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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Turtleback Mountain

Inspired by last week's trip to Mt. Constitution as well as the beautiful, warm September weather we've been having, I took advantage of a day off today to go over to hike Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island. The above photo, taken during a sunrise back in April, shows how the hillside got its name for looking like the shell and head of a turtle. Turtleback Mountain is a prominent landmark in the San Juans as it can be seen from almost anywhere. The undeveloped ridgeline used to be privately owned, but once it went up for sale in 2006 several local land preservation groups worked together and, along with an outpouring of donations, outbid developers to purchase the 1,576 acres of land and not only make it public land, but ensure it will remain undeveloped. I've been meaning to go over and check it out - it's still pretty untouched but they've started putting in some trails.

Today I explored the trail from the south entrance, which leads about 1.5 miles up to the 931' Ship's Peak. It's a bit of a steep climb, but the views are well worth the effort, as seen above and below. While the vistas are enough incentive to climb Turtleback, today the birds were the real treat.

Partway up the trail while stopping to enjoy the view, I saw some Steller's jays (common on Orcas Island but interestingly absent from San Juan Island) and a large flock of band-tailed pigeons. I also noticed several birds of prey circling overhead. In addition to several turkey vultures, a red-tailed hawk, and another unidentified but non-red-tail hawk, I spotted an immature golden eagle. Dedicated blog readers may remember a post about bald and golden eagles in the San Juans from back in January, indicating my skepticism that golden eagles still reside in the county. Well, with the white "elbows" and white tail with a dark band on this large soaring bird, there was no doubt it was an immature golden! Super exciting!!

The lunch stop was at the top of Ship's Peak, which overlooks the valley and farmlands on Orcas Island rather than the marine view of the other islands you get while hiking up the trail. Perched on the edge of the cliff more than 900 feet up is almost enough to invoke vertigo, but it's awesome to look down on the roads, barns, and farm animals, as well as straight across at Mt. Constitution.

Needless to say, down was much faster than up, but the cool sightings for the day weren't over. A female hairy woodpecker was feasting on a maple tree, and a tree frog that must have been right in front of my face was vocalizing, but I couldn't locate it. Then, perhaps the coolest find of the day, a scolding Steller's jay led me right to a barred owl!! The owl was feeding on something clutched in its talons, and when it lifted up and swallowed the remnants it looked large enough to maybe be something like a chipmunk or squirrel rather than a mouse or shrew. At this point it was mostly obscured by branches, but then it flew to another branch and proceeded to wipe its beak off on the limb. This also allowed an unobstructed view of the front of the owl to confirm the ID, and would have been a great photo-op had I not been too lazy to haul my telephoto lens on the hike (when will I ever learn?). Even using my 28-80mm lens, I was able to capture this picture of the owl (click to see a larger view):

It was a perfect day for a hike and with all the bird sightings, I can't wait to go back and explore the north entrance to the trail. Here's one more bonus shot of a cool-looking iridescent green fly hanging out on a partially eaten leaf:


Kelly said... your photo of the Barred Owl. I would LOVE to stumble across such a beauty on one of my hikes. It's great the conservation group was able to buy up that land!

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Sounds like a great trip out. You'll have to get a wheel-barrow or team of porters for all the extra kit!

Keep up the good work



eileeninmd said...

Great photos, and I love the owl. How cool and a great sighting.

Monika said...

Kelly - Thanks! I guess I should be happy I got a photo at all, even if I didn't have my telephoto lens :) It was definitely a real feel-good story to have all that land protected.

Dave - I know! I always pick and choose what to carry with me on a hike, and I always have the most need for what I left behind.

Eileen - It's only the second time I've seen a barred owl in the San Juans, so I was very excited!