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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taking Off

This is a photo that I've wanted to post for a while - but there's always so much other exciting stuff to talk about! This is a photo of a bald eagle I took from the Western Prince back in October. On our way to check out K-Pod, we slowed down to check out this eagle just as he was looking around. I just had enough time to pull out my camera before he took off, perhaps in pursuit of a fish he saw near the surface of the water. Did you know from a high perch they can see a small animal up to a mile away? Their eyesight is said to be three times better than ours. And check out those talons!


It seemed an appropriate time to post this "take off" photo, since today I took off from my parents' house in Portland to head back to the island. It was a fun visit and I hope you all had great holiday weekends as well!

When we got back to the island, it was very foggy and almost muggy. It may be a bit rainy tomorrow, but after that the forecast looks good so I can't wait to get out and take some photos. I haven't really had a chance to play with my teleconverter yet, which I bought a few months ago with the idea of focusing on some bird photography this winter. Now that a lot of our winter water birds are here, I think I'll head out and play with using that for getting some close (or at least closer) shots and I'll definitely post my attempts here. Also, coming back to the island with me were a couple of mushroom guides, so look for an upcoming post featuring some more fascinating fungus.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Once a nature photographer.....

Spending the holiday weekend "back home" with family in Portland, Oregon, it's easy to start reflecting on the past. You know how they say some things never change? Well, it's true: I have always been a nature photographer. I won my first camera (a Polaroid) in an Invent America contest as a kindergardener (I invented a pin that would keep kids' shoelaces tied when they didn't know how to tie their own shoes). I excitedly took photos on our next family vacation, which happened to be to....the San Juan Islands. Interestingly enough, while I wouldn't visit again until I was 13 and had found my passion for orcas, as a six-year-old I took photos of madrone trees, flowers, and sunsets on San Juan Island, and I actually lost my first tooth at Lonesome Cove Resort.

On all subsequent family vacations I was always in pursuit of wildlife, including on a trip to Bryce Canyon in 2000. My dad recently sent me this photo from that trip, recalling my ever-present enthusiasm. In addition to the camera, video camera, and binoculars, notice (aside from the purple hair!) the whale T-shirt and bird book in hand. I remember that was the day I first saw a white-thoated swift!

For comparison, here's the "author photo" from my book of killer whale photographs, taken in 2006. A lot of things changed in those six years, including my hair color, but not the fact that I always have a camera in hand! I have a feeling that will always be the case, looking to capture the excitement of seeing wildlife wherever my travles may take me.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's easy, especially in our society today I think, to dwell on the problems we have, the things that aren't perfect, and everything that's going wrong. Sometimes it's easy to forget just how lucky we are. I try to remind myself often not to take things for granted, especially when I wake up in the morning and can say "I live on San Juan Island!" It's a special thing to be able to live in such a beautiful place.

I like to take a little time every Thanksgiving to remember a few of the long list of things I have to be thankful for: I live in a place where wild killer whales make their home, I get to spend time photographing wildlife on almost a daily basis, I have some very special family and friends that support me in all the crazy things I do, Barack Obama is our President Elect!.....I hope you do the same.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Greater Yellowlegs

This is a greater yellowlegs that I saw over at Jackson's Beach the other day. There were several of them around, dancing in quick little circles while they poked in the mud for a morsel to eat. In the photo below, you can clearly see that the beak is slightly upturned and longer than the head is wide, differentiating it from the very similar looking lesser yellowlegs. An interesting fact that I learned over at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Guide is that while the greater yellowlegs is a common species, the fact that it only occurs in small densities and often breeds in inhospitable bogs makes it one of the least-studied North American shorebirds.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cattle Point and Return of the Seals

Today was a day without wind or rain, a combination that's becoming rarer as we get closer and closer to winter, so we made sure to go out and enjoy the sunshine. We went down to Cattle Point at the south end of the island and walked along the beach. Just before we left the sun went behind a cloud, making for some stunning lighting, as seen in the photo of Cattle Point lighthouse below:

There were a lot of birds around, but of course I had the shorter lens on my camera thinking I'd mostly be taking landscape shots so I didn't get any photos of them. Some highlights include a loose flock of about 30 black turnstones, a small white sandpiper I think was probably a sanderling, about 8 or 10 piping oystercatchers, and up in a tree on the dunes a huge congregation of pine siskins, a species I hardly ever see.

Then when we got home, I noticed another large school of fish. I hung around for a bit, and sure enough, the two seals were also around. It was again starting to get too dark for any good photos, but I like this one because it shows both the seals on the right (one underwater and one on his back at the surface again), and the school of fish which is he darkish blob on the left. You're also seeing a piece of kelp and the reflection of some of the pilings of a building on the shoreline.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Mushroom Mania 1

All day today the winds have been roaring away, and for a change it actually feels like we live on a boat. Our marina is so protected that most of the time it's easy to forget we have a floating home, but during these fall wind storms the waves pick up enough that we feel the rocking motion. Check out Jason's blog for some cool info on just how strong the winds have been! Jason's a local kayak guide and co-owner of Discovery Sea Kayaks here in Friday Harbor, and posts some great photos and video from his kayak adventures.

Anyway, over the last couple of weeks I have gone on four "mushroom hunts" and taken photographs of as many species as I could find. Some of the recent rains have caused a lot of mushrooms to pop up, and finding some cool specimens on a hike piqued my interest and it's become a new mini-obsession to look for them wherever I go. So far, on the four walks I've taken specifically to look for mushrooms, I've found over 25 species.

When I get a better field guide I plan to make a few more posts, but for now here's a sampling that shows the sheer diversity of fungus that can be found in the local woods. They range in size from barely an inch long to larger than a dinner plate; some are flat, others tall and skinny, some more stereotypical with a stem and bell on top; brown, white, red, orange, they come in any color; found on the ground, up in trees, or growing on dead wood - an amazing variety of mushrooms!



Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fishing Seals

Yesterday late in the day I looked outside and saw a harbor seal right off our front porch!

We watched until it dove, then went outside to see if he might come back up. The first thing we noticed was a massive school of thousands and thousands of bait fish just under the surface of the water (see left). While we often see small schools of fish, I have never seen nearly that many. Just when we thought the seals had left, we saw a huge wave of water coming towards us, then saw not one but two seals swimming towards the fish! Their underwater acrobatics were amazing to watch as they herded the school, weaving back and forth in tight figure eights. The seals would go down for long dives, and even when they surfaced they would roll over onto their backs. This way their nose could be out of the water as they caught their breath, but they could still keep both eyes on the school of fish below them (see the photo below).



Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bird Feeder Success

Inspired by the house sparrows that have been roosting on our porch, I decided to put up a couple bird feeders to attract some of the woodland species that feed in the brush along the shoreline. I bought a suet feeder and made a tray feeder out of an aluminum baking pan. Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for the house sparrows to find the feeder, but within a few days a song sparrow and a flock of juncos (see below) have also made it a regular stop. Before sunset, some chestnut-backed chickadees also stop by to visit the suet feeder, as can be seen on the left. The feeders have only been up for a couple of days, but at times there as many as eight birds there!

I'll post updates if I start seeing new species making visits, but I think the four listed above cover the most common feeder species I've seen here at the marina.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Lime Kiln in November

Early yesterday evening a blanket of fog started to descend on the islands, and it never really lifted all the way today making for very gray weather. Still, with no rain or wind, I was drawn outside and we decided to go out to Lime Kiln State Park to see what there was to see. There were an amazing abundance of sea birds out, most of them lounging in loose rafts on the extremely calm water. I saw kingfishers, loons, cormorants, harlequin ducks, auklets, murrelets, guillemots, gulls, and even this group of common mergansers that flew overhead:

There weren't many people out, but I did come across some of the park staff tending a large brush fire. They had actually taken down several madrone and other trees in order to open up vistas, especially from the upper trail since not all visitors can navigate the trail down to the lighthouse. It definitely looked a lot different and will take some getting used to! Historically, there were no trees at all between the upper buildings where the lighthouse keepers lived and the lighthouse itself, so they could keep a constant watch on the tower and the straights. The lighthouse was actually designed so that the light at the top would flash right into the keepers' bedroom windows. Luckily, with an automated lighthouse, that no longer has to be the case, since there are some beautiful trees in the vicinity!


This will also be the first post I link on Birdfreak.com, a bird conservation site that has a weekly post for its readers to reference their own posted bird photos, with a goal of getting as many species as possible represented in a given week. I just learned about the site today from Vickie Henderson's blog, where she documents many of her own local bird sightings, down in Tennessee posts some of her artwork, and follows the trials and tribulations of the endangered whooping crane.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cool Whale Shark Photo Identification Project

One reason we've learned in recent years that K and L Pods make trips down off the coast of California in the winter time is that individuals are relatively easy to ID. Whale watchers out of Monterey Bay, for instance, take photos of dorsal fins and saddle patches when they see a group of orcas, and if they don't match the local whales they recognize they can send the photos up to the Center for Whale Research, which keeps the catalog of Southern Residents. Even the untrained observer can quickly see the difference between and open and closed saddle patch:


The challenges of tracking individuals are much greater, however, with other species that don't have such easily discernible unique markings. I recently came across a website that has taken an innovative approach to helping researchers track whale sharks. EcoOcean maintains a whale shark photo identification website, where divers from all over the world can upload photos of whale sharks they see. Since it's a popular species divers search for world wide, they are well-photographed. Then, the online database matches the unique spot patterns on individuals to other known animals, and creates a list of sightings for each whale shark. Much like SETI, you can even donate your unused computer time to helping the database match photos by using SharkGrid.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Orcas Island

Today we went over to Orcas Island to enjoy the nice weather. We had tried a few times in the last week, but were delayed once by wind and once by rain, so the third time was the charm! We went up to Mt. Constitution, the tallest point in the San Juan Islands at over 2000 feet. There's an observation tower up there that gives you a near-360 degree view of the islands. While up there, we looked down not only on the isles and their surrounding water, but on a small plane and a bald eagle in flight! It's hard to capture the full scale of the view in photographs, but here's one I think does a pretty good job:


I also attempted to stitch together a panoramic shot. Make sure to click on it to see the larger view (something you can do on any of my posted photos):


We then went to Cascade Falls, where while the boys climbed around on the logs and rocks, I had time to play with my camera to get some cool waterfall shots:


Finally, here's a macro shot of two little mushrooms. I've been working on a little photo catalogue of all the fungi I've been seeing, as there are dozens of species that have popped up with all the recent rain. Look for a photo post in the near future documenting some of the variety of mushrooms!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More Sparrows and Petition Update

Our houseboat porch is turning into a pretty popular place to spend the night, especially with all the rain we've been getting! We now have two male house sparrows that make nightly visits. One night they shared a little hole, but usually they choose separate ones. We try to keep the lights off as to not disturb them, but when I had to turn them on briefly tonight I took two quick pictures of them roosting.













Also, you may have noticed that the Preserve the Mar Vista Resort petition has been removed from my blog. I heard last week that the property was going to be shown to a prospective buyer, and the signature rate had dropped to less than one per day, so I decided it was time to submit the petition. In all, the petition got 485 signatures! Thanks so much to all who signed and sent it along to their friends.

The Petition Site
created a nice pdf document for me, which included the letter, signatures, and all the comments left by all the signers. I sent it to San Juan County Land Bank, San Juan Preservation Trust, and Coldwell Banker, the agency with the Mar Vista listing. I have also heard back from all three.

The director of San Juan County Land Bank informed me that money is, of course, the biggest issue, but that they are speaking with potential donors about the property in addition to pursuing state and federal grant money. The director of conservation at San Juan Preservation Trust also said they are exploring all possible conservation options, and would love to talk to me further about any of my thoughts and ideas.

The realtor said it is most likely that the property will be purchased as a private estate, which means no large scale commercial development will occur, but of course it will be closed to the public. He also expressed that he believes any money generated to purchase Mar Vista for conservation purposes would be much better spent purchasing other, cheaper development easements, because this way we could preserve more of the rural character of the whole island rather than a single waterfront property. He has a valid point, but I think Mar Vista is a unique property that could provide some pretty special opportunities as public land. For instance, a shore-based whale watching and research site on a part of the island where there isn't one.

That's all I know for now, but I'll continue to post updates as I learn more about anything related to thsi property.....

Monday, November 10, 2008

Trumpeter Swans

On our way to British Camp today, I was excited to see some large white birds alongside a lake. I pulled over, and sure enough - they were my first swans of the season! They were in among lots of Canada geese, American wigeon, and several other duck species I couldn't identify from a distance (you think I would have learned to ALWAYS bring my binoculars by now...), but from the picture I took I could see the distinct all black bills that confirms these were trumpeter swans. They will probably be around on the island for most of the winter, but I was very excited to see my first ones of the year!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Northern vs. Southern Resident Habitat

Today, as I was reading a chapter in Dolphin Societies: Discoveries and Puzzles, I came across a fact I had never thought about before.

There are two groups of "resident" fish-eating killer whales around Vancouver Island. One is the Southern Residents, made up of J-, K-, and L-Pods, and they spend most of their time off the south end of Vancouver Island, where we see them near the San Juan Islands here in Washington. The other group is the Northern Residents, made up of pods A-I, plus R and W Pods. They live mostly off the northern end of Vancouver Island. The two ranges are shown in the picture on the left, with the light gray representing the Northern Resident Killer Whales (NRKW) and the darker gray representing the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). The two populations aren't known to interact with one another.

In the chapter I was reading, it mentioned that the division between the Northern and Southern resident habitat corresponds, on the east side of Vancouver Island, to "two distinct tidal regions: a northern region with southward-flowing flood currents and northward-flowing ebb currents, and southern region with opposite ebb and flood current directions".

I don't know why this seems so revolutionary to me, but it never dawned on me that the barrier between Northern and Southern Residents was more or less drawn by the tidal region. Of course its not an absolute barrier, with Southern Residents sometimes coming down the inside passage to the inland waters of Washington state, but this still seems pretty significant. It doesn't seem unreasonable that salmon runs may also be divided by the tidal exchange regions, and maybe there is some sort of agreement that the two different areas and the salmon they contain "belong" to either of the two resident communities.

Whenever I come across something that causes me to think about the local whales in a new and different way, I get excited by it. This little fact was one of those moments for me, so I thought I'd share it, however minute it might be.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Marine Naturalists' Gear Down

Today I attended an all-day workshop for local marine naturalists, an annual "gear down" event that's held at the end of the season and provides a series of lectures for naturalists to continue the education. With the recent loss of seven local whales, everyone is especially concerned about the main threats this population faces: salmon, toxins, and vessel activity. All three were addressed in lectures today.

One of the most exciting parts of the workshop was the official launching of the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists (SSAMN - pronounced, of course, "salmon"). I've been on a committee forming this association for the last year, and its goals are to network naturalists, create a unified and professional group representing local naturalists, and share opportunities among the group whether they be news alerts, calls to action, or educational opportunities. The vision is that the group will provide high quality and accurate education to visitors and residents of the San Juans, with the aim of encouraging stewardship and action to protect the local wildlife and the ecosystem in which it lives. If you want to learn more about the association or potentially join, you can contact Cindy, the education curator at The Whale Museum by e-mailing her at cindy at whalemuseum dot org.

Here are a few facts I learned at today's lectures....interesting to me because of their shock value:
  • The AT1s, a group of Alaskan transients, numbered 22 animals when the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred. They now number 6, with no calves being born since the oil spill occurred. Like the local residents, they are a group that is not known to associate with other killer whale populations, even other transients. It may be that the social restrictions these whales seemingly put on themselves seriously restricts the ability of their population to recover.
  • Local salmon runs are only at 10% of their historical numbers.
  • Surfactants, or substances that reduce surface tension, cause problems by gumming up the gills of fish and suffocating them. Even biodegradable soaps have surfactants, something I didn't know....we use biodegradable soaps on the houseboat I live on because our gray water goes straight into the ocean, but maybe this isn't good enough.
  • Industry was not the only major source of PCBs (a bioaccumulant toxin) in Puget Sound. Military activity, such as naval ship building and weaprony testing, caused a lot of PCBs to enter the water, as well. Torpedos, for example, were insulated with PCBs, and many detonation tests occurred in the Sound. There are 21 Superfund sites in Puget Sound, and many of the so-called "clean" sites are actually meeting some pretty leniant, shady regulations.
Luckily, a lot of action is being taken locally, such as the Puget Sound Partnership. Recently re-elected Washington Governor Gregoire has given the Partnership a goal of cleaning up the Sound (including the Salish Sea and San Juan Islands) by 2020. Just this week they released their Action Plan, or road map on just how they're going to do this. It's definitely worth looking into, and I strongly encourage you to read over and submit a comment on the action plan by November 20th.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Beautiful Day

Yesterday there was a nervous anticipation in the air, which as the night progressed turned to relief and joy that our country has chosen to pursue a new direction by electing Barack Obama. Most everyone seemed to be in a bright mood today, encouraged and hopeful. It's an exciting time, and I'm happy and proud to be a part of it. It's nice to feel truly inspired by a politician - something I've never felt before in my relatively short voting career thus far.















It was a beautiful, sunny fall day out yesterday, and we headed down to American Camp to go for a hike. It was really windy out, making for some spectacular wave action that we don't always see in these protected inland waters. The combination of the bright light and fall colors made for some vivid pictures. Make sure to click on them to see larger versions.

There weren't a lot of birds about, except for gulls and a bald eagle soaring on the winds, but I did spot one northern shrike. This is only the second time I've seen this species on the island, so it was an exciting find for me.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Nighttime Visitor


The last few nights, we have had a little male house sparrow roosting in the eaves on our porch. He is seemingly all right, chasing away a few other sparrows that tried to join him and disappearing during the day. When I turn on the porch light he doesn't seem to mind, and stayed put for me to take this cute photo.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Remember to Vote!

Instead of a regular blog post today, I feel it's very important to remind everyone to vote by this Tuesday. It's an exciting time, and we can all be a part of a change for the better. Please vote, and make sure your friends and family do so as well!