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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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

October 30th ~ The Sheep Rock Unit

On October 30th (my 30th birthday!) we were greeted as we departed Mitchell by the seemingly resident group of wild turkeys.

Our first stop was at an overlook near Dayville looking at the Picture Gorge basalts:

The peak in the above photo is Sheep Rock, namesake of the third of the John Day Fossil Bed units. This single feature showcases about 10 different geologic formations. Here are the ones I could pick out:

Right across from Sheep Rock is the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which features a lot of the fossils found in the region. It's really impressive stuff!

Next we were off to hike the Blue Basin, where we didn't get too far along the rim trail before flushing a flock of chukars (195)!


Again, it was pretty quiet bird-wise, but I did manage to find a single mountain chickadee (196), too.

As is the case throughout the region, the landscapes stole the show:

These incredible formations are the result of volcanic ash turned into claystone, and the color is from mineralization over time (so it wasn't this color originally).

And of course, there were more of these guys around:

As our last full day in the John Day Fossil Beds area came to a close, we were preparing to head up to Portland to visit with family for a couple days. The birding wasn't done, though, as along the Crown-Zellerbach Trail in Scappoose I reached my birding year list goal for the year with the following species: sandhill crane (197), cackling goose (198), Lincoln's sparrow (199), and cinnamon teal (200)!

Often November is a pretty quiet time wildlife and photography wise back at home, but not this year! There's plenty of excitement to share in my next few posts.

October 29 ~ The Painted Hills

Mitchell, Oregon would be our home base for a couple of days as we explored the other regions of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. I couldn't believe it when we woke up on the morning of the 29th to sunshine! The forecast before our trip was for lots of rain, and even a chance of a frozen mix - so this was a very pleasant surprise! It was a perfect day for exploring the Painted Hills unit, because the sunshine made the colors that much more impressive.

The incredible geology of the region results from an amazingly complex history. From former ocean floor to former tropical forests, with volcanic ash falls and lava flows, and millions of years of erosion, I honestly couldn't keep all the rock layers straight. I know the amazing reds and yellows of the painted hills are from an era where the climate was much warmer, about 35 million years ago, when exotic creatures like camels, rhinoceroses, and small prehistoric horses roamed the area.

It wasn't a very birdy area, with the exception of lots of robins and a few Townsend's solitaires (193) feeding on the abundance of juniper berries. Bordering the Painted Hills unit is a large proposed wilderness area, too, and we explored a few miles of those dirt roads, and found a single immature golden eagle (194).

There were also lots of Columbia black-tailed deer around. These deer, a sub-species of the mule deer, are supposedly the same species we have in the San Juan Islands, but there must be multiple sub-species, because these guys were much larger than our deer on the island! Their ears were also much larger, more characteristic of what I think of as mule deer.