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Sunday, March 29, 2009

California Trip Wrap-Up

Going through my trip photos one more time, I found a few other things I wanted to share that didn't quite fit into my other blog posts about the trip. The first is this beautiful marine mammal quilt that is on display at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Click to see a larger version and admire each individual square. How cool would a blanket like this be to have?


Before the hockey game in San Jose (hard to believe that was a week ago today - it already seems so much longer ago!) we had time to explore the waterfront near Santa Cruz. This is the Santa Cruz Lighthouse - although there were no signs there that we could find telling us the name of it:


Right in front of the lighthouse that morning they were having a kayak surfing competition. It was a pretty calm day, but as waves come around the point where the lighthouse was perched, they would swell up enough for kayakers to ride them to shore. Quite different from the sea kayaking we see up here in the San Juans!


Just a little further north on the coastline we found they Seymour Discovery Center at Long Marine Laboratory, part of the marine sciences program at UC Santa Cruz. In the gift shop just outside of the exhibit hall I was surprised but pleased to find a few copies of my book on sale! We didn't have time to tour the exhibits but just outside was an impressive blue whale skeleton, which dwarfed the gray whale skeleton that was nearby. The building in the background is part of a desalination test plant, where they are experimenting with turning sea water into fresh water.


One evening while bird-watching we pulled over at Moss Landing State Beach, and were surprised to find a raft of sea otters - we counted about two dozen of them! Apparently it is common for them to congregate like this in a resting group even though they are often solitary, and it was dusk so they were probably getting ready to settle down for the night. Some of them were still feeding, which attracted all the gulls to the area as well. What I couldn't explain was the behavior many of them were exhibiting by covering their noses with their paws. I haven't been able to find out why they do this - maybe just to keep their noses warm?


Monday and Tuesday I will be attending the Transboundary Workshop for Marine Naturalists at Port Townsend, WA, which will be an event with extensive coverage on everything related to the Southern Resident killer whales and current research. There should be some interesting things to report afterwards.

I will also be giving a shore presentation introducing the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists (SSAMN - pronounced "salmon") - a new group I've been a part of forming with a few other commitemed individuals. Our main goals are to network naturalists across the region, legitimize the naturalist profession, share educational opportunities, and work to provide accurate information about the local ecosystem that will help drive both residents and visitors to increased stewardship. A group of us started meeting in fall 2007 to form this group, and we opened for membership last November, but this will be a bigger announcement to really explain to a larger audience what we're about. If you are a naturalist in the Salish Sea region, hopefully I will see you there, or let me know if you want more information!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Earth Hour This Saturday



I want to encourage all of you to participate in Earth Hour, this Saturday from 8:30-9:30 PM. It is a worldwide event to demonstrate to world leaders that citizens demand they take action. Here is a brief explanation from their website:

For the first time in history, people of all ages, nationalities, race and background have the opportunity to use their light switch as their vote – Switching off your lights is a vote for Earth, or leaving them on is a vote for global warming. WWF are urging the world to VOTE EARTH and reach the target of 1 billion votes, which will be presented to world leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009.

The event started in 2007 when 2.2 million homes switched off their lights in Australia. In 2008 it became a global event with 50 million participants. This year, it has reached a new level, with the goal of a billion participants. The Pyramids of Giza, the Acropolis in Athens, and the Empire State Building will switch their lights off. More than 1000 towns and cities have signed up. While doing my daily perusal of NHL news today I even learned that one hockey team rescheduled their weekend match-up so the arena could turn off the lights at the appointed time.

Just click the above animation to join and sign up!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Point Reyes National Seashore

The last full day of our trip didn't go as planned, but it was still full of awesome sights. Our first stop was at Golden Gate Park to take in a view of the Golden Gate Bridge:


We had planned to head straight to Point Reyes National Seashore to have a full day of birding there, but we had to pull over when we spotted some American avocets, a life bird for yours truly. As with many species we've seen this trip, some were in winter plumage and others in summer plumage. Overall, it was an interesting time to be out birding because there were a combination not only of plumages but of birds you'd expect to see in an area just in the winter or just in the summer.


Point Reyes is a unique peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean with a complicated geologic history and a rich anthropological story dating back to the Coast Miwok Indians who first inhabitated the peninsula 5000 years ago. It is a fantastic birding location as 490 species have been seen there, and I was looking forward to a big day of birding. We got the sunshine, but unfortunately our birding was inhibited by the incredibly strong winds. It was so windy that when we took the half mile walk out to see Point Reyes lighthouse, it was impossible to walk in a straight line. We weren't able to descend the 300 stairs to the lighthouse itself, as the stairs were closed due to the heavy winds. Still, it was well worth it to see the scenic lighthouse, and in the photo below you can get a glimpse of the nearshore white caps as well:


We weren't the only determined visitors that braved the windy conditions, either. When a migrating gray whale was spotted near the lighthouse (only the fifth of the day, compared to more than 25 the previous day - it is harder to spot in all those white caps!), tourists seemed to materialize out of nowhere to catch a glimpse. The photo below, especially if you take into consideration the harsh, cold winds that were pummeling everyone, really attests to the simple magnetism of cetaceans:


We really shouldn't have been surprised about the wind. The exposed coastline of Point Reyes has been shaped by the constant winds, as demonstrated in the leaning cypress tree below. Can you guess which way the wind was blowing?


We did see some juvenile elephant seals hauled out on some sandy beaches, and a few California sea lions as well. What really struck me on these beaches was the spray being blown off the top of the cresting waves:


Nothing much smaller than a turkey vulture was visible in the windy conditions, so bird sightings were actually pretty scarce. The coolest bird-related thing we saw was a grove of trees absolutely covered with the holes of acorn woodpeckers. We couldn't find any of the woodpeckers, but there was evidence of them up and down every tree in the area:


Closer inspection revealed the reason for the holes - a place to cache acorns:


After having enough of the winds ourselves, we ended up leaving Point Reyes early which allowed us to enjoy the next part of our drive in the daylight. We were all impressed with the beautiful rolling green hills of this part of the California landscape, as when we've been in the state before the hills have usually faded to a dull brown. The timing was just right to enjoy a beautiful and lush landscape:


The best birding of the day ended up happening at dusk at Sacremento National Wildlife Refuge, which has been designated a globally important bird area, or a habitat essential for birds and considered vital for maintaining global biodiversity. Some highlights included flocks of white-faced ibises and ring-necked pheasants around every corner.

Last night we made it back to San Juan Island after two full days of driving. I'll make one more post about the California trip to include a few sights that didn't quite fit in to the other posts, so check back in a day or two for a few more cool notes, including a group of 20+ sea otters!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Point Reyes and Sacramento NWR Bird List

More to follow, including photos, in the next few days, but for now here is a great 62 species day list that covered Point Reyes National Seashore and the surrounding area as well as Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Common loon
Western grebe
Pelagic cormorant
Great blue heron
Great egret
Snow egret
White-faced ibis
Turkey vulture
Greater white-fronted goose
Canada goose
Green-winged teal
Mallard
Northern pintail
Cinnamon teal
Northern shoveler
Gadwall
American wigeon
Canvasback
Lesser scaup
Surf scoter
Bufflehead
Red-breasted merganser
Ruddy duck
Northern harrier
Red-tailed hawk
American kestrel
Peregrine falcon
Ring-necked pheasant
Wild turkey
American coot
Killdeer
Black oystercatcher
Black-necked stilt
American avocet - life bird
Greater yellowlegs
Common snipe
California gull
Western gull
Pigeon guillemot
Rock dove
Mourning dove
Northern flicker
Black phoebe
Western scrub jay
American crow
Common raven
Tree swallow
Chestnut-backed chickadee
Marsh wren
Varied thrush
European starling
Yellow-rumped warbler
California towhee
Savannah sparrow
Song sparrow
Golden-crowned sparrow
White-crowned sparrow
Dark-eyed junco
Red-winged blackbird
Western meadowlark
Brewer’s blackbird
House finch


Saturday, March 21, 2009

17-Mile Drive and Today's Bird-Watching

After whale-watching yesterday we drove 17-mile Drive, a well-known route that takes you along a beautiful section of the California coastline, near many huge mansions, and around the famous Pebble Beach golf courses.

It was very cold and windy, but I still got out of the car at many of the viewpoints, including Bird Rock, pictured below. In addition to being covered in cormorants and a few brown pelicans, there were many California sea lions resting there as well. What was truly amazing was how high on the rock some of the sea lions had climbed! Unlike harbor seals which are restricted to flopping around on their bellies, sea lions have retained usage of their front flippers like legs, allowing them to walk like quadrupeds on land, and thus to climb up higher on rocks than seals.



The true symbol of the 17-mile Drive is the Monterey cypress, a rare evergreen tree that once faced extinction and is only truly endemic to this small portion of the California coast. They are long-lived, slow growing trees, which are shaped by the strong coastal winds.


By far the most famous cypress tree, The Lone Cypress is the an oft-featured icon of the area. As a result, the Pebble Beach community has officially trademarked the likeness of the tree, so that no photographers or even artists can use any rendering of the tree for any commercial purposes. I am, however, free to share it with you on my blog:


I found one of the most interesting features of the trees to be their odd "cones", if you can even call them that:


Today we went to San Jose to watch the NHL's Sharks take on and handily defeat the Dallas Stars, but before and after we had time to bird watch around Santa Cruz. Tomorrow, I'm very excited about heading to Point Reyes National Seashore for some more birding, which I'm sure will include some great photo ops, but for now here is today's 47 specie bird list, which featured some great species like a white-tailed kite and many marbled godwits:

Common loon
Pied-billed grebe
Western grebe
Brown pelican
Double-crested cormorant
Brandt's cormorant
Great blue heron
Great egret
Canada goose
Mallard
Cinnamon teal
Gadwall
American wigeon
White-tailed kite
Red-tailed hawk
American coot
Killdeer
Willet
Long-billed curlew
Marbled godwit
Black turnstone
Sanderling
Western sandpiper
Ring-billed gull
California gull
Western gull
Rock dove
Mourning dove
Anna's hummingbird
Downy woodpecker
Black phoebe
Western scrub jay
American crow
Tree swallow
Barn swallow
Marsh wren
American robin
European starling
Yellow-rumped warbler
California towhee
Song sparrow
White-crowned sparrow
Red-winged blackbird
Brewer's blackbird
House finch
American goldfinch
House sparrow

Friday, March 20, 2009

Monterey Whale (and Bird) Watch

Today we made it to Monterey in good time, so I had a chance to check out the spectacular Monterey Bay Aquarium. It's the best aquarium I've been to, in part because they've chosen not to keep any marine mammals other than otters at their facility, instead featuring a huge array of other underwater critters. They also run the Seafood Watch Program which promotes sustainable fisheries, something you should definitely check out if you are a seafood eater. When I first went to this aquarium about 10 years ago, I spent 8 hours (the entire time they were open) there. Today, I didn't have that luxury, but I did have a chance to take in my favorite exhibit - the jellyfish:


Then it was off for our whale-watching trip out of Monterey Bay. The weather wasn't great - overcast, breezy, chilly - but as soon as we got on board we were greeted by two whale-watching dogs who looked more than ready to help us spot whatever we could out there:


Before we even pulled all the way out of the marina we were stopping to take in the Brandt's cormorants and California sea lions on the jetty:


Sea lions are full of characeter and, in my opinion, very expressive while they are hauled out:


But what was most captivating was the group (or mass of them, really) resting in the water with flippers held up in the air. At first we were befuddled by this behavior but after thinking about how orcas regulate body heat by losing extra warmth through their dorsal fin I figured it probably had something to do with temperature regulation. A quick internet search once we got home (which coincidentally led to an informative Monterey Bay Aquarium page) confirmed this theory - by keeping their flippers above water while resting they can absorb heat from the sun and avoid losing further body heat to the water while they are resting. Hmmm....where was our naturalist to explain this to us on the boat?


As it turns out, the sea conditions were pretty rough and spotting gray whales was difficult. We did get glimpses of 4 whales, but nothing like the views we've had whale-watching off Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast. As I very well know, every trip is different and some days are just tough when it comes to sightings. While we were disappointed not to have better cetacean encounters, the bird sightings made up for it. Shearwaters and kittiwakes? Sign me up! Those are species I've only ever seen on a pelagic birding trip I took years ago from Newport, Oregon. The most exciting find of the day (pointed out by our more informative naturalist once he realized I was interested in birds) was a black-footed albatross, a life bird for the entire Wieland clan. Look at that huge, seven foot wingspan and those thin wings designed for soaring over great oceanic distances:


When it became apparant great whale sightings weren't going to happen the captain indulged us bird-watchers by checking out a few bait balls:


It's a little blurry, but I like this shot of a black-legged kittiwake with a California gull in the background:


We didn't see any other marine mammals until we got back near the marina, where we saw the symbol of Monterey Bay, the sea otter:


There were more great birds to be seen by the docks, like the common loon in the photo below. For many species, some birds were in winter plumage while others had already molted into summer plumage. This loon was still in winter plumage:


Here are species lists for the day, with 34 spectacular different birds represented. Not a huge number, but some great, great finds. Next up for tomorrow's post will be the 17-mile drive: cypress trees, sand dunes, and mansions.


Mammal List

Harbor seal
California sea lion
Gray whale
Sea otter
California (aka Beechey's) ground squirrel
Black-tailed deer

Bird List
Common loon
Horned grebe
Eared grebe
Black-footed albatross - life bird

Northern fulmar
Pink-footed shearwater
Sooty shearwater
Brown pelican
Brandt's cormorant
Pelagic cormorant
Great egret
Snowy egret
Turkey vulture
Mallard
Surf scoter
Red-breasted merganser
Red-tailed hawk
Black oystercatcher
California gull
Western gull
Black-legged kittiwake
Common murre
Pigeon guillemot
Rhinoceros auklet
Rock dove
Mourning dove
Hummingbird sp.
American crow
Black-capped chickadee
European starling
Townsend's warbler
Dark-eyed junco
Red-winged blackbird
Brewer's blackbird

Thursday, March 19, 2009

California Road Trip

This week my family is going on a good old-fashioned road trip to Monterey, California. We left the island on Wednesday, and today headed from Portland down into north central California. I always seem to forget how beautiful southern Oregon is, as the drive on I5 south of Eugene really is pleasant with great rural views and beautiful green rolling hills. Here's a view out of the car window as we drove through the Siskiyou Mountains:


Just across the California border we got a great view of Mt. Shasta:


The highway then goes right by one of Mt. Shasta's satellite cones, Black Butte, which was still snow-covered despite the warm sunshine.


There were even some good wildlife sightings on the drive. I saw my first-ever skunk (well, live one anyway....), which was exciting. My dad and I also get a kick out of testing ourselves to see how many birds we can identify going 50+ mph. Today featured a pretty decent list:

Canada goose
Great blue heron
Egret sp.
Turkey vulture
Bald eagle
Red-tailed hawk
Northern harrier
Ring-billed gull
Rock dove
Mourning dove
Magpie sp.
American crow
Common raven
American robin
European starling
Red-winged blackbird
Brewer's blackbird
Western meadowlark

We enjoyed seeing the ring-billed gulls at a rest area in Weed, California - it's been a while since I've seen one and they looked strikingly different compared to all the glaucous-winged gulls I've been seeing. In their crisp, clean breeding plumage they really looked beautiful and very bright:


It's warm enough to walk outside tonight in a T-shirt, and I'm more than happy to trade the pine trees for palm trees for a few days. Hopefully the warmth and sunshine will continue for our whale-watching trip tomorrow out of Monterey.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Last of the Skagit Photos - For Now

While my afternoon of birding last Friday was spectacular, I got a few more awesome photo ops on Saturday when I took the longer, scenic route back to the ferry landing before I headed back to Friday Harbor. Here are a couple of photos from that trip:


I've been interested in the eye (or iris) color of raptors recently, especially after all the raptors I saw in Skagit County as well as the time I've spent with the red-tailed hawks at the south end of San Juan Island. For many raptors, eyes are one color in juveniles and another in adults. For red-tails, the iris is yellow in juveniles - so the above bird must be young - and dark chocolately brown in adults. When I got a good look at Ruth RTH2 through a scope, she definitely had soft brown eyes, which makes sense because she appears to be a breeding adult.


Make sure to click on the bald eagle photo to see a larger version. I was especially intrigued by the wear at the tips of the tail feathers. There's also some light white mottling in the underside of the wings, so it's probably a fourth year bird who has one final molt before getting the crisp, clean looking adult plumage.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Short-Eared Owls: Skagit Birding Part 3

Of all the cool things I saw while birding in Skagit County, I was most excited by the short-eared owls. I had only seen short-eared owls once before, and that was just a quick fly-by at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon. They're an interesting owl because they are often active during the day. They're also one of the most widespread owls in the world, found not only across North America but South America and Eurasia as well.

When I first arrived the three short-eared owls were high above the wetland area, waaaay up in the sky. I had a feeling it was them right away, because their wing beats are a little more erratic than hawks', and their faces looks much flatter without a protruding sharp beak.

Soon after they settled back down into the driftwood that covered the wetland. For a while, it seemed like every time I turned around there was an owl, either perched or flying from place to place. It took me a while to determine there were only three of them, but they were all very active.



A northern harrier was also in the area, quietly going about her business foraging while the owls did their thing. Every once and a while when she roamed too close, one of the owls would chase her off a little further again. I just love the angle of the wings in this photo:


Even more than the harrier, the owls were interested in each other. One would swoop down over another that was perched, hissing at it. Or, on a couple of occasions, they would dart towards each other in mid air. This photo was taken right after they had clasped talons momentarily:


Some coordinated acrobatic flying followed:


I had to crane my neck to look straight up at them at times as they flew around, which would allow me to see the characteristic black "wrist" marks on the underside of the wings. They have a similar marking on the top of the wings, which is one of their key identifying features. Looking up at the owls led me to notice a couple of swallows flying up their as well - my first swallows of the spring!!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Skagit County Birding Part 2

While birding in Skagit County yesterday, the raptors took the day, but I would be remiss to avoid highlighting the magnificent water birds as well, such as this male green-winged teal that was hunting for food among the mud:


I saw several great blue herons, but I was able to snap a great photo of this one along the roadside by slowing down and using my car as a blind. I love how his crest is trailing out behind him (her?):


There were also thousands of swans occupying farm fields. A birder's nightmare, it can be very difficult to tell apart the tundra and trumpeter swans in the field, but I determined both species were present:


And check out this expert landing:


Finally, while I was watching the short-eared owls near the end of the afternoon, a bald eagle flew over and flushed several thousand snow geese. They were far enough away that they looked like a swarm of white insects:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Skagit County Birding - A Preview

In preparation for talking to a few high school classes tomorrow morning, I went to the mainland today. I decided to come over earlier in the day so I could bird in Skagit County. I've recently become a member of the Tweeters mailing list (the birding listserv for Washington State), and the bird reports from the Skagit area have been too enticing to pass up, being as close as I am.

I spent six hours birding and saw 36 species. There were some great encounters (and great photographic opportunities) with many species, but by far raptors took the cake today. It will take several blog posts to share everything worth sharing, but here are a few preview photos showing today's highlights.

This was my first raptor encounter, and it's the actually the only one I'm not 100% sure of the ID on. Help me identify this mystery hawk! I think it's a red-tail?


This bald eagle looks almost bandit-like with its dark eyes stripe. It's a third year juvenile in Basic II plumage:


This red-tailed hawk provided another great "drive-by shooting" opportunity, as I was able to photograph it right out the car window. I was able to confirm it was a red-tail by the patagial marks on its wings once it took flight.


I simply couldn't believe this little American kestral stayed put for me:


This icing on the cake at the end of the day was encountering three short-eared owls, busy hunting and rough-housing with each other:


This tired birder needs to get some sleep, but there will be much more to follow in the coming days!