, my first time there. I was really glad we arrived about an hour before sunset, because that gave us time to see the gardens in the daylight (and also to avoid the mad rush of people coming just for the lights!). We especially enjoyed the Japanese Garden, which would be closed after dark.

One thing I've really grown to love about macro photography is that regardless of the day (or the weather or the light) you can almost always find something interesting to photograph. It was a pretty gray afternoon with fading light, but there are always little wonders to be found.

We took a full walk around the gardens in the fading light. It wasn't quite dark enough for the nighttime photos we were hoping for of the Christmas lights, but there were still some opportunites for pictures.

As darkness continued to descend, the lights became more and more spectacular, and they really go all out.

The most spectacular vista at night is the overlook of the sunken garden
And it's no fun to photograph so many colorful lights without playing around with some abstract long exposures...

This morning before catching the ferry back to our home island we headed down the peninsula in search of a flock of common redpolls that's been seen regularly in a certain neighborhood. Of course as luck would have it they didn't turn up in the hour we were there, but we still saw more than 15 bird species in a walk around the neighborhood.

Anna's hummingbirds now overwinter on San Juan Island, too, but I'm always amazed at how many I see on Vancouver Island - they are everywhere!

Even though the redpolls were a no-show, I did manage to add one species to my photo year list. I've seen sharp-shinned hawks a handful of times this year, but never cooperative enough to get a picture of - until now. I've seen or heard 196 bird species this year, and have managed to photograph 188 of them. I was hoping for a 75% success rate so am amazed to be at about 96%!

Then back at the ferry landing we had a flock of very cooperative hooded mergansers bathing nice and close.

It was quick trip, but always nice to do some exploring, and the sunshine made for an especially nice pick-me-up!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Winter Wildlife and December 2nd with J-Pod

Overall, the weather has been windy and rainy, not conducive to much outdoor activity. It hasn't stopped us from getting out there completely, as a couple weekend ago we went off island to do some birding, and successfully saw two different owl species.

Snowy owl at Sandy Point near Ferndale, WA
Short-eared owl hunting on Fir Island in Skagit County
With some family visiting over the Thanksgiving holiday, we went down to check out the foxes at South Beach. This one provided a welcome splash of color in an otherwise very gray landscape on a very gray day!

We've also been able to do a lot of bird-watching from the comfort of our own home due to some very active bird feeders, which we have been keeping a closer eye on than usual with the start of Project FeederWatch. Thanks to the counts we've been doing, we realize we get visits from about a dozen species a day totaling about 60 birds! The vast majority of these are a huge flock of juncos, but we also regularly get visits from four different species of woodpeckers.

Pair of hairy woodpeckers

Anna's hummingbirds have been steadily expanding their year-round range northward over the last couple decades. Ten years ago it was rare to have one overwinter on San Juan Island; now, it's commonplace. For the first time I'm getting them as regular visitors to our feeders during the winter. How do they survive without blooming flowers? These adaptive little guys eat insects and sap - though they aren't above sugar water, either!

Anna's hummingbird - in December!

This afternoon (December 2nd) we got word of orcas in San Juan Channel. They were heading away from us, but a bit later a friend on shore saw them turn around, so we headed out to Reuben Tarte county park to take a look. A few others were already there looking, and surprisingly, the first whales they pointed out to us were a pair of humpbacks! Shortly thereafter we spotted three orcas in the distance heading down San Juan Channel. They were spread out and far away, but since we didn't see any others, we assumed they were transients. Later in the afternoon, however, we got a chance to hop aboard a boat out of Friday Harbor with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching. We thought we needed to go a ways to catch up with them when I spotted a whale right near Point Caution just north of Friday Harbor. I zoomed in on the first photo I took and spotted a large "finger" on the saddle patch - something you don't see on transients! It was J17 Princess Angeline and her youngest J53 Kiki.

Surprise! Residents! J17 Princess Angeline and J53 Kiki in San Juan Channel
The whales were very spread out both north-south and across the channel, but slowly more and more came into view. It's amazing the energy and mood boost that comes from seeing whales, especially apparent this time of year when the winter dolrums have set in. 

J35 Tahlequah
J40 Suttles
Some of the whales practically went right into Friday Harbor! I've seen whales right near Friday Harbor from shore, but I've never had the opportunity to photograph resident killer whales with Friday Harbor in the background before. Another item off the orca photographer bucket list! ;)

As the daylight was fading the last two whales we saw approaching were L87 Onyx and J45 Se-Yi'-Chn. The colors of the sunset were becoming more spectacular and we were all crossing our fingers for a perfect surfacing from them in the amazing lighting. Of course, right when the sky looked like this they took a long dive.

Beautiful winter sunset....but what happened to the whales?
After surprising us by doubling back, we did finally get a look at the big male Onyx in front of Friday Harbor. The light had changed by then, but I'm not complaining - at least it wasn't dark yet! It was pretty awesome to see him right off the Friday Harbor ferry terminal, complete with ferry at the dock!

L87 Onyx and a ferry at the dock in Friday Harbor
Unexpectedly seeing J-Pod and L87 was a thrill that helped make up for the long stretch of dreary days. Luckily it looks like there's a lot of sunshine in our near future, so hopefully I will have more photos to share again before long!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Day of the Dead ~ 8th Annual Tribute

The Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is about honoring those who have passed on - every year, I take a moment on this day to remember the Southern Residents we have lost in the previous year. You can see the whole series of blog posts here. Over the years these posts have gotten harder to write, as the population continues to decline. But now more than ever, as we continue to fight for the survival and recovery of the Southern Residents, it's important not to forget the stories of the whales we have lost along the way.

J2 ~ Granny

We all knew we would lose this great matriarch one day, but that didn't make it any easier when the day finally came. The oldest living Southern Resident Killer Whale, Granny's estimated birth year was 1911. While we will never know her exact age, we do know she lived through all the major changes the Southern Residents have experienced in the last many decades, including the live capture era, the commercial fishing boom, the rise of whale-watching, and the crash of Chinook salmon. Of all the whales, how I most wished I could have a conversation with Granny.

The iconic J2 Granny, with her half-moon notch
Granny was a leader in a the true sense of the word. We suspect she held and shared important communal knowledge for the Southern Residents, such as where to travel and forage in different times of year and different seasonal conditions. We know she was often out in front, literally leading the way as her pod traveled from place to place. It wasn't uncommon to see Granny a mile or even several miles ahead of everyone else as they went up and down Haro Strait.

While at times she seemed to be "all business", other times she definitely showed that even an old gal can "kick up her heels" and play, too.

Inverted tail slap by Granny
 For many years Granny's most constant travel companion was J1 Ruffles. The two were so close, it was assumed they were mother and son. Genetics have indicated this may not be the real story; it begs the question what kind of relationship they had, and if J1 wasn't finding in Granny something similar to what the orphaned L87 Onyx would find from her years later.

For many years, J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny were the symbols of the Southern Residents
Granny regularly associated with many different whales. Whenever whales from outside of J-Pod would travel with Js for a period of days or weeks, it was often Granny's group they were associated with.

Granny, the foremost whale, was a central figure in Southern Resident social networks

Granny wasn't only an important whale in her whale community, she was an important whale among the human world as well, including to me personally. She was the first whale I saw swimming through the kelp at Lime Kiln, an image forever etched into my memory. She was the whale I chose to get tattooed on my arm, and the one I painted a mural of on my family's houseboat. When we bought our boat and had our first-ever Southern Resident encounter, she was the one who came out of no where and circled around us, giving us what felt like a proper "christening".

On our first whale encounter aboard Serenity, Granny came out of no where and circled our boat
Even after another full season has passed, it still feels bizarre to see J-Pod without Granny. It will likely take years for us to see what the result of her passing might be, if we will ever know. One thing we can say is that she lived a long life, and we can only hope her descendants get a chance to do the same.

K13 ~ Skagit

Just like the loss of J14 Samish last year, the death of K13 Skagit really came as a surprise to me. She was another productive mother just as the end of her reproductive years, who had the potential to enter to the matriarch role for her pod, and then, out of no where - gone. Because K-Pod was so scarce in inland waters this year, it took a while before we knew for sure if she was gone or not. I held out hope as long as I could, but when her whole family came by Lime Kiln without her, there was no mistaking her loss.

K13 Skagit actively foraging off Lime Kiln in 2016

Having been born in 1972, Skagit likely just narrowly escaped being taken into captivity for the marine aquarium industry. Instead she went on to become a mother of two sons and two daughters, and also lived to see the birth of her first two grandsons. While her daughters are past due to give birth to their second calves, I had really hoped Skagit would be around to see her family and her pod grow.

I'm anthropomorphizing here, but with Skagit's loss I was most worried about her older son, K25 Scoter, who has always been such a mama's boy. He was rarely more than a few body lengths away from her in recent years, and we know that the likelihood of survival for males goes way down after the loss of their mothers. It was good to see Scoter this summer, and according to the photogrammetry research team he was looking pretty plump, but it must be a hard adjustment for all the remaining K13s.

K13 Skagit and her oldest son K25 Scoter
I wonder if Skagit's loss had anything to do with the fact K-Pod was barely around this year? Will their travel patterns completely change without her?

J52 ~ Sonic 

Sonic was the first-born calf to J36 Alki and part of the amazing stretch of births that occurred between December 2014 and January 2016. Sadly, in recent months he became the latest "baby boom" calf not to make it, bringing us down to just five survivors among the ten known births during that time. To me, it felt like his birth was the one that made it a baby boom. We had J50 and J51 after nearly 3 years with no live births, and then within the same 3 month span J52 was born and I remember my reaction was one of disbelief: "No way....another one?!" His arrival was especially hopeful because he came to a young first-time mom. So many young females that should and could be having calves are not, and it was reassuring to see Alki have her first calf at a "normal" age.

J36 Alki and J52 Sonic

Sonic was a spunky little whale, and he regularly found willing playmates not only in his mom, but in his sisters J42 Echo (who liked to babysit him) and J50 Scarlet, who was just a few months older than him. His faint saddle patch was just visible enough to see that it was an open check-mark shape like several of his other family members, and I had been excited to see what it might look like as he grew older.

It took me nearly a year and a half to get the photo I was hoping for after these two calves were born into the same matriline - J50 Scarlet and J52 Sonic, seen here passing near the rocks at Lime Kiln this summer
Sonic's decline was pretty rapid. In my last few encounters with him he looked okay, but the photogrammetry team documented him with peanut head in September and the Center for Whale Research has a final encounter with him where he was very lethargic and clearly malnourished. His mom Alki had looked skinny in the spring of 2016 (not totally unusual for a nursing mom) but recovered, and I was thankful at least that the photogrammetry team thought she looked "okay" this fall. The fact that he was so thin and she wasn't makes me wonder if a disease or something played a complicating role in his demise. As with most orca deaths, we will never know for sure. What I do know for sure is that the J16s won't be the same without him.

Breach from J52 Sonic in summer 2017

When will the next birth happen?

Usually in these blog posts I also take a moment to acknowledge the new whales that have joined us, but there are no new Southern Residents to welcome this year. After the birth of J49 in 2012, we went over 2 years before another live calf was seen, and over 3 years until the next calf survived. We had the baby boom from the end of 2015 through 2016, but again we're coming up on 2 years without a live calf seen. Meanwhile the population has dropped to just 76 whales, a 30 year low. The situation is dire.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the state of emergency the Southern Residents are in is beginning to be acknowledged on both sides of the border. In October, the federal government of Canada held a workshop to assess actions to be taken on behalf of the Southern Residents. The San Juan County Marine Resources Committee also held a workshop to brainstorm immediate actions that can be taken at the County level. Two days later we had our 5th CALF (Community Action - Look Forward) workshop, also focusing on citizen actions to help the whales. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has indicated his concern, and willingness to take unprecedented action. The first action to come out of all this was Canada adopting at 200 meter vessel rule to match the 200 yard limit in the US; additionally the Canadian government promised lots of funds towards continued ocean noise monitoring. While dealing with vessel noise may help the whales hunt more efficiently, the fact is that even silencing our oceans entirely won't give the whales enough fish to eat. If the Southern Residents are going to have a fighting chance, major actions need to be taken to address Chinook salmon recovery. It remains to be seen is what concrete actions will be taken regarding salmon. Yesterday, the Puget Sound Partnership  passed a resolution to accelerate Chinook salmon recovery efforts on behalf of the whales. Let's hope this is just the first of many such efforts in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the whales continue on, and so must we. The writing of this blog post was delayed by the unexpected appearance of the Southern Residents in Haro Strait this evening.  After hearing them on the Lime Kiln hydrophones, I went out to the west side. Even though they were several miles offshore, it was obvious they were in party mode, as there were breaches and tail slaps galore. When it got too dark to see, I came home and am still hearing all three pods (and many more percussives) on the hydrophones right now as I finish this post. We didn't have a true superpod all summer, where the entire Southern Resident community was together, but I wouldn't be surprised, with all the crazy vocals and surface activity, the first Salish Sea superpod of 2017 is underway today. 

Day of the Dead isn't part of Southern Resident Killer Whale culture, but how fitting if today they too are coming together in celebration. It never ceases to amaze me that despite their losses, they still carry on and clearly still know how to have a good time. I have no doubt they remember their ancestors, and here's hoping some new calves are being conceived among all that partying tonight!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October 28-31: An Abundance of Salish Sea Wildlife

The weather this October has just been spectacular, right up through today, the last day of the month. We've had a few windy days and some heavy rain, but the number of clear, sunny days is certainly more than I remember having in recent years. This has provided a lot of opportunity to get out and enjoy this amazing place we live, and in the last few days the wildlife viewing has just been awesome.

On the evening of October 28th, we went out to Lime Kiln for sunset and enjoyed seeing all kinds of bird life passing by over the flat-calm seas.

Great blue heron
Tranquil autumn sunset
On the evening of October 29th, the transient killer whale family the T2Cs were making their way up San Juan Channel. A friend offered to let us hop aboard their boat out of Friday Hrabor, and the result was another memorable sunset!

T2C1 Rocky
When we had a view of Mt. Baker, we got two photo ops of two different cetacean species under the mountain. First, the orcas....

T2C1 Rocky under Mt. Baker
And then a pair of humpbacks passed by heading in the opposite direction!

Humpback whale under Mt. Baker
Then when we were stopped to get our last look before heading back to port, the whales surfaced after a dive right off our bow. 

T2C2 (the whale with scoliosis) and calf T2C4

Calf T2C4

The sunset on our way in

Then on October 30th (my birthday!) we took a hike down at Cattle Point. We came across a harbor seal with a huge salmon.

Nearby was a pair of river otters who were chowing down on forage fish. When one of them caught a larger rockfish, they both came ashore for a bit.

Otter on the upper right has a rockfish

While watching the otters, we also saw some harlequin ducks in perfect lighting.

Then today, the 31st, the sun continued and the waters were calm so we headed out for an afternoon boat trip. We originally thought we might see some sea lions, but they were the only thing we didn't see! We did find several groups of Bonaparte's gulls, which are one of my favorite birds to photograph.

This one has a little shrimp-like creature

A lot of the other winter birds are back too, including bufflehead, red-necked and horned grebes, and surf scoters. But the species that stole the show was a total surprise - the harbor porpoise! Don't get me wrong, I like harbor porpoise just fine, but more often than not they are very difficult to view. You may get just one or two glimpses and then they're gone. The one exception is when you get a large group actively foraging, and today we found just that with more than 100 of them off Green Point on Spieden Island. There were porpoise surfacing in every direction you looked.

We even saw some porpoise porpoising in the distance!

We shut down for a while to listen to their "chuffing" blows, and were rewarded with several close looks.

I've never seen (or photographed) a harbor porpoise swimming straight at me from such close range!

So concludes another beautiful month in the Salish Sea!