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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Eagle Watch

After hearing some reports of a potential golden eagle sighting off the south end of the island, Jason and I decided to head out and investigate this morning. There are lots of erroneous reports out there about how relatively common golden eagles are in the San Juan Islands. The fact is, after 8 years of intermittent birding here, I have yet to see one. Birding in the San Juan Islands, a great book, talks about 5 known breeding pairs in the county, but that was in 1987. The authors mention that experienced birders feel the species was in a local decline at that time, and I wonder if they are really still here at all.

Juvenile bald eagles can easily be mistaken for golden eagles because they don't yet have their white head and tail. These juvies have white "arm pits", often with a lot of other white mottling on their underside, unlike the distinct white "elbows" of juvenile golden eagles. Adult golden eagles have no white on them at all, and feature a tawny wash of feathers over their head and neck that gives them their name. Another way to tell golden and bald eagles apart is by their wings in flight. Bald eagles soar with very flat wings, while golden eagles tend to hold their wings in a slight dihedral.

We sure didn't see any goldens, but we saw a TON of bald eagles, both adults and juveniles. They seemed to be just about everywhere. We easily saw more than 20 eagles this morning. Many of the adults are starting to pair off and we saw some aerial courtship behavior.

This was one of the only perched eagles we saw, as all the others seemed to be enjoying the strong winds in flight. It looks like a young adult, since its plumage still looks a little mottled as it loses its juvenile plumage. Bald eagles don't get their white head and tail until they reach sexual maturity in their fourth year.


Here's one of the three eagles that was soaring above the one perched in the tree:


I've heard a lot about the bald eagle nest surveys that have been conducted in the San Juan Islands over the last four decades, but had never actually seen the hard data. I know the eagles were historically numerous here, but experienced the population crash all bald eagles in the lower 48 did when DDT became such a problem and the species was listed as endangered. After protection, both the national and local population recovered, and bald eagle recovery was such a success story that they were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in June of 2007. I had heard that more recent surveys revealed 100-200 active nests in San Juan County, but that's a pretty broad range so I decided to investigate a little further.

A little web search turned up the WDFW Washington State Status Report for the Bald Eagle that was published in 2001. Scanning through it for information pertitent to the San Juans, I uncovered some interesting facts backed by published data.

Most of the early Washington eagle nest surveys focused on the San Juan Islands, and aerial nest surveys were conducted from 1962-1980. The 1962 survey monitored only 5 nests, though its unclear whether or not these were all the nests they could locate or just the ones they chose to watch. The peak number of nests monitored was 60 in 1978. In 1980, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) intiated statewide eagle nest surveys. The last survey they provide information on in this report was conducted in 1995. At this time, there were 817 eagle nests in Washington State, 102 of which were in San Juan County. Compare this to the 1950s, when there were only 412 nesting pairs in the lower 48.

A few other studies focused specifically on eagles in San Juan County. They found that in the county, active nests occur within an average of 4-5 miles of each other, something people often ask about. In a prey analysis at 67 nests in the San Juans and Puget Sound, they found that 67% of prey items were birds. This surprises me, as I thought they would mostly be feeding on fish, the prey item that comes in second at 19%. The list is finished out with 6.8% mollusks and crustaceans (!!!) and only 6% mammals.

Its cool to find some more concrete information on the local eagle population. They must still be doing some type of population monitoring, so I'll be on the look out for anything more up-to-date. In the meantime, I'll let you know if I see any golden eagles!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Pacific Northwest Macrolichens

For Christmas I got a book entitled "Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest". This was much to my brother's amusement, because while he advocates an envrionmentally-friendly lifestyle, he doesn't quite get my passion for learning about all things in the natural world, and couldn't imagine anyone being as excited as I was about receiving this book.

I read the introductory chapter on lichens, which are really composite, symbiotic organisms containing a fungus and an algae, cyanobacteria, or both. I tried to start learning the complex anatomical features of lichen, but soon became lost among terms like apothecium, podetia, soredia, and squamulose. I figured it might be better to collect a lichen, then learn about the anatomy as I work my way through the detailed dichotomously-branching keys in the front of the book that let you narrow down what genus you're looking at.

In college, I loved the biology lab we did where we had to use biological keys to classify species of plants. You look at the two options provided on the key - for instance, A) the plant has leaves in sets of four or B) the plant does not have leaves in sets of four - look at the plant in front of you, answer the question, then move to the next step in the key until you've defined the species you have. On first try, this proved much more difficult than anticipated with lichen, as many questions refer to teeny-tiny characteristics you need a hand lens to see. Other questions refer to chemical tests - for instance, what color does it turn when you dip the lichen in a K solution? I grew frustrated and tossed my collected lichen samples out.

Today, as I took a walk through the foggy woods, it seemed like a good time to try to identify some lichens again. I collected some larger samples, and this time had a magnifying glass my dad let me borrow to look at the minute structures. After laboriously referring to the glossary in the field guide, studying the lichen in bright light under magnification, and making my way through four consecutive keys, I made my first successful identification! Many of the local trees are covered with a lichen from the genus Usnea:


My best guess is that this species is Usnea wirthii. Surpisingly (okay, not really), most lichens do not have common names and are just referred to by their scientific name. On top of that, many of the species classifications are unresolved, as is the case in the disordered Usnea genus. Most members of the genus (and there are thought to be more than 600 of them) are pale green, stringy, and grow off of bark or wood. Usnea can be differentiated from other similar genera by a white central cord that goes down the inside of the main branches, so you can imagine how excited I was when I found the white thread-like structure after breaking open one of the (very relatively) thick central branches and peering at it under the magnifying glass.

I had less success with the identification of my second lichen. My best guess is Phaeophyscia orbicularis, but I only saw small patches of it and often you need large samples including the reproductive structures to make a final identification.


Many people might ask, "Who cares about lichens? Why are lichens important?" In addition to providing food, shelter, and nesting material for a wide variety of wildlife, lichens are actually good indicators of local air quality. Many lichens will experience stunted growth or will stop growing in an area if the air conditions get too poor, so they can be important indicator species. in regards to air pollution. Some lichens are involved in nitrogen fixation for trees, or hold moisture which effects the temperature and humidity of local microclimates. Many lichens, including Usnea, have multiple medicinal uses. Many species of Usnea contain natural antibiotics or antifungal agents. With so many lichen species unidentified and the taxonomy unresolved, who knows how much more we might learn from studying lichens!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Fox Without a Tail and Gull Foot-Paddling


This afternoon I went out birding with Jason, but the most unusual thing we saw was mammalian - a fox without a tail! Jason spotted it first, but I missed it, so we turned around to see if it might show itself again. Luckily, it was just as curious about us as we were about it, so I was able to snap the above photo.

All the foxes on the island are actually red foxes, even though their colors range from red and orange to brown to black, like this little guy. I wonder how he lost his tail, since the foxes don't have any natural predators on the island.

The birding wasn't half bad, either. We saw 28 species by my count, and saw some interesting bird behaviors, too. There were gangs of crows all over the island in large flocks. Near False Bay there must have been 10-15 oystercatchers, all yelling back and forth to each other as they scurried over the rocks near the mudflats.

Down at British Camp we noticed that the osprey nest is no more - it used to be perched on the top of a dead tree snag and was easy to see, and has been around for as long as either of us can remember. It's been there long enough its mentioned in several books I have that talk about British Camp! I wonder if the tree rotted enough that one of the winter wind storms finally did it in? It's sad to see it gone, but perhaps they'll build a new nest this year. In its place perched a very strange looking eagle, that with Sibley's bird guide we determined to be a second year bald eagle juvenile. It has so much white on it we doubted our ID as a bald eagle at first, but Sibley's clearly shows that they can have a very white front with a sharp change to a dark brown chest. Most of the juvenile eagles we see around here are a uniform dark brown color, until they get their white head and tail in their fourth year.

The most interesting bird behavior we saw was courtesy of another birder with a spotting scope at False Bay. There were dozens and dozens of mew gulls out on the mud flats, and by looking through his scope you could see that they were paddling their feet in the shallow mudflats to stir up invertebrates to eat. It was the coolest thing! They stood looking intently at their feet as they danced back and forth from foot to foot, then quickly snagged something out of the water when it got stirred up out of the mud. Gull foot-paddling is a documented though rarely seen foraging behavior, and you can read a great little article about it in Northwestern Naturalist. I'm so excited that we saw it!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

False Bay Birds

After leaving Lime Kiln the other day, we headed down the west side and pulled over to take in this spectacular view. The sun was getting low in the sky but we decided to head down to False Bay to see what we could see.


The bay was full of all kinds of ducks, including American wigeon (although no sight of the one Eurasian wigeon we had seen there the day before), Northern pintail, and bufflehead. On a sand spit the juts out into the bay there were several hundred gulls, a few sandpipers, and some mallards and green-winged teal.


Out in the middle a great blue heron perched on a rock, and pictured below you can see his long, slender neck and a flock of pintail in the background.


A large flock of western sandpipers scurried about in the shallows close to the road. They were far more interested in some good feeding than worrying about our presence. A mew gull came over to see what all the fuss was about but didn't seem to find anything to eat for himself, lacking the long probing bill of the sandpipers.


It was starting to get a little too dark for crisp, clear photos, but as the sandpipers took short little flights along the beach I snapped some shots anyway, and laughed when I saw their aerial positions just prior to landing. They fly and land so fast you never get to appreciate the intricate maneuvering involved, and caught frozen in time their wings splayed back and legs extended look comical. Here is one of my favorite shots, and I like how you can see the differences in leg position as they go from flying to landing. They're going so fast most of them hit the ground running, where they move their little legs so fast it looks like they're on wheels.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Birding Lime Kiln


My parents are in town for a long weekend after coming to see my talk on Whidbey Island, so today it was time to take a tour around the island in the chilly sunshine. Lime Kiln Lighthouse, pictured above, was beautiful as the sun broke through between the clouds.

My dad is the one who can take credit for me becoming a birdwatcher, so whenever he's in town we make sure to get out and see what we can see. Some highlights today included a pair of trumpeter swans, five snow geese, and this little golden-crowned kinglet. Look at that face!


Also on the rocks by Lime Kiln were a pair of black oystercatchers. I love these birds, especially their loud whistling call. They're mostly black, but with pink legs, a bright red bill, and a yellow eye. You can see one of them calling below, just before they took off. He was standing there preening for a while, so I don't know if that's a downy feather stuck to his beak or what that is.


Here's one of them after he took off. The water looked cool in the late afternoon light.


There some more great photographic opportunities when we went down to False Bay. Check back tomorrow to find out what we saw!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Whidbey Island Trip

Yesterday I gave a successful talk at the Way of the Whales Workshop, which was hosted by Orca Network and was down on Whidbey Island. They had about 120 people show up, which is great!

To get to Whidbey Island, we take a ferry from San Juan Island to Anacortes, and then you drive across the Deception Pass Bridge to get to Whidbey. I've never stopped to take a picture of the dramatic bridge before, but I had a bit of extra time yesterday after making a quick doughnut stop for breakfast to stop at one of the scenic pull-outs. Unfortunately the earling morning light was working against me, but it still gives you the idea:


During the lunch break, I had time to walk down to the wharf at Coupeville where they have a couple of marine mammal skeletons on display. Below is a picture of a Dall's porpoise skeleton named Rudy. Rudy washed up on the shores of Clinton, Washington in 2004. They think its likely he died of old age, at about 20 years old for a porpoise. He didn't have any teeth left (so he may have died of starvation) and showed some erosion on his bones, another condition that may have contributed to his mortality. I think the number and proximity of all the vertebrae are pretty amazing:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Poem

I was going through some old journals I kept during my first few summers up here in the San Juan Islands, back from 2001-2003. I was looking for some notes I had made about whale sightings during that time, but while browsing through the notebooks I came across a poem I wrote in June 2003. I don't remember what it meant to me then, but I think it has some beautiful imagery, and probably means something completely different to me now. I've never been too big on poetry and its cryptic symbolism, but I like this one and thought I'd share it. Let mek now what you think.

Tides

It is easy to find a rhythm in the tides,
To follow the natural pattern of the earth,
But it is easy, also, to get transfixed,
And find yourself lost among the changes.

To ride the rising and falling waves
Is a sure way to be free,

But the tides continue into the night
When it is easier to get lost.

I have found a companion in the starlight
Who made me stop and listen to the waves,
But although he may not always be upon the sands,
I will never look at the moon the same way again.



Monday, January 19, 2009

Mystery Solved!


Yep, after being nearly convinced I was listening to the nighttime serenade of a sea lion, I have figured out the mystery middle-of-the-night noise is actually some roosting double-crested cormorants!

Last night I went to investigate the sound closer, and it still very much sounded like it was coming from above. I shone a flashlight into the trees and the sounds stopped, and then I heard (but was unable to see) the ruffling of wings as a bird repositioned high up in the tree. So, I was back towards thinking the culprit was a bird, but nothing was confirmed until this afternoon at dusk.

I was out on the deck (sweeping up empty bird seed husks no less) when I noticed a lot of cormorants flying around. Huh, that's odd.....and look, one just landed up in those trees! This must be a new roosting spot for them as they haven't been around before this week. I went closer to investigate, with camera in hand, and was satisfied beyond a shadow of a doubt when one looked down at me with some of those eerie, gurgly, throaty barks.

(Also, credit where credit is due: the only person who made a correct guess as to what it might be is my mom!)

Playing With The Sun(rise)

Being an extreme night owl, its not often I get up before the sun. But today I had to take my car into the shop first thing, and Keith had the idea of going to the local beach for sunrise, something he's been wanting to do for a while. I checked it out last night, and since the sunrise was at a reasonable 7:55, I agreed.

This morning everything was covered in a thick layer of frost. The roads and rooftops were dusted in white, and the windows looked hand-painted with intricate icy designs. It was cool, crisp, and calm out, and our breaths fogged up in front of us as we waited for the sunrise. In the picture below, you can see the waning crescent moon in the multi-colored sky before the sun came up:


Once the sun peaked over the horizon, it was a perfect time to play around with some fun photographic tricks. Here's Keith "holding the sun":


I think this next one should be titled "The Hand of God":


Before too long, the sun had started warming everything up, and the driftwood and plants were covered with a thick layer of due instead of frost. It was getting too cold even without the wind and time to take the car in so we hurried back to the relative warmth of the car. I always enjoy the stillness and beauty of the mornings...but apparently not *quite* enough to do it more often. At least not until I shift my sleep schedule around a little bit more!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

How many of you get gulls at YOUR feeders?


That's what I thought.

I guess they're scavengers so it makes sense they'd eat anything, but I'm still surprised to see a gull carefully scooping up seeds! They seem to get stuck in his beak and he has to open and close a lot to dislodge them. After a while I have to scare him away to let the littler birds have their turn, and because a gull can go through a LOT of seed very quickly.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What is this middle-of-the-night mystery sound?

At about 1:30 this morning we started hearing a strange barking-like sound outside. It's coming from at least two individuals because at times it overlaps. Stepping outside, it *seemed* like the sound was coming from up above, so I thought a bird might be the source. That said, it sounds a lot like a sea lion barking, but I've never seen a sea lion anywhere near our marina. We do see harbor seals, but I've never heard one make an above-water noise, so I have no idea if that could be the source. It definitely does not sound like the most common nighttime noise we hear, the prehistoric crawking of great blue herons which we hear at any time of night.

I've spliced together a few samples I recorded onto my computer and you can hear the clip here. (There's some white noise and the occasional tinkling of our wind chime in the background.) So, who or what is making these sounds?! Please weigh in with your two cents, whether it be an answer, an educated guess, or wild speculation, because inquiring minds want to know!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sun!

It seems like it's been a long time since we've had more than a short sunbreak, so it was nice to see some sustained sunshine this afternoon. I just had to get out in it, so we went for a walk down at American Camp. The wind cooperated as well, so the waters were calm although it was still chilly out.

It definitely feels like we're headed in the right direction (longer days!) because as I'm writing this at 4:30 in the afternoon it isn't dark outside yet! It does look like the fog might move back in tonight....but it was a nice little break today from our gray winter weather.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bird Movements - How Little We Know

Over the last few months I've come across some amazing tracking studies that are resulting in huge revelations about bird migrations.

At Joe Gaydo's lecture this summer he talked about a surf scoter that had been tagged in Puget Sound was subsequently tracked to Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and Alaska. It raises the question of what we're really witnessing when we see a local bird decline, like of surf scoters here in the San Juan Islands. Are there really fewer surf scoters, or are they just spending time in a different part of their habitat? Are they really declining, changing their patterns due to some detrimental local factor, or following some longer-term shifts in habitat usage that function on a scale longer than we've been monitoring their population numbers?

The USGS Alaska Science Center studies the migration patterns of bar-tailed godwits. These are maps you absolutely have to see, showing the migration of godwits from Alaska to western Australia and New Zealand. Scroll down the page to see the amazing trip of godwit E7, who from mid-March to early September travels 18,000 miles as she practically circumnavigates the Pacific Ocean. In this article that details her flight, you'll be amazed to learn that many legs are made with nonstop travel - up to 8 days and 7200 miles at a time! Godwits live to be more than 20 years old, so may fly an astonishing 288,000 miles in their lifetime.

Another amazing shorebird flight took place when a whimbrel was tagged in Virginia in May. They thought she would head to breeding grounds in Hudson Bay, but instead flew straight on to Alaska. She flew 3200 miles in 146 hours - nonstop. You can learn about her and her trip to Alaska in this Nature Conservancy article. Unfortunately, on her migration back to her summer grounds, after stopping over in Washington, she met her demise on a sandbar in Minnesota. This is an important fact in itself, since it is unknown how many birds die during migration.

The most recent tracking study that came to my attention was of Elizabetha, a peregrine falcon. According to the Falcon Research Group 2009 winter bulletin, she was tagged in Chile and made her way to Canada to breed. Once she started her southbound migration, she set a world record by flying 954 miles - from New Jersey to Florida - in a single day.

There are many pros and cons to tagging and tracking animals - whether they be whales, birds, or fish, and discussion of tagging all three is happening locally. Still, the discoveries made by such studies are astounding, and in many cases are revolutionizing our understanding of the organisms, as is pointed out in the FRG bulletin linked above.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cave!

My friend Jason was successful in finding the cave the other day, and I was anxious to get out and see it myself. Luckily this time of year the days are slow so we were able to meet up today and get out there. As soon as we entered the woods we saw a deer high on a ridge above us. As she looked down at us, barely visible between the trees, fog drifting in the air, it really felt like a good omen. It took a little bit of searching to find the entrance back but as soon as we came across a deep trench we knew we were close. Here is the entrance to the cave with Jason getting ready to put his helmet on.

You have to climb up on a little ledge to get into the main part of the cave. The tunnel really doesn't lead all that far back, but far enough to slither around a few corners and hide plenty of cool little animals, so it was easy to spend a bit of time in there. The cave stays close to the surface and in a couple of places there are some vents that let in natural light, like this one:


On either side of the "main passage" there are some shallow crevices that lead back. Here is one, showing the large drops of water that are on the ceiling of most of the cave:

Jason has done a lot of cave research in the past, and is full of awesome (and some harrowing) stories about exploring caves and searching for cave critters. Check out his blog for some of his photos of today. Here he is photographing a cave moth:


Here I am exploring a crevice for critters. There was some cool orange fungus growing in this hole too:


I didn't have a proper helmet with headlamp, but still managed to maneuver my flashlight in ways to get some cool shots of cave critters. Here are my favorite images of a spider, snail, and moth. Notice the drop of water ready to drip off the snail shell:




What a fun adventure it was today!

Way of the Whales Workshop


For those of you in this part of the world, I wanted to let you know that on Saturday, January 24th I'll be giving a talk at the annual Way of the Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island. I will be sharing photographs and observations of the local orcas, but there will be several other fantastic talks as well. Learn about current research on everything from toxins in the salmon the whales depend on to new research on Alaskan transient whales. Or, the one I'm personally the most excited to hear, the talk on primitive whales and fossils found in Washington State. Best of all, the whole day is only $20! For more information or to register, check out the events page from Orca Network. Thanks to Orca Network for organizing all this and inviting me to speak, and I hope to see some of you there.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Birding Day

I spent a few hours out birding around the island with my friend Jason today, and it was a surprisingly light bird day. Despite the calmer winds, lack of precipitation, and flooded pastures, there just weren't that many birds out there to see. We turned up just over 20 species:

Canada goose
Trumpeter swan
American wigeon
Mallard
Scaup species
Surf scoter
White-white scoter (probable)
Bufflehead
Common goldeneye (my first on the island for the season)
Hooded merganser
Common merganser
Western grebe
Double-crested cormorant
Bald eagle (quite a few of these - including some amazing, low-to-the-ground cartwheel acrobatics from a pair of them)
Northern harrier
Red-tailed hawk
Glaucous-winged gull
Gull sp. (probably Mew)
Belted kingfisher
Northern flicker
American crow (or the ambiguous "northwestern" subspecies)
Common raven
American robin
Dark-eyed junco

There were several "big miss" species. I've used this term before, but I didn't know until just now when I looked it up that the American Birding Association has actually defined the term, as a species you had an over 95% chance of encountering and didn't. I would include on our "big miss" list for today the chestnut-backed chickadee, great blue heron, horned grebe, and red-necked grebe, all of which have been mainstays on my recent birding excursions. I am also surprised given where we were and what time of year it is that we didn't see any harlequin ducks, ring-necked ducks, pelagic cormorants, or common loons.

We also tried unsuccessfully to locate a little limestone cave we'd heard about here on the island. Jason plans to go back and try to find it, and if he does I'll definitely have to go see it too.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Ecological Calendar and Solar Events

Every year, I love to follow along the Ecological Calendar. It's a calendar based on the natural structure of the year, focusing on the four seasons as separated by the solstices and equinoxes, and daily following along the phases of the moon, the movements of the stars, the tidal fluctuations, our rotation around the sun and its effect on daylight and climate, and many natural phenomena. It's a nice alternative to the traditoinal Gregorian calendar. Interestingly enough, the Gregorian calendar is actually based on the ancient Egyptian calendar, which was based on solar movements and mathematically calculated to have 365 1/4 days per year.

When just living by the traditional calendar, its easy to get lost in the year as the days of the week and repeat and numerical dates of the months tick by. I have both a "regular" calendar and the Ecological Calendar posted side-by-side on my wall, and the Ecological Calendar provides a nice contrast by giving each day a unique name based on its place in the year. This week, for instance, consists of the days Orion, FrostHoar, Procyon, RazorbackBoar, MackerelSky, ScrubJay, and Gemini.

There are a couple interesting solar events that fall around this week. January 4th was the perihelion - the place in Earth's orbital cycle where we are closest to the sun. The Earth is 3.1 million miles closer to the sun on the perihelion than during the aphelion (the farthest point) which this year falls in July.

On January 10th, the full moon will be the brightest one of the year, because on this cycle it coincides with when the moon is closest to the Earth on its orbital cycle. Unfortunately, I may miss the bright full moon, unless some of these persistent rain clouds move on by then.

Also, January 11th will be the last day when you can see Jupiter in the evening sky. Right around the winter solstice, Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury could all be seen together in the night sky. Here's a photo my dad took in Arizona on December 1st, showing Venus, Jupiter, and the moon together in the night sky:


Monday, January 5, 2009

Beach Bird Walk

Today the persistent winds of the last few days had died down, so I decided to head out to South Beach for a walk to see what I could see. There weren't big flocks of birds, but they were scattered here and there, many too far away for me to identify even with binoculars. Here's the short list of species I did see:

Surf scoter
Long-tailed duck
Bufflehead
Red-breasted merganser
Common loon
Horned grebe
Bald eagle
Glaucous-winged gull

The pair of long-tailed ducks was an exciting find, as I've only seen it once before back in October when it was a new life bird. I took a few good scans for marine mammals, hoping to see a stellar sea lion or a minke whale, but no such luck today - the water was still too choppy to spot much far away.

On the way home I drove by False Bay to see what bird activity might be going on there, but alas it was low tide so everything was far away, and it didn't look much busier, either. Still, it was a pretty sight just before dusk, so I got out my camera:

Saturday, January 3, 2009

CBC: Variety but not abundance

Today I participated in my second Christmas Bird Count (CBC) here on San Juan Island. There was light snow last night, but most of it melted today so I was able to get out to my count site at Lime Kiln State Park, as well as conduct a local count at our marina. It was cold and windy, but the precipitation luckily held off so it was a pleasant afternoon to spend three hours birding. Overall, I saw a respectable 25 species, but most species were just ones and twos. I have a feeling a lot of birds were hard to see/count because of the high winds. Here is my species list from my two count sites:Harlequin duck
Surf scoter
Bufflehead
Hooded merganser
Common loon
Horned grebe
Red-necked grebe
Pelagic cormorant
Bald eagle
Glaucous-winged gull
Gull sp.
Rhinoceros auklet
Northern flicker
Common raven
Chestnut-backed chickadee (topped the list at 22 individuals)
Red-breasted nuthatch
Brown creeper
Bewick's wren
Golden-crowned kinglet
Varied thrush
Spotted towhee
Fox sparrow
Song sparrow
Dark-eyed junco
House sparrow

An interesting species of late is the locally common glaucous-winged gull. When I got back from my holiday trip, my bird feeder was gone, and I assumed it had blown away in the strong winds we had up here. Now, I'm starting to think maybe it was the gulls! As soon as I put out a new feeder (read: flimsy disposable baking pan), two gulls immediately came over and started pulling at and bending the plate. I spooked them off yesterday, but this morning the plate was bent in half. I guess I'll have to come up with a sturdier, more permanent feeder. Here's a picture of one of the troublesome gulls on my roof, looking down at the feeder:


Also, Dave at Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventures told me that a glaucous-winged gull was recently seen in Cleveland, England which is along the northeast coast of the country. (You can read about the sighting on Bill Aspin's birding blog.) This is remarkable to me! Sometimes European and North American birds will end up on the wrong continent, but often it will be from the east coast of the US to the west coast of Europe, so the bird "just" has to cross the Atlantic Ocean. But in the case of this glaucous-winged gull, it is a WEST coast bird from North America and it has ended up on the EAST side of the UK! I have no idea how this could have happened, although Dave reports that apparently American birds end up on the eastern shores of England by "bouncing" off of Norway. If this bird flew directly from Friday Harbor to where it is in England, it would have had to travel more than 4500 miles, and that's if it flew in a straight line over the shortest possible route. Talk about ended up off course! Wikipedia does list it as a rare visitor to the western palearctic zone, with its first ever record in Britain in the winter of 2006-2007. Maybe the same bird is still there!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Back to the Island


I made it back to the island! After a miserable drive down to Portland along I5, I decided to take the scenic route back north by going up Highway 101 on the Olympic Peninsula instead. It ended up being an all-day adventure due to delayed ferries, but it was far more enjoyable than the traffic and ice-induced delays of my drive down.

At times the highway was still flanked by a foot or more of snow, which made for a beautiful drive while the road winds between the foothills of the Olympic Mountains and Hood Canal. I saw nine bald eagles on the drive, plus several groups of great blue herons and some goldeneyes. I stopped at one pullout to snap a picture of the bald eagles perched on the pilings, and the other photos are from the ferry landing in Port Townsend, looking over the town and the snow-covered hills in the background.