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Thursday, December 31, 2009

End of the Year Slideshow - 2009 Orca Highlights

Happy new year! It was a good year for the orcas, with five new calves born and no deaths in the Southern Resident killer whale population. I had some fantastic sightings, such as the greeting ceremony, whales surfing in the freighter wake, and being on scene the first time little J46 was seen.

In celebration, here is a look back at my whale sightings from the 2009 season. I hope you enjoy this five and a half minute slideshow, featuring the song Staralfur by Sigur Ros. Here's to a great 2010 to one and all!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Varied Thrushes

Despite the chilly temperatures of late, things have been pretty quiet at all the feeders in the yard. The only reliable sighting is the gang of about a half dozen squirrels that enjoy all the seed and chase each other around the trees:


There are still some good bird sightings to be had, though. This morning was a perfect example when a pair of varied thrushes came through. They were foraging among all the leaf debris on the ground looking for bugs. This one perched nicely in our big-leafed maple before moving on.


I have a feeling there may be more bird sightings at the feeder in the near future, because it just started snowing!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Forest Grove Christmas Bird Count

Today my dad and I participated in the 110th annual Christmas Bird Count in Forest Grove (about 25 miles west of Portland). It was a clear, sunny day, but very crisp with the wind chill dropping the temperatures well below freezing. After meeting up with some other volunteers at 7 AM, we headed out just before sunrise. Our sector included Fern Hill Wetlands, so we started there. Here's a view overlooking the main lake just before the sun came up. The flock of waterfowl silhouetted at the far end of the pond turned out to be mostly tundra swans.


We spent a little over three hours hiking around the wetlands and saw most of the expected waterfowl such as large groups northern shovelers; hundreds upon hundreds of northern pintail, Canada geese, and cackling geese; and flocks of mallards, green-winged teal, and common mergansers. We picked up three gull species (mew, glaucous-winged, and ring-billed), three shorebirds (killdeer, dunlin, long-billed dowitcher) and three raptors (bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel). The American kestrel was perched on a telephone pole eating a large rat, and it was impressive that it was even able to fly carrying such large prey! In addition to lots of other common species, some highlights included about 30 western meadowlarks and a small flock of yellow-rumped warblers.

By the time we finished our hike we had tallied a respectable 40 species, but all the best finds of the day were yet to come. The first was just across the road where we spotted a single lesser goldfinch. Later on while surveying a pond full of gadwall, I discovered a lone male blue-winged teal. In one lake in addition to tundra swans and northern pintail were several dozen trumpeter swans. I also found a northern shrike perched on the top of some brambles out in the middle of farm country.


My dad scopes out some birds in the reservoir below, where we found our first ring-necked ducks, a ruddy duck, some bufflehead, and a few double-crested cormorants.

Our view from our lunch stop, where we picnicked on cheese and crackers while overlooking the valley below. Once we descended, we found a fox sparrow in some scrub with golden-crowned sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

While Canada geese were everywhere, we found one flock of about 15 that were the dusky Canada goose subspecies, the smallest of all Canada goose subpopulations. Currently, the dusky population numbers are at record lows (an estimated 6000-7000), which has led to more protection for this particular race. Much of this population overwinters here in the Willamette Valley when they're not at their Alaskan breeding grounds, so local birders like to look for them.Many duskies have been tagged, and about five of the birds in the small flock we saw had red tags around their necks.

European starlings were of course ubiquitous, but this flock had found a rare unfrozen puddle and were taking advantage of the bathing opportunity, splashing water everywhere!


One of the dozen American kestrels we saw throughout the day - the only one who sat still long enough to have his picture taken

The Christmas Bird Count isn't just about counting how many species you see, but how many individuals of every species. I was the tallier for my team, a job which I enjoyed. As a result, I was thinking about all kinds of numbers, so here's a summary of my CBC stats...

Hours birded: 9.5
Number of species seen: 61
Number of individual birds counted: 4848
Most number of any one species: 1768 northern pintail
Miles traveled by car: 60
Miles hiked on foot: 4

At the end of the day we reconvened with other birders to hear about their sightings and see how many species were collectively seen in our 15-mile diameter circle. Overall, the unofficial count was 121 species - not bad at all! Some sightings I'm jealous of include a very rare for this time of year hooded oriole, a long-eared owl, and a flock of common redpolls. Of course the barn owl, blue grouse, and red crossbills some teams were expected to find and did would have been nice too! But, I can't complain. We contributed three unique species to the list that no other team saw - the trumpeter swan, blue-winged teal, and northern shrike.

I'm always impressed with the long daily patch species lists Warren reports over on his blog. You may remember that my dad and I often do "Big Days", usually in the spring or summer, when there's as much as 7 hours more daylight than we had today. Our record is about 90 species in a day, and we usually travel over much greater distances trying to visit a wide variety of habitats. Considering all this, it was pretty spectacular to see 61 species in a day in a relatively small geographic area, especially in December.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

May the spirit of Christmas bring you peace,
The gladness of Christmas give you hope,
The warmth of Christmas grant you love.
~Author Unknown




Monday, December 21, 2009

Bird Reports

Next weekend I'll be participating in the 110th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), another citizen science program where volunteers count birds in a given area, contributing their data to what is the "longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations". I've done the CBC before in the San Juan Islands, but it's a bigger deal here in the Portland area where there is a lot more ground to cover. I'm sure I'll be posting highlights of that trip, but this is also the time of year where list compilers are gathering notes on birds seen at the county and state levels.

If I look back at my own birding year, during my 11 months on San Juan Island I saw 129 species in the county. The highlight for me was seeing sooty and pink-footed shearwaters for about a week in September.

From front to back: two sooty shearwaters, a Heermann's gull, and a pink-footed shearwater

According to my resources, sooty shearwaters are rare in San Juan County and the pink-footed shearwaters were a new county record. However, my shearwater sightings haven't gathered much attention from the list compilers, maybe because they were around for a longer period of time and were recorded by many. Instead, what the "highers up" in bird record keeping have honed in on was my sighting of a pair of pine grosbeaks back in February during the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Male (left) and female (right) pine grosbeaks

At the time I was excited since it was a new life bird for me, but I didn't realize how rare the pine grosbeak is west of the Cascade Mountains. As you can see on this distribution map, winter irruptions of pine grosbeaks south of the Canadian boreal forests are relatively rare. Since I was the only one to see them, I've been asked several times to share my photographic evidence of my sighting so the account can be proven and entered into the record books. Good thing I had my camera with me!

I wonder if we'll find any record-worthy birds during the CBC? Probably not, but they've given us a list of "target birds" that would result in some good finds. Some of the target species even came with a detailed description of where to look for them based on where people have scouted them out ahead of time. I look forward to seeing just what turns up, and I'll be sure to report back here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

J-Pod and K-Pod Vocalizations from 12/10

Even though I'm down in Portland, I'm still getting "whale updates" and have had the chance a couple of times to listen to the whales on the Orca Sound hydrophone network. The evening of December 10th was especially cool, with J- and K-Pod vocalizing off and on for several hours in Haro Strait. (Note: the whales spend much less time in the inland waters during the winter months, compared to the summer but they've not-unexpectedly been in and out of Puget Sound all fall.) Thanks to Jeanne's recent posts I found a way to embed audio right into my blog post, so I hope you enjoy this 3:12 clip of the orcas vocalizing. Near the beginning you will hear the three-part descending calls that are characteristic of J-Pod. Closer to the end you will hear the high-pitched kitten-like calls of K-Pod.


Orca acoustics has been my area of research and right when I began studying the whales it intrigued me that you could identify which pod or pods are present simply the the vocalizations that they're making. In the case of the Southern Residents, the three pods (J, K, and L) share a set of +/- 25 different call types. Each call is named with an "S" for Southern Resident, then a number, so the calls are S1, S2, etc. Many calls are shared between all three pods but each pod has a certain sub-set of the shared repertoire that they use more often. For instance, S1 , one of the calls heard near the beginning, is almost exclusively a J-Pod call. Even among shared call types, such as S16, pods can have different "accents" to them, allowing you to tell them apart. S16 is one of the K-Pod calls heard towards the end of this recording, and I know it's K-Pod because it's so much higher pitched than when J- or L-Pod makes the same call.

K26 Lobo emerging from the dark depths of the ocean where he has been "talking" about....?

Even though we see the whales on an almost daily basis during the summer it's important to remember that they only spend 5% or less of their time at the surface. The vast majority of their life is spent in comparative underwater darkness, which is for them an acoustic realm rather than a visual one. While we rely primarily on visuals to identify individual whales, and study whales using the visual behaviors we see (breaches, tail slaps, etc.), I think their true secrets are locked up in their acoustic communication.

Orcas are one of the most heavily-studied marine mammal acoustic systems, and when people hear we've been studying orca acoustics for 40+ years, they often wonder if we have "cracked the code" and figured out what they're saying. In reality, we're nowhere close. It's not like in some animal communication systems where a single call can be paired with a single behavior. Instead, calls are used across all behavioral contexts. As I learned in my undergraduate thesis, there's a greater structure in how the calls are used, with certain call types often being linked together in their usage. The truth is we don't have a clue what they're talking about. I think that's pretty darn cool.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Portland Pond Hockey!

The temperatures have been sub-freezing for a week now, mostly in the mid-twenties during the day and high teens at night. It's been very dry with crisp, clear blue skies, but standing water has had plenty of chance to freeze. The calm, man-made pond in Westmoreland Park where I saw the red phalarope just a few weeks ago has frozen solid and transformed into a giant, outdoor hockey rink.


This morning the local major junior hockey team, the Portland Winterhawks, took the ice to scrimmage for an hour or so with fans. For those who aren't familiar, the Hawks are members of the Western Hockey League (WHL), a developmental league for players aged 16-20 who hope to go on to play pro hockey. I've been a big hockey fan for years and had season tickets for the Hawks when I lived in Portland full-time. It was great to see the players and fans out having so much fun on such a beautiful winter morning!

The Winterhawks, in red, scrimmaged against the fans, mostly in black


Nino Niederreiter, the Swiss left-winger who leads the team in goals


Twenty year-old team leader Chris Francis, in his fourth year with the team


Future NHLer defenseman Brett Ponich is currently the team captain of the Hawks, but he's also second round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues


Center Stefan Schneider gets ready to head home


Tough guy Taylor Jordan gets interviewed by one of the several media teams present

I even made a cameo appearance on the video clip aired by one of the local news stations - check it out, that's me right at the end taking photos!



If you're interested in seeing more photos of the Hawks, check out my Picasa album.

Even after the Hawks were done for the day, lots of other people enjoyed the ice for the rest of the afternoon. I like this artsy shots of someone's hockey skates during another scrimmage


I brought my skates too and took to the ice for a little skate and shoot. One thing I've always wanted to do is skate outside and experience some honest to goodness pond hockey. I never in a hundred years thought I would get to do that in Portland!


It wasn't just hockey, though! The ice rink was flat so this dad had to run for his son to get up to speed on his sled. Looks like they're having fun though!


There were the obligatory signs warning of thin ice, but the ice was easily a foot or more thick, so the warning was no heeded


The pond couldn't be set up better with built-in benches all the way around. These kids were taking a break from skating to say hi to one of the many dogs that enjoy the park daily


Check out the snow kicked up during a hockey stop by a couple of scrimmaging players. The games were still going on as sunset neared.

A silhouetted hockey player


A make-shift dog sled: dog pulls mom, mom pulls child

The clouds have moved in tonight and they're forecasting potential snow and freezing rain this weekend. It will be interesting to see what happens....there's no doubt winter is here in full force!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Story of L87 Onyx

In early November Jeanne and I gave a talk at a naturalists' workshop about Southern Resident killer whale associations. The general story of Southern Resident pods is that male and female offspring stay with their mother for their entire life, and that pods, made up several related family groups, travel together all the time. In reality, the picture gets a little more complex, and when we're watching whales throughout the summer Jeanne and I love to try and figure out who is with whom. The unexpected associations give us a little more insight into their complex society, which we, I think, barely understand.

One of the most intriguing stories that has developed over the last couple of years is that of L87 Onyx. Onyx is a male that was born in 1992 to L32 Olympia. Olympia passed away in 2005, and often when a whale loses its mother, it will often associate with its closest remaining family members. In Onyx's case, we would have expected this to be his sister (L22 Spirit), nephews (L79 Skana and L89 Solstice), or cousin (L85 Mystery). Instead, since the death of his mother, Onyx has been traveling with K-Pod.

L87 Onyx (right) with "surrogate mom" K11 Georgia in 2009

We occasionally see whales travel temporarily with other pods, but as far as we know, Onyx has been with K-Pod since 2005. Specifically, he latched onto older females K7 Lummi and K11 Georgia. For the first couple years he was seen almost exclusively with them, and after Lummi died in 2007/2008, he stayed with Georgia. Over time, he has started associating with other K-Pod whales as well.

Never in the last 40 years of observations has their been a documented case of a whale "switching pods". Even L7 Canuck and L53 Lulu, who for the last couple of seasons have spent the entire summer with J-Pod, switch back to L-Pod for the winter months. Onyx doesn't do this: he is with K-Pod all year round.

K25 Scoter (left) with L87 Onyx in 2008

Female orcas seem to be the glue that holds the pods together. First of all, pods are matrilineal. Second of all, females live long beyond reproductive age, a rarity in the natural world. This indicates that they may play an important cultural role for the pod. Indeed, if an elder female dies, there is often a lot of reshuffling in social associations and even traveling routes.

Killer whale scientist Alexandra Morton, who focuses mostly on the Northern Resident killer whales, says that males who lose their mother have to latch on to another female family member, otherwise they often become "satellites" and associate with all different groups of whales. She notes that satellite males don't usually survive very long, and also states that in her observations males will only associate with whales their mom has introduced them to.

All of this makes Onyx somewhat of an enigma. He has surviving female family members, but instead has chosen to associate with an older female in an entirely different pod. It begs the question: what was the relationship between Onyx's mom Olympia and his surrogate mom Georgia? Based on Alexandra Morton's theory, Onyx must have met Georgia through Olympia, and the connection must have been strong enough to "overrule" his relationships with his more immediate family.

This raises some interesting practical questions as well. How long do we consider Onyx a member of L-Pod rather than a member of K-Pod? (He will always remain L87.) There's a lot of long-term sighting data that relies specifically on reports of which pods were present. When reporting whale sightings to one another and to researchers, then, is it accurate to say K- and L-Pods were present when in reality it was K-Pod plus just L87? Is it anymore accurate to say just K-Pod was present when L87 was also there?

L87 Onyx (left) with his new family in K-Pod in October 2008

One interesting point I like to make when talking about Onyx is that if we started studying the killer whales today, and wanted to put together the familial associations like the researchers did in the early 1970s, we would designate L87 Onyx and K11 Georgia's son. Family relationships were largely determined by associations, and Onyx swims right next to Georgia like he's her son. It makes me wonder if this really is the first time a whale has switched family groups. Some of the whales we assume are the direct offspring of the females with which they closely associate may actually be satellite whales like Onyx that have latched onto a new mother figure after losing their own. It just goes to show, as with any biological observations, its dangerous to make assumptions.

Onyx's story has been enough to make us question some of our fundamental beliefs about how resident killer whale societies work. It's amazing to me how many questions get raised by the movements of a single whale.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Koll Center Wetlands

The other day while running some errands I decided to stop at Koll Center Wetlands. It's a neat little place I used to frequently bird-watch, set right in the middle of a business park in suburban Beaverton:


There's a great blue heron rookery there, where once I saw how brutal sibling rivalry can be as one chick had thrown another out of the nest. It's a great place to see all kinds of waterfowl and any shorebirds that may be passing through, and there's a little wooded area nearby to pick up a whole other variety of species as well. On this particular afternoon it was fairly quiet, but the lighting was beautiful:


Most of the 13 species I saw were clustered at one end of the lake, unfortunately making them back-lit for me - not great for photographs. Here's a little pied-billed grebe:


While no species was particularly abundant, the variety in one spot was pretty cool to see. How many different species do you see in the photo below, and what are they? Click to see a larger version.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Oregon Wine Country

We finally got some nice weather over the end of the holiday weekend, so last Sunday was a beautiful day to drive out to parts of rural Oregon and visit several of the small, local wineries that were open for the weekend. It was sunny, calm, and not even very chilly, so it was perfect for pulling out the camera and capturing some scenic shots of Oregon wine country.

A gravel road through one of the vineyards


A few oak trees (I think?) punctuated the otherwise flat landscape, standing out among the rolling hills. Here a couple of trees frame one of the barns at a winery.


One of my new lenses starts at 18mm, giving me a chance to frame some wider landscape shots like this one


By the time we drove home, the sun was setting and the moon was rising


We had to stop the car so I could try and capture this view of Mt. Hood beyond the road leading down from Bald Peak into the rural valley. Click on the picture to see a larger view showing the mountain more clearly.

I've never really figured out the tricks of photographing mountains in the distance....they often appear very washed out. Anyone have any tips?