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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Western Explorer Trip: J-Pod off Eagle Point

This morning I went out as naturalist on the Western Explorer, and we truly experienced the full range of wildlife the San Juan Islands have to offer. On our way down San Juan Channel we saw three adult bald eagles, and then many dozens of harbor seals hauled out on Whale Rocks. As we pulled out into the straits we took a wide berth out and around before heading towards the known location of the orcas, hoping to pick up some minke whales. Indeed, we saw at least two: one small one near Salmon Bank, that we found again on the way home with a group of harbor porpoise, and another one just off of Eagle Point. In terms of sea birds, throughout the day we saw glaucous-winged gulls, pelagic and double-crested cormorants, rhinocerous auklets, a pair of oystercatchers, and a common murre. The highlight of the day, however, was, not unpredictably, the orcas.

We met up with J-Pod on the west side of San Juan Island heading south between False Bay and Eagle Point. They were pretty spread out and doing some foraging - lunging, circling, and diving in pursuit of fish. What was cool was that the little groups of foraging whales also seemed to throw in some socializing, as we saw lots of splashing and rolling around at the surface, too.

The first whale we came across was the young adult male J27 Blackberry, who is 18 years old. He was the first whale I adopted way back when, and I always enjoy seeing him because he and his pod-mate J26 Mike are the first two young males I really watched grow up. When I first started coming here years ago, they were still juveniles, but since I've been here they've gone through puberty and reached maturity, which involves the characteristic "fin sprout" of young males where their fin grows from the three-foot-tall dorsal fin of females and juveniles to the 5-6 foot-tall dorsal of the adult male. It's so cool to see how tall his fin has gotten!

J27 Blackberry

Oftentimes, the adult males aren't as surface active as some of the other whales, meaning you don't see as many breaches, spyhops, cartwheels, etc. from them. Today, however, we saw four big spyhops from Blackberry. Our best guess is that they spyhop to see what's going on above the surface of the water. I wonder if he was checking us out, while we were checking him out?

Spyhop by J27 Blackberry. He looks nice and fat which is great to see! Hopefully he's getting lots to eat.

One more shot of J27 Blackberry, just breaking the surface as he comes up for a breath.

After Blackberry went by, another group of 3 whales, including a smaller youngster, headed towards us. The lighting wasn't the best so it was hard to get IDs on them, but I'm pretty sure it included J38 Cookie, who is six years old, and Cookie's cousin J32 Rhapsody, a 13 year-old female who most often hangs out with her aunt and cousins since she lost her own mother as a calf. They were a rambunctious group today, and although the picture below is a little blurry, it was the only breach we saw today so I thought I would include it.

Breach by J38 Cookie

Cookie is kind of an interesting whale. I hate to call a whale "it", but we still don't know if it's a male or a female. The only way we can tell is either by the whale reaching sexual maturity and getting the fin sprout of a male or giving birth to a calf, or by seeing the whale's underbelly markings, since the black and white patterns are slightly different on males and females. Cookie isn't old enough for the former and the latter hasn't happened yet so we just don't know. Additionally, Cookie is pretty small for a six-year-old, and just doesn't seem to be growing as most other whales that age have. Just like people, different whales are different sizes, so maybe J38 will just have a late growth spurt.

Finally, right before it was time to leave, the last group of whales we were going to view passby turned and started porpoising (speed swimming) in our direction! They ended up passing right by us pretty quickly, but one did a couple lunges right near us. It's always hard to get a good photo of a whale porpoising because it happens so fast (they're swimming up to 35 mph!) but this one turned out pretty good, if a little off-center:

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Western Prince Trip - L2s in Haro Strait

Today I was out on the Western Prince. This morning members of all three pods had been in the area, and they had started traveling north towards the edge of our range. Luckily, we had reports of a small group of L-Pod whales that was still on the west side of San Juan Island. It turns out it was the L2s - mother L2 Grace and her two sons L78 Gaia and L88 Wavewalker. I only saw 3 whales myself, but others said there were four, with the fourth perhaps being L87 Onyx.

When we first got on scene the whales were right up along the shoreline several hundred yards inshore of us. They were swimming slowly south and taking long dives. Suddenly, they veered straight offshore towards us. We backed out of their way, then cut our engines as they dove down again. We waited...and waited...unsure of where they would come up next. While L2 and L78 had headed back inshore, we were surprised when L88 Wavewalker, a 16 year old male, surfaced about 75 yards off our stern! He then proceeded to swim right along the port side of the boat, surfacing once right alongside the boat.

It is absolutely one of the coolest things to be able to see a whale swimming underwater. Usually you can just make out the white markings on the whale, which stand out better against the dark water background. From a photographer's perspective it's nice, too, because you can see right where the whale is going to come up! Check out this sequence of photos of Wavewalker surfacing. The third and fourth ones are full frame shots, that's how close he was!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Western Explorer Trip - J-Pod in Swanson Channel

This morning we had an awesome trip on the Western Explorer. We knew J and K Pods had headed north last night, but when we left the dock no one had spotted anything yet this morning. That quickly changed, as before we even pulled all the way into San Juan Channel Captain Ivan was getting phone calls about whales southbound from Andrew's Bay. Wait, there's also whales at Turn Point, heading north! And something about whales at Active Pass? With all these conflicting reports no one was really sure which whales were where. All that was clear as we pulled out of Spieden Channel into Haro Strait was that at least some of the residents were heading down the south side of San Juan Island. So our choice was - pursue seeing these residents, or try to catch up with the mystery whales up north, which were now reported to be heading up Swanson Channel towards Active Pass. (Confused about all these locations? Check out my map, which has most of them on it. The one that's missing is Active Pass which is at the north end of Swanson Channel.) Ivan, who always has a sense of adventure, decided to take us north. It turned out to be a great decision!

As we started seeing whales in the distance Ivan said, "Okay, let's get some IDs!" We weren't even sure if we were viewing the fish-eating residents or marine mammal-feeding transients at this point, and we were prepared to use bincoulars to try and get close looks at saddle patches. It turned out not to be that difficult, however, as the very first whale that we saw was big male J1 Ruffles - the oldest and most easily recognizable whale in the Southern Resident Community.

J1 Ruffles with J14 Samish

The orcas had been spread out, but soon after we got on scene they started grouping up. The other two boats that were there left shortly after we arrived, and we ended up having J-Pod "all to ourselves" for most of our visit. It was pretty special to see them in tight groups, surfacing all together, and slowly traveling northward.

Our best looks were definitely of the J14 family group who was traveling with J1 Ruffles, J2 Granny, and J8 Spieden - who at estimated ages of 58, 98, and 76, respectively, are among the oldest members of the community.

J1 and the J14 family group, with one whale giving a tail slap. The J14s are made up of mother J14 Samish, son J30 Riptide, daughter J37 Hy'shqa, daughter J40 Suttles, and newborn calf J45.

What made it especially cool was that these "elders" of J-Pod were traveling with the group's youngest member, calf J45 who was born to J14 Samish and was first documented in February of 2009.

The three dorsal fins in this picture belong to, from left to right, J1 Ruffles, J2 Granny, and J14 Samish. You can just see the head of calf J45 poking up in the back of the group. When born, this calf was probably about six feet long and 400 pounds, but it sure looks tiny next to its full-sized relatives!

We were able to ID most of J-Pod. "The Cookies" - J22 Oreo and her two offspring J34 Doublstuf and J38 Cookie - were definitely there. I saw J19 Shachi and her only calf, four year old J41 Eclipse. The three siblings of J27 Blackberry, J31 Tsuchi, and J39 Mako were also traveling together, which was good to see since they lost their mother J11 Blossom last year. It really seems like Blackberry, an 18 year old male, has taken younger brother Mako, who is 6, "under his wing". There was a small group of whales close to shore and pretty far away from us which I think was the J17 family group, so the only family we didn't see for sure were the J16s. They are a bit of a rebel matriline as over the last few years they have spent some time traveling separate from the rest of J-Pod, so I'm not sure whether they were there and we just missed them or if they were off somewhere else.

A youngster, perhaps J40 Suttles, does a half breach in front of male J30 Riptide.

Not too long ago, there weren't many fully adult males in the Southern Resident Community - just J1 in J-Pod and two L-Pod males. It is great to see so many tall male dorsal fins these days. here J1 Ruffles is seen with J30 Riptide, and Riptide's mom J14 Samish.

The whales didn't make much progress while we watching them, traveling basically from Moat (spelling?) to Otter Bay. They were fighting against an ebb tide as they headed north, but were most likely heading for Active Pass. The last I heard, it ended up being K-Pod who went south, and they were hanging out off the south end of San Juan Island.

J1 Ruffles (featured in so many photographs because its hard NOT to snap the camera when his impressive dorsal fin comes to the surface) traveling with J8 Spieden, with her characteristic stubby dorsal fin.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

This Is What I Live For

J-Pod. West side of San Juan Island. In the kelp. For an hour. No more explanation needed. Enjoy....

Monday, June 22, 2009

Big Day: Birds, Flowers, Amphibians, Mammals, Insects....

Every year my dad and I try to do a "Big Day" of birding, where we try to visit as many habitats and see as many species as possible in a day. Our record is something like 90 species in 14 hours. Today was somewhat of a mini Big Day, with "just" 9 hours of birding, and a focus on more than just the birds.

On our drive to our first destination we picked up a respectable eight species: song sparrow, red-tailed hawk, American crow, European starling, rock pigeon, barn swallow, Brewer's blackbird, and American robin.

Our first stop was just outside of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. Other birders had reported Lazuli buntings in the meadow there, and sure enough, I was able to hear them. The only way they made our day list is because someone else had already reported them and we had played the Lazuli bunting call so I knew what to listen for. Otherwise, they easily would have been dismissed as a sparrow or finch call, and we never saw the bird. At this same meadow we also heard our first Swainson's thrushes of the day, a Pacific-slope flycatcher, a western scrub-jay, and we also saw a Steller's jay harassing a hawk to the point that it flew off its perch.

Right next to where we parked our car to listen for Lazuli buntings was an ant colony:

The meadow was also filled with wildflowers like oxeye daisies, St. John's wort, clovers, and these purple thistles that some American goldfinches were feasting on (Cirsium sp.):

Down at the entrance to the refuge itself we heard and saw some recently fledged Bullock's orioles, heard our first savannah sparrows. As we started on the auto-tour loop that takes you through the wetlands and forested areas of the refuge, we picked up two more swallow species (violet-green and rough-winged), and saw families of mallards, pied-billed grebes, and American coot. Common yellowthroats could be heard singing, great blue herons foraged in the shallows, a turkey vulture soared overhead, and both red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds perched in the cattail marsh. We also heard the winnowing of airborne common snipe.

Nearby we noticed this western painted turtle that was out of the water basking in this odd pose with its rear legs fully extended:

At the edge of the cattail marsh my dad noticed these plants, which thanks to paging through my field guides I immediately recognized as Arrowhead (also known as Wapato, or Sagittaria latifolia):

We stopped to get out at the blind that overlooks the largest lake along the auto tour route. The six American white pelicans - a rarity for the refuge - stood out like a sore thumb against the brown and green background of the marsh. There were also several dozen Canada geese, many gadwall, a small handful of northern shovlers, and an American kestrel perched in a nearby tree. We almost missed this barn swallow on her nest in the blind, and only noticed her just as we turned around to leave:

We drove through the rest of the refuge with the windows down despite the swarms of mosquitos that were everywhere. Amazingly, they seem to have mostly avoided me in favor of feeding on my dads arms and feet. As we drove through the woods along a stream, we saw a white-breasted nuthatch, our first tree swallows of the day, and a cinnamon teal. In one small marshy area I was lucky enough to spot the normally elusive American bittern walking across an open waterway, at one point apparently swimming through the deepest part of the water. While watching it through binoculars we also saw a nutria swimming the other direction behind the bittenr. Finally, as we crossed the bridge to leave the refuge, we spotted a few cliff swallows, making it a respectable five swallow species day.

We've often talked about birding both wetlands and the coast in the same Big Day, but today was the first time we actually did it. We drove out to Happy Camp beach on the Oregon Coast to conduct a COASST survey for beached birds on my dad's stretch of beach, while looking for live birds at the same time. While walking along the beach we heard a common raven, orange-crowned warblers, white-crowned sparrows, House sparrows, and a spotted towhee. We didn't find any beached birds, but we did see about a dozen of these huge jellyfish:

From his beach we also added the pigeon guillemot, pelagic cormorant, Western gull, glaucous-winged gull, and Caspian tern to our list, as well as 10 or so harbor seals. We then headed closer to the rocks in the photo below to scan them with his scope. Through the scope we could see tens of thousands of common murres and a few dozen brown pelicans (the first time either of us has seen two pelican species in one day). We were also surprised to see small flock of black scoters, and wondered what they are still doing in the area this time of year. The base of the rocks were also covered with a couple hundred sea lions. Just as we pulled out of the small town of Oceanside, we saw a juvenile bald eagle cruising overhead.

The next stop was Cape Meares lighthouse, where we know a pair of peregrine falcons has nested in the past. On our way down the trail we heard a singing winter wren. It didn't take my dad much time to locate the falcon nest on the nearby cliffs, and through the scope we could see both of the falcons preening and stretching their wings near the nest.

We drove along Tillamook Bay before heading inland again, and were rewarded with a few more species for the day list. We saw a few double-crested cormorants, heard a belted kingfisher, and saw a juvenile brown-headed cowbird. On our drive back through the coast range we stopped along the Wilson River in hopes of picking up an American dipper. We didn't, but I did see a spotted sandpiper and a mourning dove to add to the list.

Our last stop of the day was at Killin Wetlands near Banks, Oregon. We heard several more American bitterns here. We were hoping a sora or Virginia rail would help us break 60 species for the day; we didn't hear either of these rails but did see a wood duck family and hear some marsh wrens to bring us to 60 species. As an added bonus, on our way out of Banks we saw a pair of Eurasian collared doves, only the second time I've seen this species.

All in all, a great day's birding, and a decent day list of 61 bird species!

Double Striped Bluet - Damselfly

The last few days my dad has spotted the first damselflies we have ever seen in my parents' backyard. They proved difficult to approach, and I was unsuccessful at photographing them yesterday without scaring them off. Today, I decided to use the macro setting on my zoom lens to attempt to get some shots from farther away, and was rewarded with some pretty cool results. From my photos I was able to (I think) identify this as a male double-striped bluet (Enallagma basidens).

Check out those eyes!!!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Update on the Southern Residents

A group of traveling Southern Resident whales.

I know a lot of you blog readers have been just as concerned about the Southern Resident killer whales as I have been, especially after I posted some of my concerns a few weeks ago. I wanted to share that yesterday and today J-Pod, the L12s, and K20 and K38 have been seen in inland waters, and reports I'm hearing are that they look "healthy and happy".

I am, of course, down in Portland for six days to spend some time with my family, so still no whales for me! But I'm very happy to hear that they have been sighted and appear to be in good condition. Even if they don't stick around the islands much this year, they are apparently finding something to eat somewhere, and that is what truly matters.

J-Pod had not been seen near San Juan Island since May 25th - a whopping 24 day absence that is unheard of this time of year. Normally, Js are a mainstay in May and June, seen on almost a daily basis. Not having J-Pod around in June was really starting to worry everyone, so its good to know they're around again and looking good.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Walk in the Woods

The other day I went for a walk in the woods at San Juan County Land Bank's Lime Kiln Preserve, as well as near Westside Lake across the road from there. With the lush forests filled in with green, it proved easier to find the birds by ear rather than by sight, but luckily there was a lot of singing going on.

Olive-sided and Pacific-slope flycatchers could be heard everywhere, but proved very difficult to locate. Orange-crowned warblers were abundant, and the occasional Swainson's thrush could also be heard singing their beautiful cascading song that I strongy associate with a San Juan Island summer.

One highlight was a chipping sparrow at the exact same bend in the trail where I saw the species in June of 2007 - the only other time I've seen them here on the island, although they are reported to be common from May-August. I also located a house wren nest, with parents actively going to and fro to feed the calling young. A turkey vulture kept an eye on my progress by occasionally soaring overhead.

Northern flickers, belted kingfishers, and red-winged blackbirds could be seen and heard calling near the pond. Violet-green swallows cruised overhead, and a mother wood duck tried unsuccessfully to keep her brood of eight ducklings corralled. I think only seven of the eight are visible in the photo below:

I'm pretty sure these holes were made by the Northern flicker's larger cousin, the pileated woodpecker. I've seen several around lately - they are such a cool bird to see, as they are very big and strikingly colored - but none on this trip.

In total, I heard/saw 23 bird species. Not bad for a short afternoon hike through the woods. As we get closer to summer proper, some new wildflowers are also emerging, like these oxeye daisies (Anthemis cotula) that are now abundant on the island:

I also spotted a small patch of twinflower (Linnea borealis), a trailing shrub with pairs of small, pinkish-white flowers. Every book I've looked it up in talks about what a sweet fragrance the flowers have, though I have to admit I didn't notice it. I was down on hands and knees face to face with the plant, but they are very tiny flowers. It is also reportedly one of the all-time favorite plants of the famous botanist known as the Father of Taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus. One of his patrons named this species in his honor, and he is shown holding a sprig of Twinflower in several portraits.

From the outside the flowers look pale, but they have very bring interiors!

Finally, I don't know who jumped higher, me or the deer, when we unexpectedly came face-to-face on the trail. Luckily we both regained our composure quickly and this youngster turned around to give me one last look (and in the process posed very nicely) before trotting off deeper into the woods:

Monday, June 15, 2009


I've been inspired by fellow bloggers Dave and Warren, who post some cool insect sightings in addition to the birds and other wildlife they see. As a result, I've been trying to chase down some local dragonflies, but they are amazingly hard to approach to get a good macro shot. I don't know how you guys do it! I thought I would share the one I have managed to photograph.

My insect ID is definitely not up to par, but I use my online BugGuide to do my best. My guess is this is a meadowhawk, Sympetrum spp. What do you think? It's amazing how translucent those wings are. As always, click on the photo to get a better view. The details are pretty amazing.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sucia Island Visit

My previous post was all about our boat trip to Sucia Island, but after our picnic dinner we had a chance to take a brief walk around part of the island, as well. The whole 564 acre island is a State Park, and a network of trails, 6.2 miles in total, lets you check out the coastline and associated views from all different angles.

The best wildlife viewing was right from the dock where we had our picnic, however. This family of Canada geese came by - probably looking for handouts. I thought it was interesting that the three goslings were still smaller than their parents but already had their adult-like plumage. There were several other goose families around and those goslings still seemed to be in between plumages. I took this photo right from the picnic bench:

A lot of the island is pretty narrow, so you can see water on both sides. There are lots of neat little coves with SANDY beaches - a novelty for those of us on San Juan Island where the rocky coastlines don't have much in the way of a beach, and when they do, it's just made of smaller rocks. There were also sea shells and different types of rocks than we see on "our" beaches. Here are four members of the crew doing a little beach-combing next to Fox Cove:

If one of the beach-combers pictured above took a left and walked about 75 yards, they would be looking at this cove, part of Fossil Bay, on the other side of the island. Check out those cliffs! (Do you see the two Canada geese? You may have to click to enlarge the photo...)

In addition to different rocks and shells, there were some different flowers on Sucia, as well. There wasn't time to take a close look at many of them, but these tiger lilies definitely stood out:

In addition to the boaters who moor in one of Sucia's bays, there is a campground on the island for kayakers or people who don't want to sleep on their boat. Each camp spot is equipped with a picnic table and fire pit, and there were a few group camp sites that had shelters built around the picnic tables. This would have been a perfect time to camp there - beautiful weather, clear views in all directions, and there was only one tent in sight. I can only imagine what it would be like there if every one of the 55 camp spots was full, though - more like a little city!

I climbed up a bluff at one tip of the island, and found this tree overhanging the cliff edge. The San Juan Islands are in the background: