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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sunrise and Sunset

It's not often I see a sunrise, but with trouble sleeping yesterday I decided to head out and see if enough of the clouds might part to take some cool photos. I was glad I did, as it turned out to be pretty beautiful. As I drove to the south end of the island, there were intermittent cloud bursts, while other areas were still completely dry. Before the sun even came over the horizon you could see some of the cloud bursts over Griffin Bay:

Here's another shot after the sun came up:

It was bright and sunny during the day, but I didn't take any more photos until sunset, which was just as spectacular:

Due to some stuff I barely understand about color managed web browsers and photo color profiles, the color of oranges, reds, and pinks never look quite as vibrant as in my photo programs, but you can imagine the scene as I stood there overlooking the sunset with all the colors of the sky reflected in the pond below it:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Baby Foxes

The pictures say it all....

Prints of this photo available here

Prints of this photo available here

Prints of this photo available here

Check out more baby fox photos from 2011 here and here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Flowering Plants

Despite recent weather reports to the contrary, most afternoons this week the clouds have parted and we've had wonderful sunshine for springtime walks. While there have been some good bird sightings - a snow goose still hanging out at British Camp and my first-ever band-tailed pigeon sighting on the island come to mind - the wildflowers have taken the cake when it comes to capturing my attention.

This first flower is known as fairyslipper and is a member of the orchid family. I was stunned to find such an intricate, beautiful flower right on the forest floor! Interestingly enough there are no apparent leaves associated with the flower this time of year, so you just see the thin stalk coming straight up out of the ground. I guess there is an underground stem called a corm that is associated with the flower, and a single leaf sprouts from it in the fall and persists through the winter. In the spring, all you see is the flower! Most of these flowers are popping up in the shade of the Douglas fir forests, but I found this one in a patch of sunshine which made for a great photographic opportunity:

While single flowers like the fairyslipper above can be captivating, I'm always impressed by fields of flowers in bloom. I tried taking a lower angle on this shot to capture what it was like to sit among this field fo buttercups:

Given another week the common camas that were still closed up on our Yellow Island trip last weekend have now opened up into beautiful blue flowers:

It's not just the wildflowers that are in bloom, either. I had to take a close look at the leaves of this tree to confirm I really was looking at a big leaf maple. With the abundant sprigs of flowers dangling from all its branches I hardly recogized the maple that is so distinct the rest of the year:

And finally, in a moist depression at British Camp that was empty on my last visit, thousands of horsetails have popped up:

Friday, April 24, 2009

All About Stellers

On Earth Day was The Whale Museum's annual marine naturalist gear-up, a day-long series of lectures that provides continuing education for working marine naturalists. One of the most informative talks this year was Candian biologist Peter Olesiuk talking about Steller sea lions.

(Note: While Steller sea lions are in fact stellar, their name comes from Georg Wilhelm Steller, a zoologist and explorer who is the namesake for several northwest critters including the Steller's Jay and Steller's Eider in addition to the sea lion. The misspelling of StellAr sea lion is a pet peeve of mine....)

There are two distinct populations of Steller sea lions: a western population that inhabits the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, and an eastern population that is found from SE Alaska/British Columbia south to California. While the western population is endangered and has experienced declines of as much as 70%, the eastern population is actually doing quite well, and has rebounded to historic levels after being hunted in the 1940s-1960s in an attempt to "control" fisheries for human purposes.

There are 14 breeding rookeries for the eastern population of Stellers, where males begin congregating in May to establish territories for when the females arrive in June. The animals will stay at the rookeries until August or later before dispersing for the winter. Males will lose up to 450 pounds while defending a breeding territory, a time in which they may stay put up to two months without leaving for food or water. In the San Juan Islands, we pretty much see only male sea lions and only in the winter; they're in this area when they've dispersed from rookeries to "beef up" over the non-breeding season. Females tend to do a lot of oceanic feeding during this time, but locally we have several "bull sites" where we see the males in the winter:

Once such bull site is Race Rocks, west of Victoria, BC. This foggy photo of males hauled out was taken last September.

Steller sea lions weren't seen often in the Salish Sea until the 1960s, when the population began to rebound from the hunting that had decemated it. Since the 1990s, their population has been booming, growing at a rate of more than 7% a year. The current population estimate is 18,250 Steller sea lions in British Columbia alone, compared to the low of 5,000 in the 1960s. Harbor seals have also been experiencing a population boom, and the high abundance of pinnipeds has likely been the reason for increased transient (marine mammal feeding) killer whale sightings in recent years.

A male Steller sea lion requires more than 60 pounds of food a day, or about ten times that of a harbor seal. Their top prey item is Pacific herring, but they also feed substantially on sandlance, salmon, dogfish, polluck, rockfish, and halibut.

Another bull site in BC is the Bell Chain Islets, pictured above in October 2007.

I first heard of Olesiuk due to some of his published work on killer whale population dynamics, although his current work focuses on sea lion population models. He shared the result of an interesting exercise he did determining, based on body mass, mortality, and productivity, how many transient killer whales ("Ts") the current population of Steller sea lions could sustainably support.

Remarkably, he found BC Stellers would only be able to support 26 Ts. If he included the whole eastern population of Stellers, this number jumped to 77 Ts, but still well below the current transient whale population of 200-250 whales. Of course, Ts feed on more than just Stellers - in fact, harbor seals and porpoises probably make up a larger proportion of their diet. To account for some of this, his final calculation included all Pacific northwest sea lions and harbor seals, which the model estimated would support about 300 Ts, closer to what we actually see. This little exercise is really interesting because it demostrates that a relatively small number of whales could have a huge impact on Steller sea lion populations, even if the population seems to be doing very well. As an undergrad, I got really into this sort of thing in my population biology class, where as an independent project I used Olesiuk's models to develop a population model for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Both Steller and California sea lions brave the harsh wave action at the Sea Lion Caves near Florence, Oregon, as shown here in January 2008. While most of the Steller breeding sites are in southeast Alaska and BC, there are a few in Oregon and northern California. Interestingly enough, there are no breeding sites in Washington.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lime Kiln Sunset

Yesterday late in the evening it was so nice I just had to get outside. I decided to go out to Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of the island to watch the sunset. For the first time this year the breeze off the water didn't have a bite to its chilliness; it felt almost warm. I took "the long way" to the lighthouse which took me along this path through a grove of Pacific madrone trees:

I was the only one in the park - a sure sign that the tourist season hasn't hit us in full yet - but I certainly didn't mind the solitude. I found a place to settle in for a while and here was my view to the southwest:

The beautifully warm spring weather of the last few days wasn't going to stay with us for very long, as evidenced by the clouds brooding on the horizon and over Lime Kiln Lighthouse:

Still, the sun broke through the clouds enough for me to have some photographic fun, like making it shine through the light of the lighthouse:

Here was my view looking across Haro Strait towards the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Mountains. The tranquility was only broken when a Steller sea lion popped his head up for a few noisy breaths on his travels north in the straight, but I didn't mind the interruption.

Speaking of Steller sea lions, today at The Whale Museum's marine naturalist gear-up we learned a lot about sea lions from Canadian scientist Peter Olesiuk. I'll post some cool info from today's series of lectures in my next post.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Yellow Island Wildflowers

This morning we went on a trip to Yellow Island sponsored by the San Juan Nature Institute. We took a short boat ride from Friday Harbor up San Juan Channel to the 11 acre island, which a reserve owned by The Nature Conservancy. It's open to the public from 10-4 daily, and I see the island on a lot of our summer whale-watching trips. But I had never set foot on it before, so was excited to finally get ashore to explore! Here's the island on our approach:

There's a small cabin built on the island where the docent family lives. It's got to be an awesome job! The cabin is built out of driftwood and other materials gathered on the island and was constructed in 1947 by the family that originally owned the island. The cabin isn't the structure right on the beach, but is tucked above under the madrone trees just to the left above that:

I thought it might be a little early for the wildflower peak, but according to the docent it turns out the first of three "peaks" of the spring is late and is happening now, so our timing turned out to be great. Our short hour on the island was long enough for the botanists who came with us to point out more than twenty plant and flower species. Here are some highlights:

Most of the common camas (above) weren't in bloom yet, but a few were. They're a well-known plant locally because of their history of being used by the native Coast Salish people. Yellow Island was one of a few small islands that were managed via controlled fires by the Coast Salish. Fires kept brush and trees from encroaching on the island, so they could come and harvest wild plants like camas every year. Camas bulbs were harvested and cooked, and reportedly taste something like sweet potatoes. They still do annual controlled burns to maintain the local habitat, which is home to more than 50 wildflower species in all.

The small-flowered prairie star (above) was one of two members of the saxifrage family we saw.

Harsh paintbrush was a bright red addition to the landscape. The botanist said it's parastic to the grasses around it.

Finally, here are two lily species: chocolate lily (above) and white fawn lily (below). Fawn lilies were probably the most abundant wildflowers, along with western buttercup. There were several fields of the two species, and the botanist said she had never seen so many fawn lilies in one place. Here's a close-up of one:

Saturday, April 18, 2009

COASST Training

Today I attended a Coastal Observation And Seabird Survey Team (COASST) training here in Friday Harbor. COASST is a citizen science program run through the University of Washington that trains volunteers from Alaska to California to monitor beaches, especially by identifying beached sea birds. Sea birds are a numerous group of species, they are widespread, and span a variety of trophic levels, making their survival or death a great indicator of overall oceanic health.

It turns out identifying beached birds is much different than identifying live ones. For starters, the bird is often damaged or beat-up, either by predators, scavengers, weather, surf, or otherwise. You won't often find neat, clean plumages, or even a body fully intact. On the other hand, the bird will stay put for you and allow you to examine it closely, allowing you to approach identification in a completely different way.

We learned how to use the COASST field guide to beached birds, which focuses on very different elements than a traditional bird field guide. The easiest characteristic to narrow down the type of bird you're looking at is foot type - either free, lobed, or webbed - and each category has its associated subcategories that can easily guide you to the bird family you're looking at. You can further use three measurements we were taught to make - bill length, wing chord, and tarsus (ankle bone) - to figure out which species you're looking at.

We practiced our ID and measuring skills on several specimens in the classroom. I'm not normally fond of handling deceased animals but it really is amazing what you can learn about seabirds up close that you would never be able to observe in the wild. For instance, cormorant feathers are shaped so that each individual feather appears to be outlined, all members of the puffin family have a pale leading edge to their wing, and some groups of birds have amazingly shaped "outercut" primaries that look very different from typical feathers when you examine them up close.

This rhinoceros auklet clearly isn't interested in letting me measure its tarsus.

As a result of my training I've signed up to be a COASST volunteer which involves surveying a local beach once a month. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose) there aren't nearly as many birds reported here in the island as they get on the outer coast (but I wanted to use my new skills!). While some outer coast survey teams encounter dozens of birds every trip, only three San Juan surveys out of 219 recorded beached birds in 2006-2007. I asked about why this is and our instructor believes there are several reasons for the decreased number of beached birds here: calmer more protected waters, so there are fewer waves to wash birds up; smaller "catcher" beaches that are likely to be the final resting places of birds that have died (there are very few long sandy beaches here); and steeper drop-offs off our beaches which also affects the likelikhood of things washing up on shore.

In any case, I'll be starting my surveys this week and will definitely report any interesting things I find - bird or otherwise!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Springtime on the Prairie

Today I went down to the south end of the island to enjoy the sunny (but still a bit chilly) weather and see how spring is progessing. You may think I've forgotten about the red-tailed hawk pairs, but I haven't! They've just been very scarce and I haven't seen much of them when I've gone looking. Today, I did run into Garth RTH1 and shot a few shots of him perched using my car as a blind. Then when we took off I got this surprising shot:

Garth is demonstrating a key component of bird flight: the wing flip. To successfully take off the ground (and it helps from a perch, too), birds must be able to raise their wings above the level of their back in what is called a wing flip. To accomplish this, substantial changes in skeletal and muscular structure were necessary, and as such the ability to execute a wing flip is an important feature in the study of the evolution of bird flight. I loved studying all this in another college class I took on avian/dinosaur evolution.

I went for a walk down at American Camp and evidence of spring was everywhere. White-crowned and savannah sparrows were singing, garter snakes were slithering through the tall grasses, and more than half a dozen wildflower species were in bloom. I also saw male northern harrier - I've seen female and juvenile harriers while watching the red-tailed hawks this winter, but this was the first male harrier I've seen all year!

I've noticed lots and lots of yellow pollen cones on the conifer trees lately, which are no doubt the cause of a lot of my recent hay fever. Actually, the cones themselves are reddish brown but are so dusted in pollen they appear yellow. There is so much pollen around that every day I find a new layer dusting the windows on my car and blowing around on the street. But I hadn't ever seen anything like open red cones on the photo above. My tree ID isn't up to snuff and I'm not sure what the reddish looking "cones" are...."blossoming" pollen cones?

Here are examples of some of the wildflowers in bloom. Above is the European daisy, and below is the early blue violet.

This one is the coastal strawberry:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Poet's Shooting Star

My favorite wildflower is in bloom on San Juan Island. I first discovered this species in my vascular plant diversity class at Reed College, and I first saw it on a field trip in the Columbia River Gorge and learned it was called Poet's Shooting Star. A member of the genus Dodecatheon, it is also known as American Cowslip, Mosquito Bills, Mad Violets, and Sailor Caps.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter! Or Should I Say Happy Eostre?

Easter Bunny sighting? No, a brown hare at Sacremento National Wildlife Refuge.

Easter is a holiday I've never really understood. While I've always enjoyed chocolate candies and jellybeans on Easter Sunday, what do bunnies and eggs and candy have to do with the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ? Yesterday I decided to find out by doing a little internet research. While there's controversy surrounding the history of Easter, this seems to be the prevailing story.

Early Christians, seeking widespread acceptance of their new religion, tried to coincide many of their holidays with preexisting pagan celebrations. As a result, many pagan traditions became adopted as part of Christian holidays. The Christian timing of the rise of Christ happened to coincide with the pagan festivals of Eostur-monath, a month of the Germanic calendar which roughly coincides with April that was meant to celebrate the mother goddess Eostre, a symbol of fertility in the lush season of spring. The word eventually became Eastre, and then Easter.

Rabbits/hares and eggs are ancient symbols associated with fertility, eggs by their very nature and rabbits by their springtime abundance and ability to breed. These symbols have long been incorporated into traditions to celebrate the renewal that is the coming of spring, including being part of celebrations of Eostre. Another example is of egg decorating being part of a Persian ritual associated with the spring equinox. Easter was also about renewal to the Christians, through the resurrection of Christ, so all the symbols eventually became associated.

European folklore tells stories about egg-laying hares, a myth that probably gave rise to the Easter Bunny, another concept of Germanic origin in the 1600s (though European tradition states the Easter Bunny is a hare, not a rabbit). Hares raise their young in a hollow in the ground rather than a burrow, and plovers and lapwings lay eggs in similar looking structures in the same sort of habitat, which likely led to the belief that rabbits might lay eggs.

The early concept of the Easter Bunny was that children would make a nest hidden in their house, and if they were good then in the morning it would be filled with colored eggs, candy and treats. It's not hard to see how that tradition became the Easter egg hunt.

So the result of all this religious and secular history is a holiday that is a mishmash of symbols and traditions. At least now I know why we get to eat chocolate and decorate eggs on Easter.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Stellar Stellers and a Juvie Bald Eagle

After our amazing transient encounter the other day, we headed up to Kelp Reef in northern Haro Strait to check out some Steller sea lions. When we first got there I didn't see any Stellers....but that kelp? No, it's a sea lion lump! These guys were just hanging there at the surface with only part of their backs exposed, and they looked just like a piece of kelp floating on the surface:

Once they lifted their heads it was much easier to identify them as Steller sea lions:

There were three big males in total. I found this picture of the three of them pretty comical as they came over to check us out:

But I reminded myself these guys can weight 1500 pounds MORE than an adult male grizzly bear! So my respsect for them was duly restored.

The water was so calm and clear that my eye was then attracted to the bull kelp bed we were floating over. The fronds were trailing at the surface and you could look straight down at the stipes as they disappeared into the depths below:

When I got back to shore I thought my wildlife viewing for the day might be over, but not so! After dinner we decided to go for a walk (I love this staying light until 8 o'clock again!), and on our way to the park we slowed down for a turkey vulture in the road. While we waited for the turkey vulture to move on, Keith spotted a juvenile bald eagle sitting in the tree right next to the road! It certainly didn't seem to mind our presence as I leaned out the window and took a few pictures. It's probably the closest I've ever been to a bald eagle, especially a perched one! The next day when I biked by this road I saw the remnants of a fox carcass on the street right where the eagle and vulture had been, so this must be what was attracting their attention that evening.

The eagle looks so fierce in the photo above, but look at this head-on photo of him/her looking right at the camera! I won't call it a comical shot (I don't want to belittle this top predator either), but it certainly is a cuter look than you usually get from an eagle:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Transient IDs and Navy Sonar Incident and Comment Period

After comparing notes with other whale reports I've been able to figure out the identity of all the transients ("Ts") I saw on Monday. The two females and calf were the T123s. T123 is the mother and the calf is T123B, a newly documented whale probably just a few months old. While both mom and youngster were around in the porpoise hunt, my photos revealed that it was T123's older daugther, nine year old T123A, that was the primary participant and the whale that launched the porpoise out of the water. It's amazing to me that we know enough about these whales - even the relatively mysterious transients - for me to be able to figure out the exact whale it was in that photo. Thanks, of course, to others who were there being able to ID the group of three as the T123s, and to T123A having a distinct notch on her fin I can just make out in that photo. Here's another photo showing her and her notch:


The other group of Ts was indeed male T14 with four of the T49s - specifically, T49A, T49A1, T49B, and T49B1. The complicated transient whale nomenclature actually encodes the whales genealogy in their names, since their pods are more fluid than those of the resident whales. So T49B was the second offspring of T49, and T49B1 is the first offspring of T49B.

Finally, I must say a word about a bizarre incident that occurred the night of the 7th-8th. Starting at about 7 PM and continuing until after 4 AM, a strange human voice and sonar pings were audible on the Lime Kiln and Orcasound hydrophones. It turns out the sonar pings were coming from the US Navy submarine the USS San Francisco, and the strange voices were underwater communication occurring between the submarine and an accompanying surface vessel. You can hear a sample of the sounds that occurred here.

Navy sonar is a great concern when it comes to marine mammals, because animals in the presence of sonar have demonstrated physiological and behavioral responses the intense sounds including disorientation, panic, hearing loss, tears in the ear, brain hemorrhaging, and stranding, in some cases resulting in the death of the animal. The last major incident in the area involving Navy sonar occurred in May 2003 when J-Pod was in the area - a scary situation in which these endangered whales showed unusual behavior where they came close to shore (where the acoustic impacts of the sonar were lessened) and repeatedly spyhopped, apparently to get their ears clear of the water. That incident resulted in the deaths and stranding of at least several harbor porpoises, and you can read about it and see evidence of porpoise brain hemorrhaging at the Center for Whale Research's report on the Shoup.

Luckily there have been no reported strandings in response to this most recent incident and no orcas were believed to be in the immediate area at the time, although several transient groups were reported in the region in the days preceding and following the incident. Still, it is a grim, timely reminder that the US Navy is exempt from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and is currently seeking to expand its local training range to include a huge portion of vital killer whale and marine mammal habitat. They are currently seeking public comment on their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and their proposal in includes minimal mitigation measures to prevent harm to marine mammals.

Obviously, this is an issue close to my home and my heart. I strongly encourage you to submit public comments supporting the "No Action Alternative", which keeps the current training area in place. They simply have not invested the resources in studying the impacts to marine mammals and do not have the measures in place to ensure marine mammals are not within lethal range of their sonar and explosive detonations during training activities. The EIS document itself is imposing, but you can read up on this issue and learn everything you need to know to comment via Orca Network's informational page about this public comment period. Comments are due April 13th!

We need to take into consideration our nation's security and I understand the need for the Navy to undergo training exercises. Still, this is such a vital yet fragile marine ecosystem, and one serious incident involving sonar and the Southern Resident whales could easily spell their extinction. Hopefully under President Obama, we can begin to improve international communication so that disagreements are resolved at the bargaining table and not at war, and these sorts of training exercises will be less necessary and perceived as less vital for maintaining our country's safety. Obama appointed Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and she is a respected marine biologist who has critiqued the government's dealings with oceanic issues in the past. She recognizes that we, as a people, along with all life on earth, depend on healthy oceans to survive on this planet. Hopefully we, as a nation, will move towards an attitude that preserves our marine resources and helps them to thrive, from orcas and harbor porpoises to krill and plankton. I understand the need for military operations, but it's hard for me to justify some of their short-term goals when looking at the long-term impacts it could have on ocean life.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

My First Orcas of 2009: Transients in Haro Strait!

Yesterday was a beautiful spring day - sunny, flat calm waters, 60 degrees. What could make it even better? A whale report of course! I heard from Jim Maya in the morning that there was a report of transients heading east from Victoria, right into our neighborhood. Luckily he was heading out in the afternoon and had space on board, so I was excited to have the chance to go out with him, thinking I might see my first orcas of 2009. Little did I know what an amazing transient orca encounter lay ahead of us!!

There were three different groups of transients in the area totaling about 14 animals. Transients are the marine mammal feeding orcas that are in smaller groups, roam less predictably, and have been seen more and more in the area in recent years due to the booming pinniped (seal and sea lion) population. They don't interact or interbreed at all with J-, K-, and L-Pods, the fish-eating residents we see most often in the summer.

The first group of transients we got a good look at was a group of three whales including two females and a very young calf:

Soon after we arrived on scene they started circling, which is typical hunting behavior. Jim had seen some porpoises in the vicinity, and sure enough I soon spotted a little harbor porpoise surfacing in front of the whales, being chased around in circles. Both the females and the calf were involved in the chase. The calf was so small that at times it was hard to tell the calf from the porpoise they were chasing! On the left is the calf (maybe 6-7 feet long) surfacing in front of its mother. On the right is the porpoise (maybe 4-5 feet long) surfacing in front of one of the female Ts:

Were we perhaps seeing this little calf being trained in the hunt? It sure looked like at as they "toyed" with the porpoise for about 20 minutes before the hunt really got serious. And did it ever get serious in a hurry! Suddenly one of the adult orcas lunged completely out of the water, launching the harbor porpoise high into the air! I can't believe I had my camera in the right spot at the right time and even remembered to click to take the photos....I'll be honest I didn't even see the porpoise when the event happened live at real time but the photos revealed what happened:

That was the last we saw of the porpoise - alive anyway. Next the feeding occurred, and here is one of the adults circling a piece of red meat that was floating on the surface. The meat disappeared just after this pass by the orca:

Right after the kill finished we were surprised by the appearance of another group of 5 transients right in our vicinity. We had seen them in the distance earlier but thought they had headed in the opposite direction. It just goes to show how easily these whales can appear and disappear, especially if they're in "stealth mode". This photo shows male T14, also known as Pender, on the left. The first time I saw Pender was back in September; he's a well-known transient locally because of the scars on the front edge of his dorsal fin from a tagging device that was attached to him in the 1970s.

T14 often travels alone, but here he is pictured with the T49s. My best guess from left to right is: T14, T49A1, T49B1, T49B, and T49A. Click on the photo for a better look at it.

Before we headed back to the harbor we had a good look at the 3 stellar sea lions, and then later in the day back at home I had an amazing look at a juvenile bald eagle - so those will be featured in the next post!