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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Afternoon Walk At Lime Kiln

After spending eight hours in the office at work today, it was time to get out and enjoy the end of the sunny Sunday afternoon. I decided to drive out to the west side of the island to go for a walk. Before I even got there, I had to pull over to the side of the road to investigate these red flowers that have sprung up along several roadside ditches:

These are red columbine (Aquilegia formosa), amazingly intricate yellow and red flowers when examined up close. The name columbine is derived from the Latin word for "dove", because someone with a bit of imagination thought the petals and spurs looked like five doves perched in a circle.

Out at Lime Kiln Point State Park another new flower had come into bloom: baldhip rose (Rose gymnocarpa). These flowers emerged on a plant I was waiting to bloom, because the leaves and branches had intrigued me but I wasn't able to ID it. It turns out the flowers look nearly identical to Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana), an abundant shrub that I was familiar with:

The difference comes in the spines along the stems:

It wasn't just the flowers that were worth photographing today. The clouds over Haro Strait looked pretty stunning, too:

They've done some clearing out of madrone trees along the trails to open up the view a little bit. On my way out, the pattern of this stump caught my eye. It has some Oregon grape leaves peaking around the edge, but it was amazing how many of the stumps were already sprouting little madrone branchlets.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cow Parsnip Size Comparison

A few posts ago I mentioned the huge cow parsnips I found growing down near American Camp. Well, I found someone to go back with me and snap my picture next to them to give you a size comparison so you can see just how big they really are!

I guess they can get up to 10 feet tall....this one is probably between 6 and 7. There are a lot of other ones around on the south end of the island that are "only" 4-5 feet tall. I mentioned in my earlier post how similar they are to the deadly poison hemlock, and I found myself wondering just how sure I was of my identification! A closer look on this visit, however, revealed that the stems are covered in long hairs, a sure sign that it's the benign cow parsnip.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gray Whale Off Whidbey Island

Today I went out as a passenger on the Western Explorer. The whale-watch company I work for, Western Prince, has added the Explorer as a new vessel this year, and I went out for a pleasure cruise to experience the new ride. It's a rigid-hulled inflatable (zodiac), so it's a zippy, open-air ride that's a lot different from our other boat, but it's a lot of fun.

The orcas headed out to the ocean on Monday night, so instead of checking out orcas today we headed south towards Whidbey Island to look for a gray whale that's been hanging out there. On the way, we headed through Cattle Pass at the south end of San Juan Island and I shot this photo of Cattle Point Lighthouse as a sail boat was passing by:

We caught up with the gray whale and had an amazing encounter with it. It didn't seem to take heed of our presence and we watched it feed in a shallow bay (about 18 feet deep - the whale was as much as 45 feet long!). Gray whales are bottom feeders, meaning that they scoop up mouths full of mud and sift out amphipods to eat. We could tell it was feeding because every once and a while we would see a plume of mud surrounding it as it surfaced.

Interestingly enough, the whale was hanging out right off the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and there were several jets doing touch-and-gos and flying overhead, making for a very noisy backdrop to watching the whale!

It was still quiet enough on occasion to hear the whale breath, a much longer exhalation than what we hear from the orcas. With all the blotches and barnacles on its skin, it looks almost more like a rock in my photo than a whale!

But if you look closely in the photo below, you can see the gray whale's two blowholes. Toothed whales, like orcas, have a single blowhole, while baleen whales like the gray have two, looking more like the two nostrils of land mammals that were the precursor to cetacean's blowholes. As always, you can click on the image to see a larger version.

Take a look at all the pock marks and scrapes on the skin! So much different than the smooth, usually unblemished skin of the orca. The gray whale's back really seems to tell a story, and I wonder where it got some of its markings.

We thought our trip was almost over just outside of Friday Harbor, but we came upon a California sea lion hanigng out on the buoy in the middle of San Juan Channel. The Steller sea lions seem to have mostly departed the area in favor of their breeding grounds, but we see the occasional California sea lion year round.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cedar Waxwings

Another sign of the changing seasons is the departure and arrival of various bird species. The ubiquitous (in the winter) bufflehead have now all moved north. Barn and violet-green swallows are now abundant. Turkey vultures are back and can be seen circling overhead. Yesterday I heard my first Swainson's thrush signing, a song I truly associate with summer.

And today, the trees on both side of the street were absolutely teeming with cedar waxwings:

Down the hatch! A lot of them were feeding on the abundant English Ivy berries.

J-Pod's Been Around

The last three afternoons I've had the pleasure of watching J-Pod off the west side of San Juan Island - a sure sign that the summer season is here at last. The whales have mostly been very spread out, fairly far offshore, surfacing very sporadically, and back lit in the late afternoon light, which all play a part in bad conditions for taking photos. Here's one image that's worth sharing, though:

J34 Doublestuf (in back) and J28 Polaris (in front)

Doublestuf is the oldest offspring of J22 Oreo, and has a younger sibling in J38 Cookie, and the family group is affectionately known as "The Cookies". Doubestuf is only 11 years old, but he's already showing the characteristic "fin sprout" of a young teenage male. Much like their human counterparts, young male orcas go through a gawky growth spurt from about 13-18 years of age, where their fin "sprouts" from the three-foot high dorsal fin of a female and juvenile and grows until it reaches up to six feet in height.

A couple of weeks ago while photographing plants on my street a lady stopped me to asked me if I was taking pictures of her weeds (to which I responded, simply, "Yes"). Funny, no one ever asks me what I'm doing when I'm photographing orcas.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Plants of My Street Part 3: Ferns and Vines

Now that I've shared the flowers, trees, and shrubs of my street I'm not quite sure how to categorize the remaining plants, so we'll start with this post featuring ferns and vines.

Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) grows all over the rocks along one side of the street, and is common elsewhere on the island growing off of trees. Its name comes from the fact that its rhizomes (underground stems) taste like licorice:

Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) are large evergreen ferns that carpet forest floors across the region. Their huge leaves were commonly used by native peoples to line pit ovens, stuff bedding, and pad food and other items in storage. There aren't many of them growing this close to town, but I found one:

English ivy (Hedera helix) is one of the most invasive plants in the US, right up there with scotch broom. Back in Portland I spent several muddy mornings helping to clear my college campus of the pest, which climbs over everything and chokes out many native species. I hadn't ever noticed the bizarre flowers before, which have already turned into clusters of blue berries in the week or two since I took this photo:

One of the most striking plants on the street is western trumpet honeysuckle, also known as orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa), a native vine with bright, beautiful trumpet-shaped flowers that open right off the last leaf of each branch. They're a favorite of local hummingbirds:

Finally, I discovered this little creeping flower growing right along the stairs up from the marina. The flowers look almost violet-like, but I haven't been able to place it in any of my field guides. I wonder if its an "escapee" cultivar? Any ideas as to what it might be?

This is the third post in a series featuring all my botantical discoveries right on my own street. See the others here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


As I've been focusing so much on flowers lately, I have to remember to look up from my feet sometimes and take in the great views all around me. Here are some of my favorite photos from the last week or so.

Cloud and the lone tree, Mt. Finlayson, south end of San Juan Island.

British Camp in the spring

Late afternoon lighting at the Land Bank Westside Preserve

Rainy afternoon in the woods near the Friday Harbor Labs

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Wordy and the Other-Worldly

As I've observed all the flowers and plants around me on my recent walks, I've come across some truly bizarre species. In this post I'll feature a few of the plants with bizarre names (the wordy) and bizarre characteristics (the other-worldy).

This little white (or pinkish) woodland flower has become one of my favorites. It is known as broad-leaved starflower (Trientalis latifolia). Once you recognize the leaves, you notice them on the forest floor all over the place, but the buds and the stalks they're on are only visible upon the closest inspection (there are two buds in the first photo below). Different patches bloom at different times so while the leaves are abundant they aren't all flowering at the same time. They have been given the name starflower because the white flowers appear to be extended in mid-air like a star, since the stalks are almost thread-like:

I mentioned yellow sand-verbena (Arbonia latifolia) in one of my other recent posts, but a return visit revealed that the first of the flowers are beginning to bloom. They're bright little globes of sticky-looking yellow flowers that stand out like beacons on the sandy dunes:

One of the weirdest plant names of a species I've recently identified is the heart-leaved twayblade (Listera cordata). It looks pretty bizarre too with only a single pair of leaves, and flowers that sport two long lobes at the base. Apparently they also have an intricate pollination mechansim involving blowing out drops of sticky fluid onto unsuspecting insects, a phenomenon originally studied by Charlest Darwin:

The first time I saw the spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata maculata) I thought it was a parasitic plant like Indian pipe, which taps into fungi that associate with photosynthetic trees, allowing it to sap resources from the trees without having any chlorophyll to photosynthesize itself. Spotted coralroot is actually a saprophytic member of the orchid family, which means it gets its resources by living off of decaying organic matter. So, coralroots don't have any green leaves and they don't photosynthesize either, but they also aren't parasites:

The behemoth of the bunch is the cow-parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), which at heights of up to 9 feet (!!!!) tall, looks to me like something that belongs in prehistoric times. The scientific name refers to Hercules, a man known for his size and strength. These specimens were probably about 6 feet tall, and I should go back with someone else to have a person stand next to them for scale. For reference, each of the leaves is probably about the size of a dinner plate, or even larger for the leaves at the bottom. Cow-parsnip actually a member of the carrot family, and while the leaves and flowers are toxic, the stems were widely eaten as a green vegetable by native peoples. I wouldn't risk it, however, as without caution the plant can be mixed up with poison hemlock:

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Orca Watcher Returns to Watching Orcas

Despite my fascination and plethora of blog posts featuring all the creatures and plants great and small I've been observing, the original species that drew me to the San Juan Islands is the killer whale. I first saw wild orcas on a family trip to Alaska in 1997, and it was love at first sight. I grew up in Portland, Oregon and did some research to see if I could find orcas closer to home, and that's when I discovered the San Juans off the northwest coast of Washington. Our first family trip here was in the summer of 2000, and I have been back every summer, pretty much staying longer and longer each year until this year when I never left and stayed the whole winter.

The Southern Resident orcas, made of J-, K- and L-Pods and totaling some 85 or so whales, are not migratory in that they do not travel to and from a breeding ground and feeding ground. That is how they got their name "resident", because the core of their range is always centered around the San Juan Islands, or more accurately the Fraser River where their primary food source, salmon, is centered. The whales are within 40-50 miles of here pretty much every day from sometime in May until sometime in October. In the winter, they still visit occasionally, but spend more time in the Pacific Ocean, and as we've learned recently, K and L Pods travel down to off the Oregon and north-central California coasts with some regularity. Columbia River salmon stocks probably make up a large portion of their diet, as well.

This year was a bit of an anomaly in that it was the first April since 1977 that J-Pod was not seen in the area, and were in fact gone for 44 days before returning to the area May 4th with the K13 matriline in K-Pod (also odd, since K-Pod rarely splits up in this fashion). While the whales have been in the area daily since then, they have spent a lot of time north of San Juan Island closer to the Fraser River, and I have missed my few opportunities to see them from shore. (If you want to orient yourself a little bit, check out this map I made. The whales come in from the ocean via the Strait of Juan de Fuca and have spent a lot of the last two weeks in the south Strait of Georgia at the top of the map, which is near the mouth of the Fraser River). But today, I finally got to see the residents for the first time this season when I was out at Lime Kiln!

A very, very spread out J-Pod took no less than two hours to pass Lime Kiln. The whales were in no hurry at all, and it was very peaceful just to watch them slowly surfacing between their long dives. There are hydrophones you can listen to on the web, but the cool thing about the hydrophones at Lime Kiln is you can listen to them live on 88.1 FM within a mile or so of the lighthouse. I bought an Mp3 player with radio recording ability solely for this purpose, and made a four minute recording of their echolocating before the batteries died (Whoops, never thought to recharge it after it sat in the closet all winter....). You can hear the recording here.

J19 ~ Shachi ~ 30 year old female

I also got my first look at the two new J-Pod calves that were first confirmed in February, so are just a few months old. J44 was born to J17 Princess Angeline, and J45 was born to J14 Samish.

Three month old calf J45 surfacing in front of big sister J37, Hy'shqa, who is eight years old.

I knew I missed the whales during the winter, but I never really realized how much until seeing them again today. It's a unique place to watch wildlife here, because literally every animal is known, named, and recognizable. There are no population estimates - we know the exact numbers, and even their ages and family trees. Seeing them again is truly like being reunited with old friends, and I'm glad they're back.

Friday, May 15, 2009

More Young Foxes

I've been out to check on the fox den every days, but usually the family is either out and about or tucked away inside as I hadn't seen them in some time. Yesterday when I went out near sunset, however, I spotted them a little higher up on the hill above their den so I stopped to take a look. I saw two of the original three fox kits I photographed, and here's a comparison of one of them. It's hard to see, but he/she has really grown quite a bit - maybe doubled in size over the last two weeks. That striking coloration on the younger picture has also faded out to a more traditional coloring - it was still just as curious, though:

The father fox has tolerated my presence once before, but this was the first time the mother fox was there at the same time I was. She started walking directly at me, and while some of the local foxes are used to approaching people looking for handouts, I definitely got a "leave us alone" vibe on her advance. I took the hint and just snapped a few photos before hiking on further up the hill, figuring I would just go for a hike on the dunes and enjoy the sunset.

A little further along, however, I came across ANOTHER mother fox with three kits. I spotted them from a few hundred yards away and approached slowly, and as soon as the mom lifted her head I stopped to see what she would do. I was expecting her to "chase" me off as well, but instead she just looked at me for a while as her kits jumped all over her. Finally, she turned and trotted off in the opposite direction, and the vibe I got from her was "Okay, YOU watch them for a while". Taking her departure as permission to hang out, I approached a little closer and spent about a half an hour with these newly discovered young foxes, who were very happy to just go about their business while I observed and took photos.

This fox looks almost coyote-like to me, especially standing in the sunshine on a dune that looks almost desert-like.

The local rabbit population has declined quite a bit, and these fox kits were hanging out in a field covered with former rabbit burrows. They were running in and out of all sorts of different holes, so the burrows appear to have been adapted into a big fox kit playground.

The way this black fox kit was tossing around and chewing on its toy, I thought it had a piece of bark or something to play with. Closer examination of my pictures revealed its actually (at least a part of) some type of prey - probably provided by mom or dad.

I went out hoping to see foxes, but had no idea I'd see seven (two moms and five kits in total) and spend the evening with a newly discovered family!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Peregrine Falcon Nest Cam

I just learned about a cool peregrine falcon nest cam that you can monitor online. It watches a pair of peregrines that are nesting on the 59th story of the Washington Mutual building in downtown Seattle in a nest box provided by the Falcon Research Group (you can also track some tagged peregrines on their migration through this group). They say you may have to wait a while before you see a bird, but it appears to me that they are incubating egg(s) now because a bird has been there every time I've checked. These are a couple of screen captures I took just a little while ago. How cool will it be to see the chicks after they hatch?!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Plants of My Street Part 2: Shrubs and Trees

I can't wait to post some of my more bizarre plant findings from over the last week or so, but its just as important to appreciate the "ordinary" which is why I've decided that this post should be the next installment of my botanical study of my street. It is part of my philosophy to enjoy the natural beauty of even the most common things around you. Besides, just because they're ordinary to me, doesn't mean they are to you! Maybe they are species you've never seen before, or species that occur all around you that you haven't yet taken notice of...

Oregon-grape, Berberis aquifolium. There are two similar species in the region (Tall Oregon-grape (aquifolium) and dull Oregon-grape (nervosa)), and I'm pretty sure this is the former but I'm not at all confident in my ability to tell them apart. Even though I think of it as more of a shrub, Oregon-grape is the state flower of Oregon.

The easiest way to identify this plant as oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) is when it gets its characteristic white clusters of flowers which should burst forth in a couple of weeks. I could identify this one because the dried up flowers from last year were still attached to the plant.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon) is one of the most abundant shrubs in the Pacific Northwest coastal region. It's distinct with its leathery, evergreen leaves, and really looks like it belongs when its covered with the drizzle of a few raindrops as in this photo.

Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) is also affectionately known by some as "nature's toilet paper" since the leaves are so soft. The berries are tasty, but few and far between, so you usually only get to sample one or two at a time. They're also pretty mushy, so it would be hard to collect them in any abundance anyway.

This plant is Saskatoon (Amalanchier alnifolia), and boy did it stump me for a while. By far the most difficult ID for me in this posting. Now that I've figured it out, I notice these beautiful blooming shrub-trees everywhere.

This one, red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is a tree I easily recognize because there were two of them in my parents' backyard growing up. I never thought you were supposed to eat the berries, but apparently they are edibile if you cook them first, as the native people did.

This photo doesn't really do the Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and its beautiful papery red bark justice, but it does show how right now these trees are in full bloom all over the island. Like salal, this tree has evergreen leaves. In a few months, these blooms will turn into clusters of red berries that are a popular snack among birds.

The bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) leaves are getting larger every day, making them look much more familiar than the early-spring version of this tree with tiny leaves and huge clusters of dangling flowers.

The wetsern redcedar (Thuja plicata) is known as "the cornerstone of Northwest Indian culture" because it was so widely used by local tribes. They built virtually everything out of its wood and bark, from canoes and houses to baskets and fishing floats.

The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is probably the most common local tree. It's characterized by thick bark (allowing it to better survive forest fires than some of its aboreal counterparts) and is one of the most sappy trees in the region (as in covered with pitch, not as in cheesy).

The Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) is described in one of my field guides as being a "shy" tree, if trees are capable of being shy. I found this description accurate because I almost missed this tree's presence entirely. It's a relatively small, slow-growing, nondescript conifer that really does just blend into the background. It is, however, very famous for the discovery of taxol in its bark, which is a promising anti-cancer drug.