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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.


eileeninmd said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful day. I wish I could have been there and seen it all.

Warren Baker said...

Those birds are only seen in my dreams Monika!
Mosquito pass - that sounds a really cool name :-)

Monika said...

Eileen - You'll have to make it out this way someday!

Warren - I feel the same way about all the birds you post about. As for Mosquito Pass, I'm not sure where the name comes from, but its not for the pesky little insects, which we thankfully don't have much of a problem with. Someone I talked to recently speculated that it might have something to do with the Mosquito Fleet, a group of transportation boats the served inland Washington waters before the Washington State Ferry system.