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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!!

In honor of the date, I thought I would share my attempt at pumpkin carving this year.

Yesterday was my birthday, and my parents gave me a great field guide of insects of the Pacific Northwest, so my next post should feature some neat insect photos I've been saving up in the hopes of being able to ID them when I share the photos.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Albatross/Killer Whale Interaction At Sea

A recent study examining images retrieved from a digital camera attached to the back of an albatross made a remarkable find: albatrosses may follow killer whales in the open ocean in hopes of scavenging scraps of food. In addition to photographs, the camera also records temperature, so sharp drops in temperature often indicate the albatross is in the water feeding. Such temperature dips are associated with the whale photographs, which leads the researchers to speculate that whale-following may be an effective foraging tactic.

You can read more details and see a remarkable image showing albatrosses soaring behind a surfacing orca at this Wired Science article. Also, here's the link to the peer-reviewed journal article about this finding.

How cool!!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Nudibranch and A Crow

During this, our last week of running trips on the boat, some of my coolest sightings have been on the dock to and from the boat.

There is one particular dock piling that seems to be a favorite of nudibranchs. Earlier this month I shared a photo of a golden dirona I saw there, but this week I found a clown dorid (Triopha catalinae):

I usually don't take much notice of the crows that hang out on the dock, but this one caught my eye. I had to do a double-take and and compare it to another nearby crow to confirm, but it was definitely missing the tip of its beak! Take a look:

It's hard to tell without taking a closer look, so here's a comparison with a normal crow's beak:

This makes the third blog post featuring an animal missing a body part. If you missed the other two, they were a fox without a tail and a Dall's porpoise without a dorsal fin. It's amazing to me how they're able to adapt and survive after such an injury, especially in the case of the crow. You've also got to wonder what kind of bind they got themselves into to end up this way! Any theories?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Western Sandpiper

I went out to Fourth of July Beach this afternoon to conduct a COASST survey for stranded birds. There have been several seabird wrecks (an event where lots of live or dead seabirds strand) along the Oregon and Washington coasts recently as a result of a particular algal bloom. The species of algae that has been involved is Akashiwa sanguinea, which when tossed in the waves creates a soap-like foam that takes the waterproofing right off the birds' feathers much like oil does. In some areas they've found as many as 40 stranded birds per kilometer.

Luckily, it doesn't look like the San Juans are affected as I haven't seen any foamy looking water and there were no dead birds on my beach. There were lots of cool live birds though, and unlike last time where I left my camera in the car only to have a close encounter with some semipalmated plovers, I put it in my backback today.

Out in the bay, there were both horned grebes and red-necked grebes diving in and among the flocks of bufflehead. All three are species are fairly common winter birds here. I also counted about six common loons, who looked very stocky compared to the grebes. The surf scoters weren't a surprise, but the 20+ white-winged scoters were. White-winged scoters are a more unusual sight than surf scoters, although looking back at my notes in addition to seeing them here last January I saw them last October, as well.

The highlight today was the very cooperative pair of western sandpipers foraging along the beach.

I couldn't pick just one favorite shot, so here are my top six photos. Normally I think of peeps as being pretty skittish, but this one let me approach it to within about 8-10 feet.

It was high tide at the beach, and all of the exposed beach was covered in a thick layer of wrack (mats of seaweed). It made for difficult walking because in most places it was six inches or more deep and slippery. It was, however, covered with little hopping insects, which is what the sandpipers feed on. Yum!

I always have a hard time differentiating the western and least sandpipers. It's a lot easier when you can get this close to them. Note that it has dark rather than yellowish legs, and that the winter plumage is entirely gray with no brown. The black bill also has a slight droop at the end.

Here's one in the process of ruffling its feathers. The sun also peaked out for a moment too, making the white a little bit too bright in this shot.

Remember how a group of shearwaters is called an improbability? Well, apparently a group of sandpipers can be called a contradiction, a bind, or a fling. Who comes up with this stuff? A fling of sandpipers is a nice description of a huge flock of them. The two pairs I saw today probably don't qualify, though.

It was pretty special to observe these birds up close, and I like looking at the photos where you can make out every detail of the individual feathers. When I got back to the parking lot, one final bonus was a flock of golden-crowned sparrows.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rainy Day Visitors

Even while staying holed up at home during some of our recent rainy weather, I'm still seeing cool wildlife. Every day there have been anywhere from 1-4 harbor seals, mostly youngsters, right off our front porch feeding on bait fish. Harbor seals are really abundant all throughout the San Juans, but for some reason I only see them in our marina in the fall. (Check out this post from last November.) It's usually "weaners" too, or pups from this season that are off on their own but aren't full adult size yet. I wonder why that is?

Look at the cute face on this guy, who has his tail sticking up in the air behind him:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mushroom Walk

I took advantage of a break in the rain the other day to go for a mushroom walk and see what's been growing in all this damp weather we've been having. I started noticing fungi and attempting to identify them last year, so I'm looking forward to improving my skills this fall. So be forewarned that most of these IDs are tentative!

On rotting logs you can find witch's butter (Tremella mesenterica), which looks like its oozing out of the decaying wood. Here it is plump and blob-like since its full of water. In drier weather it shrivels and looks more brain-like:

I found several different polypores, which are tough, shelf-like fungi that mostly grow on wood. My favorite is probably the small, colorful turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) which grows in bunches, often on the flat part of stumps:

This polypore embodies what the field guides call a hoof-shaped fungus. I think its possibly Phellinus igniarius:

Here is the red-belted conk (Fomitopsis pinicola). This photo shows the sponge-like layer that makes up the underside of most polypores:

Finally, this is a varnished conk (Ganoderma spp.). There are two similar species that both show varying amounts of white, brown, and orange, but notice how the top looks shiny (varnished!), especially compared to the much duller red-belted conk above:

This little mushroom found growing on a twig on the forest floor is the toothed jelly fungus (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum). It looks like something that might glow in the dark, and as such I was unable to get a crisp, focused shot of it - a problem I had when I saw it last year too. My David Arora field guide, All That the Rain Promises and More..., is filled with his informative and colorful descriptions. He describes this species as follows:

This pretty little mushroom behaves more like a rubber thingamig than like a fungus: it quivers when prodded. Although it has small spines under the cap as in the teeth fungi, it is one of the jelly fungi, as evidenced by its texture.

Finally, here's a species that seems pretty distinct but I haven't been able to identify it yet. It was growing singly and in clumps on a decaying log, and the caps were covered with these soft, fine yellow hairs. Anyone have any ideas?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bonaparte's Gull Close-Ups

When I saw the thousands of Bonaparte's gulls I posted about yesterday, we didn't get very close to them. By Dave's request, here are some close-up shots of Bonaparte's gulls to give you a better idea of what they really look like. These photos are from September 2007 where 3-4 gulls were just circling around and feeding right off my front porch. This is what the gull looks like in winter plumage - in summer plumage they have an all black head and very clean, light gray wings with the only black being on the trailing edge. I love the way the water looks on this first shot:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls

Back on October 10th we came across an amazing sight in Spieden Channel - thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls! They were all just sitting on the water in a gigantic flock that must have trailed on for half a mile or more. Usually I only see small flocks of 10-30 Bonaparte's at a time, so this was an amazing sighting for me. A conservative estimate is that there were about 3000 of them there. We didn't want to get close enough to flush them so it's a little hard to see, but here is just a portion of the flock (click to see a larger version):

Bonaparte's gulls are fall visitors to the San Juan Islands, passing through on their migration between the taiga forests of Alaska and Canada (they are the only gull that nests in trees) and their winter home in Central American and the southern US. They're my favorite gull, in part because of how they fly - they look so light and buoyant almost like they're floating in the air. A small group of them did take flight and look almost swift-like as they darted through the air behind the boat:

Why are they called Bonaparte's gulls? Yes, they're named after a Frenchman, but not of the Napoleon dynasty....they get their name rather from Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a naturalist and ornithologist. According to All About Birds, he made significant contributions to American ornithology during the 1820s while working with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thrilling Dall's Porpoise...and More!

The fantastic October wildlife trips continued today! After a few days of fog and heavy rain (I was amazed at how much we saw yesterday in that weather - not good for taking the camera out though), we got a break in the weather today and had a beautiful afternoon out on the water on the Western Prince.

The Steller sea lions at Whale Rocks continue to be phenomenal. There are dozens of them hauled out every day, and while some sit regally as pictured below, others roar and growl at each other as they vie for the best spot on the rocks:

In addition to all the sea lions hauled out, Cattle Pass is full of gangs of them in the water as well. I'm not sure why they all hang out together at the surface like they do, but you'll see groups of 5-10 of them swimming around together. One big group came over and swam by the bow of the boat, all of them craning their necks to get a look at us as they went by:

The Steller sea lions are impressive, but the Dall's porpoise have been stealing the show day after day. Even when they're not interested in riding the bow, like today, we just stop the boat and groups of them just swarm around us. Today they circled around for a good 15 minutes or more, and when they weren't zipping around at the surface we could look straight down and see them swimming underwater. Here's a photo of one underwater:

When they're going fast the Dall's rooster-tail, or surface so fast they create a big splash around them. While trying to photograph them as they do this its easy to see why they're credited as being the fastest marine mammal on the planet, but hard to catch them! I got lucky on this shot. The spray behind this one is from a second animal that surfaced a split second earlier:

Here's another one I like because you can really see the porpoise both above and below the surface:

There's one porpoise I've seen a few times now that's missing part of its dorsal fin. Who knows what happened to it - maybe it had an unfortunate encounter with a boat (hard to believe since they bow-ride all the time just inches from the boat and don't ever touch it - but accidents do happen I suppose) or possibly it escaped a scrape with a transient killer whale. After a couple of attempts today I finally got a picture of it, though just as it was diving down rather than at the peak of its surfacing. I found another photo of a Dall's porpoise with a dorsal fin diving at the same angle so you could compare the two. Both animals are swimming from right to left:

In addition to the playful Dall's porpoise and the shyer harbor porpoise, we actually see hybrids between the two. Male harbor porpoises mate with female Dall's porpoises and the result is an animal that looks and acts like a Dall's porpoise but is colored like a harbor porpoise. You occasionally see them in and among groups of Dall's porpoise. It was thought that these animals were probably infertile but there have been some sightings of a hybrid animals with calves. This is the first time I've ever gotten a decent picture of one:

The Dall's were breath-taking, but the trip wasn't over there. There have been herds of Mouflon sheep, fallow deer, and sika deer grazing on Spieden Island. Today there was a bit of an unfortunate sight as this female fallow deer got herself into a bit of a bind. She either fell off the cliff or walked down the steep slope to the water, but in either case she was stuck and unable to scramble her way back up. Perched nearby was an adult bald eagle, perhaps awaiting the inevitable?! Nobody wanted to hang around to see how that one ended up, but we all know nature has to take its course.

You may recall from other posts that the animals on Spieden Island are not native, but were introduced as part of a game ranch in the 1980s. They are now left to roam wild, so we get a chance to check out these exotic species you might not otherwise see here. One of the most impressive sights is a male fallow deer with his huge antlers:

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Spectacular October Wildlife Day

We've had some rainy, blustery weather during the last week, but yesterday there was a break in the stormy weather and we had a fantastic wildlife trip aboard the Western Prince. It was overcast and chilly, but the seas were calm as we headed out of Friday Harbor to see what we could see.

Our first stop was in San Juan Channel where we paused to see a pair of bald eagles perched along the shoreline of Lopez Island. The eagles take a 4-6 week absence around the month of September as they, as far as I understand it, head over to the mainland of Washington and feed on the salmon that are spawning over there. Other than that short break, bald eagles are year-round residents here, and now that we're halfway into October they're back to being a common sight here in the San Juans.

Next we pulled over to Whale Rocks, where more than 60 Steller sea lions were either hauled out on the rocks or swimming in the water. Local pinniped populations are booming, and I think there are more Stellers hanging out at Whale Rocks than I've seen in recent years. The males all crowd together on the haul outs during the winter season, but they're territorial during the summer at the breeding rookeries. Some of that animosity carries over to this time of year, as they were roaring and growling at one another and we saw a few try to bite each other.

Whale Rocks - photo by Sarah Taber

On our way over to Long Island to see a bald eagle nest (and another adult bald eagle perched nearby), there was a smaller rock covered in harbor seals. Unlike the seasonal sea lions, the harbor seals are here year-round, but they get displaced from Whale Rocks by their larger cousins this time of year. The seals are not small animals - about five feet long and 200 pounds - but they look amazingly small after looking at the twelve-foot, 2000 pound adult male Steller sea lions.

Our plan was to circumnavigate San Juan Island, so we started heading north in Haro Strait along the westside of the island. We didn't get too far before we spotted a minke whale near Eagle Point. We often call them "slinky minkes" because they can be very erratic in their surfacings, but this one came up in relatively the same spot allowing us to get nice views of about a half-dozen surfacings.

Off of Lime Kiln Lighthouse we ran into a mob of Dall's porpoise. Dall's were uncharacteristically absent for much of the summer, but since the beginning of September they've been back in huge numbers. We estimated there were probably between 60-75 of them in the area, when often we will encounter fewer than ten! For a while we kept up our speed and they were riding on our bow and surfing in our stern wake. One of the coolest wildlife sightings you can have here in the San Juans is looking straight down at a porpoise swimming just feet below you as it gets pushed along by the bow of your boat, but the best part of our encounter today actually happened when we stopped the boat to just hang out with them. A group of about twenty of them started circling the boat at high speeds as if to say, "Hey! Why did you stop playing with us?!" Then, rather than zip off along their way, they slowed down but still kept swimming around the boat for about ten minutes. It was beautiful and you really got a chance to take in their striking colorations as you looked down underwater and saw their whole bodies twist and turn as they effortlessly glided through the water. It was one of the best and longest Dall's porpoise encounters I've ever had. Eventually it was time to continue on our way, but even as we left a few more porpoise rode the bow and swam alongside the boat.

Dall's porpoise bow-riding - photo by Sarah Taber

We went through Mosquito Pass between San Juan and Henry Islands, which is a narrow channel with a no-wake zone which gives you time to slow down and take in the scenery. In addition to the common murres, Pacific loons, and pelagic cormorants we had seen earlier in the trip, in the Pass we saw a flock of approximately 150 surf scoters and also a group of Bonaparte's gulls.

Next stop was Spieden Island, and the exotic land mammals that live there were out in full force as we saw dozens of Mouflon sheep, fallow deer, and Sika deer grazing on the hillsides. It's rutting season, and that was fully apparent as we saw an anterled fallow deer male chasing a female at one end of the island, and a male Mouflon ram chasing a female along the cliffs a little further along. Another treat was off Green Point at the end of Spieden Island, where another ten Steller sea lions were in the water. Three of them "spy-hopped" near the boat, craning their necks to get a look at us as we looked at them. Then the whole gang of them swam off together, with two different pairs of them surfacing repeatedly nose-to-nose. Finally, our last sighting as we headed back down San Juan Channel towards Friday Harbor, was of a lone steller sea lion surfacing with a fish and being harassed by a few dozen gulls.

I didn't take any photos today (Sarah, one of our other naturalists, came along and took the photos above), but just took in all of the amazing encounters we had. This time of year the orcas aren't around quite as regularly, but even though they haven't been sighted for a few days I wouldn't hesitate to call this one of our best trips of the season. We really saw nearly all the other wildlife we routinely see here in the San Juans, from the massive "grizzly bears of the sea" (the Steller sea lions) and solitary minke whales to the flocks of sea birds, cute harbor seals, and zippy, playful Dall's porpoise.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Skagit County Birds and Vistas

I was over on the mainland for two days and had a chance to drive around Skagit County. Last time I was there, in March, it took me four posts to talk about all the amazing bird encounters I had, particularly with raptors and swans. The birds weren't quite as abundant this time, but I still saw 32 species in the three or so hours I was driving around.

One highlight was a flock of 3000+ snow geese on Fir Island (nestled between the north and south arms of the Skagit River). The grayer birds are the juveniles, who will stay with their parents on both the southbound and northbound migrations. The family groups will only separate at the start of the next breeding season:

Last spring the raptors were very cooperative when it came to photographs, but they proved to be a bit more skittish this time around. I did still see four red-tail hawks, six northern harriers, a token America kestrel, and about seven bald eagles, including this pair perched on a utility pole with the top of Mt. Baker visible in the background:

At the Fir Island Skagit Wildlife Area, a highlight was about ten Wilson's snipes that flew back and forth overhead. The view from the parking lot wasn't bad either, looking across the Skagit farmlands towards Mt. Baker in the distance:

Rawlins Road is where I saw the short-eared owls last time, but as far as I know no one has seen them there recently. I'm not really sure what their seasonal movement patterns might be. There were several hundred northern pintail a ways off in the bay. With a scope several other species of ducks might have been visible as well. Probably the most unexpected find of the day was a northern shrike that perched briefly on a bush at this stop. Here's a sample of the landscape at Rawlins Road, with the multi-colored marshlands in the foreground, and an island covered with evergreens out in the bay in the background:

Before heading back to catch the ferry I drove around Padilla Bay to take a look at some seabirds. In addition to the ubiquitous glaucous-winged gulls, I saw a flock of 30 ring-billed gulls and another of maybe 40-50 Bonaparte's gulls (stay tuned for a post about a MUCH bigger flock of Bonaparte's I saw recently). Also in the bay were several common loons, and about 30 horned grebes - sure signs we're heading towards the winter birding season!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Boundary Pass Views

The other day when we were up watching J-Pod near East Point in Boundary Pass, there were some other spectacular views as well. It's always nice when the different scenic elements align, like in this photo with Patos Lighthouse, Mt. Baker, and even some of the green trees of Patos Island:

As we were leaving to head home, the water was glassy calm except where it was disturbed by our wake. I kind of like this shot looking back towards a freighter on the horizon:

Friday, October 9, 2009

Golden Dirona Nudibranch

The other day when we got back to the dock, my friend and fellow naturalist Sarah found this nudibranch on one of the dock pilings. Nudibranchs, or sea slugs, are mollusks, so are somewhat surprisingly in the same phylum as chitons, clams, octopi, and squids. There are several different colorful species of nudibranch that can be seen locally. This one is a golden dirona (Dirona aurantia). Members of the Dirona genus are identified by the large, soft "spines" that grow off the back called cerata, and it is through these appendages that oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange occurs.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hanging with Whales at Kellett Bluffs

It was another summer-like October day in the San Juans, with a full boat aboard the Western Prince as we headed out in the sunshine to see members of all three pods on the west side of San Juan Island. We first met up with the whales near Lime Kiln lighthouse where they were grouped up and traveling close to shore heading north. We moved up to Kellett Bluffs further north where the whales often pull a little more offshore, and basically just hung out there as different groups of whales slowly passed us by.

First, not surprisingly as they're often in the lead, were J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny. Here is Ruffles:

The whales seemed to be in "travel mode" until some of them started doing tail slaps:

Then we had an amazing encounter with J26 Mike and his younger sister J36 Alki. They were circling off to the side of the boat, as they stopped to do a bit of foraging. Here is Mike as he passed off our bow. He's got a distinct open saddle patch, which makes him pretty easy to identify:

He lifted his head out of the water a few times before arching down on a dive. It's not often you see an orca in this position:

Here's Alki on the left and Mike on the right, circling around and foraging:

Mike did a couple of SPECTACULAR lunges. He nearly cleared the water on this one. It was difficult to know where he was going to come up next, so getting him centered in the photo was impossible. I'm still pleased with these shots that, if not perfect, capture the action:

One thing that was really amazing was how little of a splash he created when he re-entered the water. When a whale breaches, the splash is huge. Today, while foraging, he dove nose-first which helped him to enter the water "cleanly". They must have caught something because Jeanne, who was also on board, said in some of her photos she could make out blood on the surface!