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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wildlife at the Light

Between work and everything else that has been going on, I haven't spent nearly as much time out at Lime Kiln State Park as I usually do in the summer. I've made a point this week to start changing that, and have been rewarded with seeing some of the great wildlife that the park has to offer. This afternoon I headed out there, and while it was warmish and sunny with clear skies in town, the west side of the island was still partially enshrouded in fog with a chilly breeze.

Some of the whales that went north yesterday were making their way back south this afternoon and while I was waiting for them to arrive I watched the pelagic cormorants, rhinoceros auklets, and gulls. This Heermann's gull swooped down to catch one of the numerous bait fish:

When the whales started passing by it was difficult to figure out who was there because they were so back lit, but by looking at my photos I was able to determine some of who was there. J1 Ruffles and J2 Granny were in the lead group with some other Js, and behind them were several of the K-Pod family groups. Since I was in Alaska when K-Pod made their other brief appearance this summer, this is the first time this year I had seen some of these whales! It's always a bit like reuniting with old friends, and you get to see all the members of the family and see who has grown or changed since last year.

It's a bit unusual for K-Pod to have been gone this long during the summer months. Where have they been, do you ask? Well, for the most part we don't know, but a couple of weeks ago they were seen offshore of the Queen Charlotte Islands off central British Columbia, which is about as far north as the Southern Residents have been documented. Usually they roam the open ocean from the Queen Charlottes to as far south as Monterey, California in the winter months, and spend most of the summer in the inland waters, so it's a mystery as to why K-Pod has been away so long in June and July.

Anyway, as some of the K-Pod whales started passing by they picked up speed, and here is K14 Lea porpoising:

She was flanked by two of her offspring, the adult male K26 Lobo and her two year-old son K42 Kelp, who were also both swimming at high speed:

Next came the K13 family group, and while they were swimming by a sea lion popped up swimming the other direction! We don't see many sea lions between mid-May and mid-September when most of them are at their breeding rookeries, but this one looked like a juvenile Steller sea lion so was probably too young to be at the breeding colony:

There was a big gap between groups of whales and during that time the fog moved back in to hug the shoreline. It started to get much colder and the visibility was reduced to 50 yards or less over the water, so with little hope of seeing any whales in the near future I decided to head home and warm up. I didn't have to retreat far from the sea to be back in sunshine and blue skies, but as I drove down San Juan Valley the fog was moving inland from False Bay:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Partial Superpod

The big news in the whale world this week is that K-Pod came back into town on July 26th. They had only been seen in the inland waters once briefly so far this summer season, so we haven't had any full-fledged superpods (where all members of the Southern Resident Community are present) yet this season. As I've written before, the whales have been mixing and mingling into all sorts of unpredictable groups this summer, and today was no exception. We didn't see all the Southern Residents in once place, but we did have members of all three pods traveling together in Swanson Channel! What's this called, a partial superpod?

The first group we came upon was L27, the L55s, and the L86s (aka the L4s) - the family group in L-Pod with lots of females and juveniles but no adult males. These are whales that in years past I haven't gotten to see a lot of, but they've been hanging around a lot this summer. From left to right in the photo below is L27 Ophelia, L86 Surprise!, and her one year-old calf L112:

The whales were mostly in travel mode today, but L27 Ophelia did give a couple of tail slaps:

Someone asked the other day about L106 Pooka, and since I've posted a few photos lately of L86 and her youngest calf L112 I thought I would share that yes, the five year-old L106 has been there too! Here he is next to mom:

The only K-Pod whales I saw were K21 Cappuccino and his sister K40 Raggedy, who seem to have flipped back to traveling with J-Pod as they were earlier this summer rather than hanging with the rest of their K-Pod family members. From left to right in the photo below are J22 Oreo, K21 Cappuccino, and J34 Doublestuf:

K21 Cappuccino acquired a new notch on his dorsal fin since we last saw him, as indicated by the arrow below. People often ask how the whales get nicks and notches in their fins and the answer is we just don't know for sure. For the marine mammal feeding transient whales some of their wounds are surely inflicted by their prey (like Steller sea lions) that have big teeth and are apt to fight back, but for the fish-eating resident whales it's more of a mystery. Did they scrape on something, or get entangled in something? Occasionally the injuries look like they may be inflicted by other whales because sometimes there are teeth rake marks alongside the nick, but we never really witness full-out aggression between killer whales. So, Cappuccino, what have you been up to??

Monday, July 26, 2010

San Juan Island Eurasian Collared Doves

On June 28th I saw my first ever San Juan County Eurasian collared-dove along Bailer Hill Road. Since then, I've seen anywhere from 1-3 there regularly, and today I finally stopped to take a photo. The lighting wasn't the best, but it was good enough to show the field marks.

I reported this sighting, and while it wasn't the first San Juan County record it was one of only a handful and I was learned that they have really just started colonizing the island this year. In addition to where I'm seeing them in the center of the island, there have been reports of more down near Cattle Point at the south end of the island.

Wikipedia describes this species as one of the great colonizers of the bird world in the last 100 years, dispersing from an original range of subtropical Asia to now being found all over Europe, throughout Russia, and into Northern Africa. After being introduced to the Bahamas, in 1974 it has colonized Florida and rapidly expanded its range across all of North America. The first sighting in Washington State was in 2000, and sightings have increased dramatically since 2005, with confirmed sightings in all of Washington's counties.

Originally many birders feared this would be the next great invasive bird species, a la the European starling. Of particular worry was that it would displace the similar native mourning doves. I heard one birder say that it seems Eurasian collared-doves may be inhabiting more urban settings while mourning doves prefer suburban areas. I have also heard speculation that perhaps the Eurasian collared-dove is filling the niche left empty by the extinct passenger pigeon - an interesting notion!!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Js (and the L12s!) Off the Pender Islands

Lately I have seen a lot of jumping fish in the area - both large salmon and smaller bait fish. The word is the fish runs are strong this year and that is great news for all the local marine wildlife. In the last few days I have seen many bait balls and multiple minke whales, which are undoubtedly enjoying the schooling fish. Here is one rhinoceros auklet I saw today:

The good salmon runs are likely responsible for the fact that orca sightings continue to be fantastic. This afternoon we headed north and caught up with J-Pod just as they passed Turn Point and started crossing Boundary Pass. With the beautiful clear weather this made for some great photo-ops with Mt. Baker in the background. This shot shows J1 Ruffles in the foreground:

We followed the whales across Boundary Pass to the Pender Islands in Canada. They were spread out over a couple of miles but the first group we spent time with included J1 Ruffles, J2 Granny, and the entire J14 family group. As I scanned the waters it seemed reasonable to assume we had most if not all of J-Pod in the area. Next we came across J8 Spieden:

J8 Spieden was rolling around on the surface with a male, who I thought was J26 Mike. Nearby were J19 Shachi and J41 Eclipse, so at the time it seemed like we still had just J-Pod whales in the area. Not so! After I got home and looked at my photos closer, I noticed that L12 Alexis was traveling right with J19 Shachi. That made me doubt my original ID, and sure enough it turns out the male playing with J8 Spieden was actually L79 Skana! So at least some L-Pod whales were there too! Here's L79 Skana, who was right behind J8 Spieden, at time swimming upside down underneath her:

It's never safe to make assumptions when it comes to the whales, because as soon as you think you know what they're going to do they do something completely different and surprise you. I'm still puzzling over some of my photos to figure out who all was there today!

For a while we continued to follow the whales slowly north, and several of them were right along the shoreline maybe just yards from shore. Before it was time for us to leave, however, a few of them pulled a little further offshore and started getting much more active, which was a great joy to watch. Here is L79 Skana surfacing in front of another male doing an inverted tail slap:

I recently posted a sequence of photos showing a female whale spyhopping followed shortly thereafter by her calf. Today we saw one better, a mom and calf spyhopping simultaneously! I think it was J35 Talequah and her first-born calf J47:

The last group of whales we saw came by at high speed, porpoising out of the water and creating huge splashes. I think this whale is L85 Mystery:

On the way home we passed what looked like it may have been a wildfire on Stuart Island, and a little later we saw a fire boat heading out that way. I hope everything is okay out there!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Dozen L-Pod Whales

This morning when we left the dock on the Western Prince, we didn't know which way to turn - north or south. We had reports of whales in either direction, so this was a good problem to have. We decided on north, and the weather was great for a cruise around the north end of San Juan Island into Haro Strait.

We thought we still had a few miles to travel before we got to the whales when one of our passengers and our captain simultaneously spotted some blows in shore. Yet another example of how important it is to keep your eyes scanning the water at all times, just like on Wednesday! As we pulled in a little closer we could see there were about a dozen whales traveling in a tight group, but who were they?

Our passengers often wonder how we are able to ID the whales so quickly, so I thought I would explain the process I went through today. The first clue was that there were no adult males in this group. Some people call adult males "indicator males", since they are often easier to identify and can give you a clue about which family groups to look for. Today, the absence of males was just as much of a hint, as we were seeing mostly females and lots of youngsters, but I still hadn't seen any whales I recognized for sure.

Many of the whales have solid gray saddle patches which can make them more difficult to tell apart from one another, but then I spotted a whale with a distinct open saddle patch. I confirmed by snapping a picture and zooming in my camera, and this is what I saw....

Sure enough, it was L83 Moonlight followed by her three year-old calf L110 Midnight! Once I've identified a whale that's easier to pick out of a crowd, like L83 Moonlight is, I know who else to start looking for. The whales pretty much always travel in their immediate family groups, so a female and all of her offspring will usually be right together. Also, from experience, I know which family groups are often together, so that helped me piece together the rest of today's puzzle. By looking at my photos after the trip I was able to confirm what I suspected on the boat: we had the 12 whales that make up the L47s, L55s, and L86s (the latter two are often referred to as the L4s, though I prefer to refer to the matrilines by the living females).

Here are a few more photos showing some of the other whales in this group. Below is L55 Nugget and her youngest, three year-old L109 Takoda:

From left to right in the photo below are three adult females: L27 Ophelia, L86 Surprise, and L82 Kasatka.

I always love when we see the whales swimming and surfacing in a tight group as they were today. Someone remarked that they looked like they were so close they could be touching, and when they are as close as in the photo below, they probably are! It's just another example of the tight family bonds among these whales. The right most dorsal fin belongs to L86 Surprise and you can see the little head of her one year-old calf L112 popping up in front. The other two fins in the back are L47 Marina (left) and her daughter L91 Muncher (right).

While adult males with their impressive six-foot dorsal fins are a sight to see, it's also special to see a productive family group like the one we saw today. So many young whales and their moms indicate what will hopefully be a positive future for this population of orcas!

Friday, July 23, 2010

July 21st - A Beautiful Afternoon With Js

On Wednesday we left Friday Harbor thinking we had a ways to travel, as we had a report a group of whales that were up in the Canadian Gulf Islands. We always tell our passengers to keep their eyes out along the way because just because we know where one group of whales are, it doesn't mean there aren't others in the area. On our way north, we got a phone call saying there was another group of whales rumored to be in the area. We made a little detour and sure enough - we found part of J-Pod in Boundary Pass!

Some of the whales were surfacing in synchrony together which is always so beautiful to see. There's actually five whales in the photo below - the little calf almost disappears against the whale behind it on the left! It's amazing how small they look next to the adults, and then to think that when they are born they are already six feet long and 400 pounds!

In this tight group of five whales were members of two different matrilines. From left to right in the photo below are the 9 month old calf J46, its mom J28 Polaris, J22 Oreo, and her son J34 Doublestuf. The other whale that was surfacing with them was J32 Rhapsody.

As they approached Turn Point the whales spread out and picked up speed and we saw J34 Doublestuf do a couple of huge lunges as he porpoised into Haro Strait:

As the whales continued south, we got to parallel alongside J28 Polaris and her calf J46. There's something so special about seeing a baby orca, and we're lucky to have quite a few of them this year:

While we were watching the whales there was a lot of other wildlife to see as well. We actually saw a minke whale surface right in the same area the orcas were traveling, and this wasn't a typical place we see minke whlaes! Lots of sea birds were also around, including rhinoceros auklets and gulls. This is a great time of year to see gulls in the islands as there are 5 or 6 different species that it's possible to see. We came across a mixed flock of Heermann's gulls, glaucous-winged gulls, and mew gulls feeding on the surface. Here is a mew gull that flew right overhead as we were watching the whales:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sunday July 18th - Js with a big group of surprise Ls

I'm still without internet at home, so my posts continue to be delayed. I'll get photos up from Wednesday's trip as soon as possible - hopefully tomorrow!

On Sunday when we headed out in the morning aboard the Western Prince, we expected to find J-Pod, who we had been seeing a lot of lately. When we got up into Boundary Pass we were surprised to see many more whales, and it turned out most of L-Pod was also present!

The first whales we saw were J17 Princess Angeline and her calf J44

L53 Lulu and her mom L7 Canuck, who had been traveling with J-Pod, were socializing with some of their fellow L-Pod members. Here they are following behind L72 Racer:

The whales were in several large social groups and did some playing around at the surface, including this spyhop:

I was also happy to see L84 Nyssa, who I hadn’t seen yet this year. He was traveling near his closest living relative, L5 Tanya, and their whole family group has been pretty scarce this year.

In the afternoon we met up with the same whales further south where they were spread out over several miles. The group we spent most of our time viewing was an interesting combination of J and L-Pod whales. From J-Pod we saw J1 Ruffles, J2 Granny, J8 Spieden, and J26 Mike, who were traveling with L54 Ino and her two sons L100 Indigo and L108 Coho as well as L26 Baba and her offspring L90 Ballena and L92 Crewser. Here is L54 Ino giving a tail slap with four year-old L108 Coho just behind her:

The male in this photo is J26 Mike, and the female behind him is 77 year-old J8 Spieden:

We also got several great looks at Ruffles. In this photo you can really see how he got his name with that wavy fin:

The whales were so spread out that we ran into several other groups as we were making our way slowly back towards Friday Harbor, and at one point we stopped to get a great look at L82 Kasatka. We could see another whale swimming upside down underneath her, but it never surfaced nearby so we couldn’t see who she was traveling with.

Monday, July 19, 2010

July 17th - A Foggy Morning With Js

This post is from Saturday morning's trip - a bit delayed because I'm switching internet providers at home and have been without internet for a few days. If you are looking for pictures from Sunday's trips, I will get them up tomorrow, when hopefully I will be back up and running! To answer Dave's question from the morning of the 17th, though - yes, we do see whales in the fog!

I normally associate foggy mornings with August, but we’ve already had several foggy days so far this July. It was pretty patchy fog today, so as we cruised up San Juan Channel we were enjoying the sunshine, and when we got near the whales at first we got to watch them emerging from the fog, which was neat. As they continued north towards us, however, the fog seemed to follow them and soon we were encircled with fog too!

Some people might think viewing whales in the fog is less fun than in the sun, but we actually have some pretty spectacular encounters with the whales in the fog and in addition to providing conditions for some interesting photographs to me it always make the experience seem almost more magical.

Today we caught up with part of J-Pod and the first whales we saw were J1 Ruffles, J2 Granny, and the J14 family group. Here from left to right are J1 Ruffles, J14 Samish, and J30 Riptide:

L7 Canuck and L53 Lulu were also nearby, as they have seemingly switched back to hanging out with J-Pod for a while after hanging with other L-Pod whales earlier in the season. L7 Canuck did a series of big tail slaps:

In addition to the whales, there were a lot of rhinoceros auklets around. I wonder how these and other sea birds, that normally fly just over the surface of the water, manage to navigate through the fog without hitting anything?

While watching the whales we heard several different ships sounding their fog horns, and eventually one would appear from the mists. Here is the Washington State Ferry Chelan coming across Haro Strait in the fog.

Before we left we saw the whales do quite a few spyhops. Normally we’ll just see a single spyhop here and there, so it was unusual to see several sequences of spyhops by different whales. I wonder what they make of trying to see through the foggy air? This spyhop was by J2 Granny:

On the way back to Friday Harbor we went through Spieden Channel, where we were again in the sunshine. The clearer conditions allowed us to see multiple bald eagles soaring over Spieden Island. We also went by Sentinel Island where there were lots of harbor seals hauled out. We are now in the middle of the pupping season and many females have little pups right next to them. There are two in this photo.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A New Visitor

Living on a houseboat, the number of bird species that will come visit my feeders is a bit limited. My regulars are house sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and chestnut-backed chickadees. Song sparrows and red-breasted nuthatches are occasional visitors. In the spring rufous hummingbirds frequently come, though less often in the summer for some reason. If the weather is cold, the normally reclusive fox sparrows and spotted towhees may also pay a visit. American crows and glaucous-winged gulls also finagle their way into getting a share. After a couple years of feeding the birds here I figured those were just about all the species that were going to discover the feeders, but the other day I had a pleasant surprise - a new visitor! A pair of American goldfinches. Here's the male:

Since their first visit they are now coming often, and they're so bright they're always a pleasant sight! While the photo shows him at the tray feeder they actually hit the hanging sunflower feeder the most, which is designed for the chickadees so they had to come up with a innovative way to perch. The feeder hadn't been emptying very slowly but now they are going through it in a hurry. That's okay though; it's cool to have someone new to watch.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

J27 Blackberry ~ A Long Trip Pays Off

This afternoon when we left the docks we had reports of orcas way up north, right near the edge of our range, and we weren't sure if we were going to make it. As always, we decided to give it our best shot and started our cruise heading up through the San Juan Islands towards the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver, BC - the destination for the salmon the orcas were undoubtedly in pursuit of.

It was a beautiful, warm sunny day and the sea conditions were flat calm. That meant the waters were perfect for spotting harbor porpoise and in Boundary Pass we spotted many small groups as we cruised by. We also got a great clear view of Mt. Baker in the distance. The strong flood tide pushed us along and we made great time as we traveling a whopping 31 miles from Friday Harbor - I generally say the maximum distance we can go is about 30 miles away! It's not often we go this far but today it was definitely worth it to see J-Pod spread out and foraging in the tranquil waters of the southern Strait of Georgia.

We spent most of our time there with the two brothers J27 Blackberry and J39 Mako, who I've been seeing a lot of lately. Here's J27, the 19 year-old older brother, surfacing in front of what we call the Coal Docks - whenever we see the Coal Docks we know we are a long way from our home port!

It was the kind of day where we could just cut our engines and watch as the whales zig-zagged about and looked for fish. At one point J27 veered straight towards us, making for a great "head on" photo-op. When the sea conditions are super calm like they were today, the water creates some stunning reflections as shown in this sequence of photos. Something about these images, to me, really captures the essence of a killer whale. I hope you like them too.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Whale Puzzle Continues

Seas in Haro Strait were unseasonably rough this afternoon so I was happy enough to have the day off and to be looking for the whales from shore. I missed a late morning passby while taking care of a list of neglected chores but decided to head out to Land Bank to read for a couple hours anyway and was in luck since the whales turned around and came back north right by where I was sitting.

One of the first things I saw, which I thought was pretty cute, was a pair of spyhops. one right after the other An adult female spyhopped and two seconds later (by the time stamp on my photos) a little whale spyhopped right next to where she had been. From my photos I think it may have been J16 Slick and her youngest calf, J42 Echo:

At first I thought I just saw a small group of whales coming, but it turns out it was just difficult to spot them at a distance among all the white caps and quite a few ended up passing by. I've spent some time puzzling over my photographs trying to figure out who all was there and it looks to me like it was a group of L-Pod whales (potentially the same ones we saw yesterday - some of them were the same anyway) and a group of J-Pod whales (the other half that we didn't see yesterday).

One thing I'm sure of is that J-Pod has been consistently splitting into two groups. Yesterday's group was made up of the J17s, J22s, and J11s. Today I saw the other group, made up of the J14s, J16s, and what I call the J2s (J1, J2, J8, J19, J41). When I say something like "the J14s", I'm referring to the J14 matriline, made up of J14 and her offspring. Here's a picture of some of them from today, with J14 Samish on the left, J40 Suttles in the middle, and J37 Hy'shqa on the right trailing kelp off of her dorsal fin.

For those who are keeping score, in terms of L-Pod whales, I saw family members from the following matrilines: the L26s, the L72s, the L55s, and the L47s. As mentioned above, I think all these family groups were there yesterday, as were at least half the L12s, who could have been mixed in there somewhere today too. You guys following all this? I barely am!

I figure I might have more luck with taking some video clips from shore since I'll at least have a stable platform to start from, so here is one I shot today.