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Monday, September 28, 2009

(Almost) End of Season Crew Trip

While we'll still be running whale and wildlife viewing trips for another month, yesterday felt like the last day of summer in a lot of ways. We've switched to our fall schedule now and as of today the weather feels cooler, windier, damper, and overall just a lot more like autumn. Yesterday afternoon, however, was a full boat trip aboard the Western Prince and we enjoyed K and L-Pod whales in the warm sunshine and calm waters off the southwest side of San Juan Island.

When we got on scene the whales were very spread out, and going on very long dives as they foraged making viewing difficult. By the time we left, however, they were grouping up and getting social. We had a beautiful close pass by L86 Surprise and her two offspring L106 Pooka and new calf L112. Then we watched another group of four whales (I couldn't ID them because they were backlit) roll around at the surface, including a young juvenile who spyhopped with a fish in its mouth!

As soon a we got back to the harbor it was time for our annual end-of-season crew trip. What, you may ask, do a bunch of whale enthusiasts do to celebrate the winding down of the whale-watching season? Go whale-watching, of course! We all hopped aboard our zodiac-style boat the Western Explorer and cruised around San Juan Island enjoying the zippy boat ride and several groups of Dall's porpoise before catching up with the whales again. Below are some photo highlights from the beautiful sunset encounter with part of K-Pod and part of L-Pod.

Two whales surfacing just off of South Beach with Mt. Baker in the background

The whales have been splitting up into all sorts of different groups all season long, but I think I finally pieced together who was out there yesterday. K-Pod split up, with part of them going north and part of them staying south where I saw them. I think we had the majority of K-Pod (minus the K11s), but I only saw for sure K21 Cappuccino, K26 Lobo, and K16 Opus.

A whale silhouetted by the late afternoon light with the Olympic Mountains in the background

As far as L-Pod whales go, we had at least the following L-Pod family groups: the L55s (8 whales), the L72s (3 whales), and the L26s (3 whales). This was awesome because these are probably among the rarest family groups I encounter since they spend so much of their time out in the open ocean, so its always exciting to see them. Below is L95 Nigel, a 13 year-old male that looks like he's just starting to "sprout", meaning his fin is growing up to be the tall, six-foot dorsal of the full adult male:

L95 Nigel

After finding a nice group of whales, we just cut our engine and soaked in the sight of the whales slowly moving offshore. The lighting was spectacular: everything looked golden, except for the waters that looked almost blue-purple.

K26 Lobo

All too soon, it was time to head in before it got dark. On the way home we were treated to a view of the sun setting beyond the Cattle Point Lighthouse:

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Oh, Deer

I didn't feel like I saw all that many deer this spring, but this fall has been a completely different story. I've been seeing deer everywhere! Here are some photos from three different deer encounters last week.

While walking at British Camp, a mom and her two twin fawns from this year were grazing and nibbling at the crab apples that had fallen on the ground under the trees:


Near False Bay, these three deer were on the alert when a fox came walking across the field. I like how they are different colors - one dark, one medium, and one light:


This doe paid me no mind as I sat down on a log to watch her come down a hillside towards me. When she got near the bottom of the slope she tried to reach out to grab some leaves off the branches of a tree that was growing at the bottom of the hill:


When she still wasn't able to reach, she came to the bottom of the hill and took a new approach - standing up on her back two legs! She couldn't care less about me as I watched her do this repeatedly to reach the branches:


Her reward? A mouth full of green leaves!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Turtleback Mountain


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


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

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


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


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


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

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Spectacular Sunday

This afternoon we had an amazing trip on the Western Prince. In addition to seeing about twenty huge Steller sea lions and four playful Dall's porpoises, we had a beautiful time with members of J-Pod off the westside of San Juan Island.

It was one of those lazy afternoons where we could spend a lot of time with our engines off just drifting in the flat-calm waters as the whales milled and foraged everywhere around us - no matter which direction you looked you could be watching whales. At one point we saw a young whale heading towards our bow. We didn't see it for a while, until I looked down and saw the whale on his/her side underwater right as it passed our bow! It was so cool because the whale never even surfaced in our immediate vicinity, but we could see it as it swam by underwater. It's hard to get photos of the whales underwater because of the distortion and reflections, but this shot captured it pretty well. The whale is tipped over onto its right side, and you're seeing the left side of the whale with its white eyepatch and chin near the top of the photo and its flank white patch near the bottom:


We had nice looks at most members of J-Pod, including J27 Blackberry, pictured below, who was traveling with his younger brother J39 Mako:


Here is J41 Eclipse, a special little whale to me because I saw her shortly after she was born back in 2005. It's been awesome to watch her grow up over the last four years. Her mom J19 Shachi was swimming nearby.


J33 Keet (13 years old) and J36 Alki (10 years old), a brother and sister, were splashing around together, doing lots of surface lunging and upside down swimming. We also saw Alki do three spyhops in a row. Here is J33 Keet surfacing with San Juan Island and Mt. Baker in the background:


We were just parked watching the whales head offshore when all of a sudden the whales on both sides of us turned towards us at the same time. There was nothing to do but wait and see what would happen. I've heard that sometimes on a bright sunny day when the boat casts a shadow salmon may take refuge under the boat and whales may come over to pursue those fish. I never really believed it until today, when it sure looked like that's what was happening. The whales came towards us from two directions, swam under the boat, and spent several minutes circling around doing sharp turns at the surface that we often associate with foraging. During all of this one whale passed right off the stern, making for a good opportunity to get some more underwater shots. Check out this head-shot looking down at who I think was J33 Keet. I've never gotten a photo anything like this!!


Here is that smae whale surfacing a short distance later:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Unidentified Insects

There have been some cool insects around lately....I really need to get my hands on a field guide in order to figure out what they are, but until then, here are some photos.

These grasshoppers have been all over the place. From trying to ID grasshoppers last time I remembered wing color was really important, and these have pale greenish-yellow wings. That should help me narrow it down.


I also saw these two very different sized grasshoppers together. Since female insects are usually larger than males, I have a pretty good idea what these two were up to:


The blossoms on blackberry bushes have been attracting many different species of bees and wasps. This was a kind I hadn't ever noticed before, that looks almost more white and black than yellow and black:


I'm a bit of an arachnophobe but my naturalist curiosity won out over my fear of spiders when I found this one climbing on the tower at Mt. Constitution. It's one of the biggest local spiders I've ever seen, maybe about three inches long including the legs:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Moran State Park on Orcas Island

This week I've had some family in town, which always makes for a good excuse to take some time to tour the San Juan Islands and visit some places I don't always get to go to as much as I would like. I've had my camera in hand for all of our adventures and have lots of photos to share (look for some upcoming posts to feature the insects, birds, and deer I've seen), but for now I'll focus on today's trip over to Orcas Island where we went to Moran State Park. You can check out some photos from my last visit there, which was ten months ago. Sometimes I'm amazed at how rarely I get to one of the other islands!

The focus of the day was going up Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands at just over 2400 feet. While this morning was foggy, the skies had cleared by this afternoon giving us a panoramic view that stretches from up north near the city of Vancouver south along the mainland of Washington past Anacortes, and west from Mt. Baker to east over all the San Juan Islands. Here's a view from the top of the observation tower looking east towards Lummi Island and Rosario Strait:


The interpretive signs and park volunteer shared the well-known history of Moran State Park, the largest recreation area in the San Juan Islands at 5000 acres and one of the most famous Washington State Parks, and the associated story of Robert Moran, who donated the land to the state in 1921 so the public could always enjoy this amazing place. Surprisingly, however, no where could I find why the hill is called Mt. Constitution. Inquiring minds, of course, want to know, so I had to come home and find out.


It turns out the name Mt. Constitution comes from Charles Wilkes who led the United States Exploring Expedition, an exploratory survey of the Pacific Ocean conducted by the US Navy from 1838-1842. The survey came through local waters in 1841. Many of Wilkes' place names didn't stick; for instance, he named Orcas Island "Hull Island" after Isaac Hull, a sailor in the War of 1812. However, the name Mt. Constitution, given by Wilkes in honor of Isaac Hull's ship the USS Constitution, has, for some reason or another, stayed. Now I know!


I had been to the summit of Mt. Constitution before, but today was the first time I stopped to see Little Summit, a slightly shorter peak that has less obscured views to the west. Here's a couple views form Little Summit:



On the way back down we also stopped at Cascade Falls, a beautiful place I would love to spend some more time playing with camera settings while photographing the running water in the dappled sunlight of the forest. Here are a couple shots from today with the "soft water" effect gotten from longer exposures. The goal is to have the water look soft but keep the land crisp and in focus, which can be a trick when taking handheld photos like I was today. I like these results though. You can click on the photos to see larger versions.



Here's another vantage point standing at the bottom of one of the falls looking up:


In my two visits here I've never made it too far along the trails because I get stuck just a short ways in with so many things to try taking photos of! I would love to spend some more time here exploring the other trails and waterfalls, but today the ferry schedule and dinner plans kept the visit short. I guess I'll just have to go back!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Marine Wildlife Highlights

There's been a lot of wildlife to see lately - not just the orcas. Here are a few photo highlights:

A whole flotilla of cross jellyfish right off the back deck of the houseboat


A great blue heron takes flight after perching on a kelp bed


Humpback whales visible from shore!

This afternoon I was watching some L-Pod whales from shore when I saw a very tall blow, and I said out loud, "That is NOT an orca!" It turned out to be from a humpback whale, and watching through binoculars revealed it was actually three humpbacks traveling together. Humpbacks used to be found in the inland waters here until they were hunted to local extinction. In 2003 they started coming back, and now every year they are seen in the area, especially in the fall, but a sighting from shore is still a rare thing indeed! Even though they were a mile or more offshore it was so cool to see them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Surfing, Sea Snakes, and a Superpod

What a day! I worked a double today on the Western Explorer and both our morning and afternoon trips were fantastic. This morning the whales were still split up into two separate groups like they were yesterday afternoon, and we caught up with part of L-Pod with a couple of K-Pod whales as they headed north up Boundary Pass. (This gave me a chance to see for myself who was missing from the encounter we had yesterday afternoon, since these were the whales that were further south yesterday. For those keeping track, this southern-most group included the L5s, half of the L12 group [L41, L77, L94, and L25], K21 and K40, and although we didn't see them, reports were the L2s were in the area as well.)

The first group we followed along was, interestingly enough, three males all together: L73 Flash, L84 Nyssa, and K21 Cappuccino. They were in a very playful mood, spending a lot of time rolling around at the surface. Here is K21 diving with another male upside down behind him with his pec fins in the air:


Here's a look at L73 Flash on the left and the younger L84 Nyssa on the right:


When it comes to orca sexual behavior, as with most dolphins, it seems like the attitude is anything goes. These three males were definitely engaged in some type of sexual activity as evidenced by the large pink "sea snake" this male had exposed:


Here is an angle you don't see to often of an orca with its head completely out of the water as it comes up to breath. This was a male doing an interesting surface lunge as they all frolicked about:


The coolest part of our encounter this morning was seeing the orcas surf in freighter wakes - twice! Right when we got on scene a freighter passed by, and four of the whales swam at top speed through the swells with just their dorsal fins poking through the surface (a behavior we call "sharking) occasionally coming up for a huge full-body lunge. At one point we could even see one whale under the surface in the big wave of the freighter wake. They proved way too fast for me to capture any photos, but right before we left another freighter came by. While I've heard of orcas surfing on freighters I hadn't ever seen it before today - could they possibly do it a second time? They did! This time it was K21 Cappucino and L41 Mega, and although they were a little further away making it hard to pick out the swells of the freighter wake, I was fast enough with the camera this time. Here is one of the males sharking. You can tell how fast he's going by the spray flying off the top of his fin:


L41 Mega did a full body lunge as he played in the freighter wake. It was so cool to see them engaging in such a spectacular play behavior:


When we left the whales this morning, the group of Ks and Ls we were following was heading north towards the southbound Js, Ks, and Ls, and by the time we left the dock for the afternoon trip all three pods had met up - superpod time! We had a little further to travel, but we met up with ALL the whales (all members of all three pods) in the southern end of the Strait of Georgia where they were all spread out and in no hurry to go anywhere.

Whenever we have a superpod the whales are likely to intermix and mingle with one another instead of staying in their immediate family groups like we are most used to seeing them. I was having difficulties identifying the whales we were seeing, and when I came home and looked at my photos I found out why: they were REALLY mixed up! We had a nice pass of one group that included partial family groups from all three pods: J16 Slick and two of her offspring J26 Mike and J42 Echo, K26 Lobo, and L5 Tanya and her nephew L74 Saanich. What an odd group of whales to see all together, but I always find it so interesting who is hanging out together during a superpod. Here are some photos from that pass....these photos were all taken within a minute or two of one another:

Two year-old J42 Echo right behind mom J16 Slick


J26 Mike


There were a couple other whales in this group that I wasn't able to identify, like this young male who may have been J33 Keet. I love this shot because of the reflection of the fin and eyepatch in the water.


L5 Tanya


K26 Lobo just breaking the surface as he comes up for air. I was able to identify this whale because I have a whole sequence of shots that shows his saddle patch and dorsal fin.


There were large groups of orcas spread out for miles all around us. It was a nice, calm afternoon and as the whales weren't in any hurry we got to spend some time just drifting and listening to their blows. The setting couldn't have been better with blue sky and water and a backdrop of the mountains of the mainland in one direction and the US and Canadian Islands to the other direction. There were lots of great photo-ops, like this one of a male surfacing in front of Mt. Baker:


Right before we left we had a nice pass of a male and female, and I wasn't able to figure out who it was at the time. Some of our passengers wanted to know who it was, so I told them I would be able to tell by looking at my photos and that I would post it here on the blog, so here is a photo showing those last two whales, who turned out to be L22 Spirit and her son L79 Skana: