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Friday, April 30, 2010

They're back!

While the Southern Resident killer whales can come through the area at any time of year, they spend a lot of their time here between May and September. Every spring, the anticipation of their return is always running high, and everyone wonders, "Will today be the day that they come back?" Usually, J-Pod returns some time April, though last year they weren't seen until the first week of May. It was looking like that might be the case again this year, but as it turns out, today was the day - it's the last day of April and we finally got the phone call that Southern Residents were heading in the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards the San Juan Islands!

The seas were a bit rough today, but that wasn't going to keep us from finding those whales. We met up with them off the west side of San Juan Island where they spread out over several miles. There were a couple adult males in the group we were with, and their tall dorsal fins stood out over the choppy water:


It was too difficult to get any IDs while out on the water today, but after we got back I was listening to the hydrophones on the west side of San Juan Island and by the vocalizations it was clear that at least J-Pod has returned. Hopefully they will stick around, and we will get a chance in the next few days to see who all is here!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Awesome Day in Boundary Pass

While waiting at the dock for all our passengers to arrive today we were caught right under a cloud burst, but as soon as we pulled away from the dock the sun was shining again and we decided to head towards the northeastern part of the San Juan Islands to search for wildlife. We headed up beautiful President's Channel towards Patos Island, where the always picturesque Patos Lighthouse looked especially stunning with the billowing clouds in the sky behind it:


I was excited to check out nearby Boiling Reef, a shelf where the dramatic change in water depth makes for turbulent and unpredictable currents. The water is awesome in itself but I remembered that last spring we often found a variety of animals there taking advantage of the tidal movements to feed. We were there right on a strong flood tide, so I was hoping to see some foraging harbor porpoise and maybe some sea birds. Little did I know what spectacle was in store for us!

The water was indeed turbulent. When Boiling Reef is living up to its name, as it was today, spontaneous upwellings suddenly erupt from the surface without any notice, and what was once flat-calm water becomes in a matter of seconds an incredible tide rip, or a bubbling flood of whirlpools and vortexes.

From a little ways off, we spotted some backs breaking the surface of the water. From a distance I thought they were porpoises, but as we got closer it became obvious that there were no dorsal fins...they were the arching backs of Steller sea lions! As we got closer groups of them started surfacing on all sides of us. We estimated there were about 50 sea lions swimming around, way more than I have ever seen in the water in one place!

It soon became apparent that they were indeed taking advantage of the currents to forage. We saw several animals bring fish to the surface, only to be hounded by gulls hoping to get some scraps for themselves.


For the most part the sea lions just went about their business, rolling in the waves in small groups or diving down for fish. A couple of them, however, came up closer to the boat and took a look at us, making me wonder who was really watching whom:


Further towards East Point we spotted a large flock of birds. Actually, "large flock" doesn't do it justice - there were probably tens of thousands of Bonaparte's gulls swirling about and actively feeding over a mile or more. It was easily the largest congregation of sea birds I have ever seen. It is hard to capture such a large spectacle with a photograph, but I'll attempt it by sharing these two - just keep in mind that we were surrounded by this on all sides, and in some cases it stretched way off into the distance!



Yesterday I was so excited when I posted my first shots of Bonaparte's gulls in summer plumage. I wouldn't have even bothered had I known was in store for me today! These petite gulls that look so buoyant in flight were flitting all around us, diving down to capture some type of shrimp-like creature right off the surface of the water. Right now they all look as if they've dunked their heads into a bucket of ink, as they are decked out in their black-hooded summer plumage as they make their way back to their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra.


I was surprised that some of them were actually diving from the air in an almost tern-like fashion, completely submerging themselves underwater as they captured their prey. Others took a more dainty approach and simply lowered themselves to the water....


...where they could then barely touch the surface with their feet as they found what they were looking for:


We spent a half-hour or so up by Boiling Reef completely surrounded by wildlife. It was a phenomenal experience to be sitting amid the swirling seas, with giant sea lions popping up all over and little gulls swirling around in the air in all directions.

One of our stops on the way back to Friday Harbor was along Spieden Island, where saw no fewer than nine bald eagles in a two mile stretch. Also, the small band of sea lions we have been regularly seeing in the water was somewhat surprisingly hauled out on Green Point. After seeing so many sea lions in the water earlier it was cool to get a close-up look of them hauled out. I always find it so odd that they hang out in such close proximity to each other this time of year when in a couple of short months they will be fiercely competing for the best beaches at their breeding grounds. They weren't exactly enjoying each other's company today, as several of them were growling and biting at each other:


Today was a perfect example of why I love working as a naturalist and going out to observe wildlife every day: we always see something different. Even on days like today when the orcas weren't around, we found ourselves surrounded by an abundance of wildlife and everyone on board, myself included, came home with a big smile at our thrilling experience with sea lions and Bonaparte's gulls up in Boundary Pass.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

No whales, but lots of birds!

For a while it seemed like I was seeing whales every day, which was pretty unusual for this time of year. I haven't seen any whales for a week or so now, but the birds have (almost) made up for it.

Yesterday on my walk home from work I saw a large flock of pine siskins (149). Today while out on the water, the bird-watching was fantastic. Down near Salmon Bank there were flocks of brant, red-necked grebes, rhinoceros auklets, glaucous-winged gulls, pelagic cormorants, some white-winged scoters, and....wait for it....Pacific loons (150)!! Finally, after spending three weeks looking for them, they seemed to be everywhere.

Later in the trip in Mosquito Pass were some surf scoters and eight long-tailed ducks, the most I've ever seen in one spot. A little further along in Spieden Channel were a couple hundred Bonaparte's gulls, feeding in the same area as ten Steller sea lions and several dozen harbor porpoise. It gave me an opportunity to get my first-ever photos of Bonaparte's gulls in summer plumage with their black hood:


Later, while at home, I had to put down the phone to quick run outside and snap a photo of this belted kingfisher. A pair of them hang out in our marina, but often just fly through or have their regular perches a little farther away. This one stayed put in the wind just long enough for me to take two pictures, then moved on its way:


The birds have also started coming back to the bird feeders on the deck in greater numbers. The house sparrows found the tray feeder right away, but it took a little longer for the dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, and chestnut-backed chickadees to find their way back. I'm still waiting for the return of the red-breasted nuthatches to the suet feeder. Three rufous hummingbirds have also been enjoying their feeder, and the other day I got some nice photos of them that I'll feature in an upcoming post.

A group of Washington ornithologists recently reported some amazing bird finds right here on San Juan Island, so I'll have to study up on my bird calls and head out with a renewed vigor to see if I can't find some of the amazing species they reported here just a few days ago!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sea Lions, Sea Birds, and More

It's been chilly again the last few days but we had sunshine for today's trip aboard the Western Prince. Our first stop wasn't far after pulling out of the harbor, as we headed over to the Reid Buoy to see the California sea lion that has been hanging out there. This sea lion has a brand mark on his right side, but so far I haven't been able to get a clear look at it. It makes me wonder if it is the same branded California sea lion that was hanging out on this buoy last spring! After checking with the researchers we heard that particular animal was tagged as a 2 or 3 year old near Seattle, and had been re-sighted everywhere from San Miguel Island California to Cascade Head Oregon to the Straight of Georgia in British Columbia. I'll keep trying to get a better look, but my hunch is its the same animal returned to his favorite haul out:


A little further up the channel we ran into a gang of Steller sea lions lolling about together. They would dive down, then every once and a while reappear all together with backs, flippers, and snouts occasionally breaking the surface. There has been a group of about a half-dozen or so Stellers that have been hanging out in this area pretty consistently for the last couple of weeks. It's very cool to see both species of sea lion, especially knowing they will be heading off for the breeding season in the near future.


Next we cruised along Spieden Island where we saw a few Mouflon sheep and two groups of fallow deer. There were also a pair of bald eagles soaring overhead and a couple of harbor seals hauled out on the rocks. Spieden was looking especially beautiful today, as in addition to the green grassy hillside the deciduous trees are a bright spring green. By mid-summer the island will be more golden-brown than green.


We headed across Haro Strait which was glassy calm today, making for great spotting conditions. We saw a few small groups of harbor porpoise here and there, and a single Dall's porpoise off in the distance. Most surprising to me were two small groups of brant, a sea goose that I occasionally see throughout the Pacific Northwest but have never seen in the San Juan Islands before. Right now they are likely heading north towards their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra.

There were more sea birds to check out at the bird sanctuary on Mandarte Island over on the Canadian side of Haro Strait. Two species of cormorants nest year. Pelagic cormorants, which have white breeding patches on their flanks right now, hang out on the steep cliff faces:


A little further down, double-crested cormorants make their rookery on the more tiered section of the cliff, where they can build their big nests of sticks:


The water was "only" about 50 feet deep here, fairly shallow for this area. That probably makes it a good place to hang out for the bottom-feeding pigeon guillemots. Several dozen of them were floating just offshore, and they make also make their home on these rocky cliffs.


On our way back across Haro Strait we swung north and went by Turn Point Lighthouse, one of the most picturesque points in the islands:


On our way back towards Friday Harbor we saw more seals and another Steller sea lion, as well as some other great sea birds like rhinocerous auklets, also in breeding plumage. One highlight for me was a single Bonaparte's gull in breeding plumage! It's such a great time for bird-watching out on the water right now.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A 36 Species Day

Yesterday I spent some time driving around the island checking out some of my favorite beaches, bays, and lakes looking for any new spring migrants that might be out and about despite the clouds and chilly weather that have dominated lately. The shorebirds have been surprisingly sparse so far - for one reason or another many of them pass over the San Juan Islands, but I would have still expected to see some sandpipers by now.

Even without any peeps or plovers, there were some good birds to be found. A flock of a dozen or so red-breasted mergansers was hanging out at Jackson's Beach. There were several northern rough-winged swallows flitting over the lagoon at Fourth of July Beach, and they were using the nearby driftwood as perches:


Across the way at South Beach I didn't think there would be much out there when I first drove up, or at least I didn't think I would be able to see it with all the chop out there. A scan with binoculars, however, turned up surf scoters, horned grebes, harlequin ducks, a pair of long-tailed ducks (now in breeding plumage - the first time I've seen them decked out that way!), common loons, pelagic cormorants, and surf scoters. I still haven't been able to find any Pacific loons to add to the year list, though....I've got just a few more weeks to look for them before they've headed north for the summer.

False Bay was pretty empty except for some northern pintail and mew gulls. Over at the marshes were some stunning hooded mergansers, as well as some lesser scaup. The wetland areas also turned up my only year bird of the day - some singing common yellowthroat (148), along with the loons one of my main target species for the day.

I was back out on the water today (still no Pacific loons!), and it was cold. I keep telling people I think we've had all four seasons just in the month of April. Hopefully the sunshine returns with a little more force soon!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Orca Eyeballs and Eagle Eggs

I work with a great group of naturalists and we are always coming up with new questions, doing research, and sharing answers as we continue to learn more about the local wildlife and ecosystem we love so much. Sometimes these questions that we don't know the answers to come from inquisitive passengers who stump us, and other times the questions come up over happy hour at the local pub. I did a post like this before, talking about male versus female sea stars and killer whale body temperatures - and apparently some other people come up with the same questions because over time this post continues to get a lot of hits! So here are a couple more of our interesting questions and their answers.....

How big is a killer whale eyeball?
This question was asked by a child, and other than, "It must be larger than a human's", none of us really knew the answer. The internet, which often turns up answers to our questions, came up dry on this one, although I did learn that a blue whale eyeball is about 5-6 inches in diameter, and a human eyeball is about an inch in diameter. I e-mailed a local expert who does necropsies, and he didn't know either, so the question continued to spread. Finally, a scientist from NOAA who had participated in a killer whale necropsy sent us a photo, showing us definitively that the answer is a killer whale eyeball is just over two inches in diameter.

How big are bald eagle eggs?
The bald eagle is a large bird (with a body length of about 3 feet, a 6-7 foot wingspan, and a weight of 8-15 pounds), but how big is a bald eagle egg? I've compared a couple of different sources, and it sounds like an eagle egg is about 3 inches long and weighs about a quarter of a pound. So how does this compare to something like a Canada goose (body length up to 3.5 feet, 4-6 foot wingspan, weight of 6-14 pounds)? Goose eggs are just slightly larger.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lopez Island Visit

I know I've mentioned it before, but it's amazing how rarely we get over to visit some of the other islands. Today, on a last-minute whim, we decided to visit Lopez Island, a place I haven't been in several years even though it's just a hop, skip, and a ferry ride away.

It was a drizzly day, but that didn't deter us from walking around a couple of different parks. Our first stop was Spencer Spit State Park, where I spotted my first barn swallow (145) of the season. Here is the view from the spit, as seen through the covered picnic shelter window:


Walking back along the spit, a drab bird larger than a sparrow caught my eye as it perched on top of a piece of driftwood. Much to my surprise, it was a female mountain bluebird (146), a bird I have never seen in San Juan County before. Too cool! It is listed in one of my field guides as being a rare migrant visitor to the islands between late March and mid-May, a time frame we are right in the middle of now. I have read of some other reports west of the Cascades as well, so maybe they are migrating a little further to the west this year.

After a stop for a bite to eat, we went to Shark Reef Sanctuary, my favorite place on the island. The first part of the trail meanders through the woods, where I found a couple of beautiful snails, like this one:


Then the trail comes out to the coastline, where you can look one mile across Cattle Pass to the Cattle Point Lighthouse on San Juan Island. I don't see the view from this side all that often! There were lots of harbor seals on the nearby rocks, and some beautiful yellow, blue, and white wildflowers in bloom which brightened the otherwise gray afternoon. Here was the view across the channel as a sail boat made its way up the pass:


There was one other surprising find here which I'll save for a separate post, but before long it was time to head back towards the ferry landing to catch a ride home. On the way we stopped to drive out along Fisherman's Bay, and while I had hoped to turn up another shorebird species, it was something completely different that had me pulling the car over....


Wild turkeys (147)!! Granted, these turkeys are relatively tame compared to their more skittish counterparts on the mainland, but the fact that they were out in the open isn't going to keep me from counting them. They were of course introduced to the islands, but as far as I know the population on San Juan Island has disappeared in recent years.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Little Bit of Everything at the FHL Trails

Today ended up being a much nicer day than forecast, and since I was off the water today it was a great chance to go for a hike at the trails near the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs. As we drove up, I saw what I think was probably an early western tanager fly across the road, but it was just too quick for me to be certain, plus I know how keen I was to add another year bird. Unfortunately it flew up, up, and far away, so there was no chance for a better look. As it turns out, I wouldn't have to wait too long to add another species to the year list.

It wasn't far down the trail that we found ourselves in the middle of a nice pocket of birds. The first one I saw was a pileated woodpecker (142), and nearby was also a hairy woodpecker and a pair of northern flickers to make for a rare three woodpecker species day. The pileated woodpecker flew away quickly, but could be heard calling - it's probably one of my favorite bird vocals (it's just so loud as it echos through the trees!), and you can hear it for yourself here. In the brambles lurked chestnut-backed chickadees, spotted towhees, song sparrows, and dark-eyed juncos. A moment later a little brown bird boldly took a perch at the tippy-top of a high snag and began to sing its trilly, unpredictable song - a house wren (143)! I also had the camera ready to capture a rare glimpse of an orange-crowned warbler completely out in the open:


Most of the bird highlights came towards the beginning of our walk, though a bit later on I also heard my first pacific-slope flycatchers (144) of the season. After that, it was the other flora and fauna that captured my attention. Here is one of the dozen or so spring azure butterflies we saw (the only one that landed at all):


It was amazing how many different types of mushrooms were out, the most impressive of which was this huge shelf fungi:


While we walked out on the trail through the forest, we looped back along the shoreline trail, where a pair of garter snakes caught my attention. Instead of slithering away into the salal like most snakes do, this one wasn't too shy and just sat still for a while:


In the forest there were a few broad-leaved starflowers in bloom with plenty more on the way, but along the coastline the bright yellow buttercups were definitely at their peak, as were these fawn lilies:


There wasn't much happening out on the water, although I did spot a pair of harbor porpoise. Finally, before looping back into the woods, we came across a nice bright patch of algae....perhaps a type of sea lettuce? In a previous post I talked about Enteromorpha intestinalis, a type of green alga that grows where saltwater and freshwater comes together. There was clearly some freshwater seeping out of the rocks here, but I'm definitely not knowledgeable enough about seaweeds to know if this was it for sure or not!


It ended up being a much longer hike than anticipated, but it was a real naturalist's paradise out there today, with so many different things to look at!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

More Transients and Great Wildlife

We have had a couple of great trips aboard the Western Prince in the last two days. On both occasions we left the dock without a whale report and ended up seeing transient orcas, as well as a lot of other wildlife!

On Friday we met up with T14 Pender who was traveling by himself. He's a whale with an amazing story, which I summarized on another blog post here. In summary, those notches on the front edge of his dorsal fin are from when he was surgically fitted with a tagging device in 1976.


While it's always awesome to spend time with an adult male orca, the rest of the wildlife was fantastic as well. When it comes to birds, in addition to several adult and immature bald eagles we saw a flock of 1000 or so Bonaparte's gulls in summer plumage; many common loons, rhinoceros auklets, and pelagic cormorants; a belted kingfisher which chattered right alongside the boat; and six beautiful harlequin ducks sitting right with a pair of clownish-looking black oystercatchers.

After looking at 50+ mouflon sheep on Spieden Island, we were cruising past Green Point when we found a group of four Steller sea lions in the water. Much to our surprise, a smaller, darker California sea lion surfaced right in with them! While all the crew on board had seen California and Steller sea lions hauled out together before, this was the first time any of us had seen them swimming together in a tight pack.

On both days we saw a bald eagle perched on the Kelp Reef marker

On Saturday were admiring a group of harbor seals hauled out near Yellow Island when we got the call of a rumored orca report near Victoria, BC. It was a ways away, but we decided to go in that direction so we would be in good position if the report was substantiated. It was glassy calm crossing Haro Strait, and we spotted several small groups of harbor porpoise. For a brief time we were also accompanied by a pair of Dall's porpoise riding just off our bow.

By the time we were in Canadian waters a couple of other boats had located the reported whales - a male and female transient. They were slowly heading away from us, but we were able to catch up with them a little ways west of Trial Island. It was spectacular to watch them surfacing in the tranquil gray waters with the Olympic Mountains partially shrouded in clouds behind them. The male was T103, who is over 40 years old. He often travels with female T104, but this wasn't her - this female had a tear on the trailing edge of her dorsal fin. As of right now, it is still a mystery as to who she was!


We had a bit of a rougher ride on our way back to San Juan Island, but the water settled down in Cattle Pass where we stopped to look at 15 or more Steller sea lions hauled out on Whale Rocks. All in all, another great couple of days on the water around the San Juan Islands.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Birds: On Name Changes and Species Splits

One difficult aspect of keeping bird records of any sort is that the species periodically change. My recent additions to my year list have reflected this confusion! Part of the complication comes from birds changing names, such as the long-tailed duck (139), which used to be referred to as the oldsquaw until 2000. This is fairly manageable when record-keeping, and you eventually get used to the new nomenclature. But what about when species merge or split? Then you can have birds added or subtracted to your life list just based on the decision of the International Ornithological Congress - what some refer to as "armchair ticks".

I won't go into too much detail here about what biologists refer to as the "species problem", but the gist of it is that when taking into consideration things such as geographic distribution, interbreeding, hybridization, etc. it can be very difficult to define what exactly a species is. That fact of the matter is, of course, that evolution is a constantly occurring process, so the term "species" tries to put into definite categories populations that are always in flux, either merging or splitting over the grander scale of time. When it comes to marine mammals, for example, we are likely seeing the beginnings of speciation when it comes to transient and resident orcas - right now they are both very morphologically similar, but if their distinct behaviors keep them from genetically intermixing over time they will diverge more and more from one another.

So how does this fit into my year bird list? Well, the powers that be just decided to resplit the yellow-rumped warbler (which is number 61 on my year list) into four separate species! They originally merged the myrtle warbler and Audubon's warbler into the yellow-rumped warbler in 1973, but have decided to split them again based on several new studies that demonstrate the two different morphs do not interbreed. To deal with this, I have decided to make #61 on the year list the myrtle warbler, the morph I posted a picture of here when I saw it in January. While birding yesterday while off-island for the day in Seattle, I saw the Audubon's version of the former yellow-rumped warbler, so I will make that the next tick on my list (140). Follow all that? :)

Okay, back to the bird sightings! I finally got to check out Union Bay Natural Area near Seattle, a place I have long read about as a great place to bird. It is known affectionately as Montlake Fill, or simply "The Fill", since it was the city dump for Seattle from 1926 to 1965 before it was cleaned up and restored in 1971. It is now a premier urban birding site right in the middle of the city. While I failed to spot any of the recent goodies like a mountain bluebird, I did get a few nice photo ops, like of this female red-winged blackbird perched on a cattail:


All the expected waterfowl species were present, but this was probably the closest and best look I've ever had of a male cinnamon teal:


A jogger who noticed we were birding was also kind enough to point out this impressive bushtit nest:


Then today while out on the water, we saw an impressive flock of about 1000 Bonaparte's gulls (141), a bird that has always been its own species and has always been called the Bonaparte's gull! While we often see flocks of these gulls in winter plumage in the autumn, they are less frequently spotted on their way north in the spring, but these guys were all decked out in their sharp breeding plumage including a black hood. A good find!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Transients South of Discovery Island

We had a fantastic trip today aboard the Western Prince. For the first time this spring, the waters were glassy calm for our excursion, and while there was still a chill in the air the sun was shining. Our first stop was Whale Rocks, where we saw and heard about a dozen Steller sea lions growling at each other, with the nearby harbor seals seemingly taking no notice. As we continued out Cattle Pass, the water conditions were perfect for getting a nice look at about eight harbor porpoise that all surfaced together in a few brief bursts.

As we cruised out towards Salmon Bank, we spotted a minke whale among the pelagic cormorants, rhinoceros auklets, and glaucous-winged gulls that were foraging. I noticed this particular minke had a notch on the leading edge of its dorsal fin (see photo below - click to see a larger view). I forwarded the sighting with the picture to the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale Project. Not only will our sighting we added to their database, but maybe they can tell me which whale it is!

Next we got the good news that some transient orcas had been sighted heading in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Often transients are in stealth mode, interested in going undetected as they look for the next hunting opportunity. Not so today, as the twelve or so orcas we saw were in more of a playful mood. In fact, our first good look at them included the first of several big spyhops we saw!


Several of our passengers had heard recent news reports about transients recently ramming a gray whale in Puget Sound, just a little ways south of us here. You can check out an article and some video footage about this incident here. There have been several groups of transients roaming the area lately, and some of the whales involved in the recent gray whale incident were among the whales we saw today. Here is a group of them surfacing with the southern tip of Vancouver Island in the background:


While I'm pretty good at identifying Southern Resident orcas, who spend a lot of their time here in the summer months year after year, I'm less familiar with the transient population, which roams further and with less predictability. I did, however, recognize the big male T87 - the same male we saw last Sunday who has a distinct couple of notches near the top of his fin. Here is T87 surfacing with a female whale in front of him:


There were two males in the group: T87, who is pictured above, and T30A, pictured below.


These two males demonstrate nicely how we identify transients when comparing what we see to the photo ID guides. T87 has a notch, and T30A has some black scratches and serious rake marks near on his saddle patch. Those uniform rake marks look like they may have been caused by the teeth of another orca. While orcas aren't ever seen to really fight each other, they may bite each other as a form of discipline or other communication. Here's a cropped version that shows T30A's saddle patch better:


I have to give thanks to Jeanne who filled me in on the whales present today. In addition to T87 and T30A, we had T88, T90, and T90B (also among the whales we saw Sunday); T30, T30B, and T30C; and the final family group was T124, T124C, T124D, and T124E. The T stands for transient, and the number indicates the order in which the whales were identified. If a whale has a name like T124C, it means she was the third offspring (A, B, C) of the whale T124.


Finally, the strangest thing I saw today - something which I had never seen before - a whale surfacing backwards! It's hard to tell based on the photo below except that this whale is facing the opposite direction of all the others as seen in my other pictures above. On two occasions, this whale came up going from left to right but facing backwards. First its dorsal fin came up, followed by its head. This picture was taken right before she resubmerged.


Now, I know belugas are noted for their ability to swim backwards, but what about orcas? I've never heard of it, and indeed I'm not sure if if it possible. So, if this whale wasn't propelling itself, it must have been pushed by another whale underneath it! Very bizarre!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Birds, Butterflies, and Wildflowers

One disadvantage to birding on San Juan Island is that a lot of migrant species pass over the islands for some reason. For instance, while I've been hearing orange-crowned warblers singing around every bend in the trail, I have yet to spot any other type of warbler here, including the newly re-split yellow-rumped warbler (more on that in a future post). The same goes for species that are otherwise residents of the region; chestnut-backed chickadees are abundant on the island but black-capped species are absent. Still, there are birds out there to be found, and while Dave has temporarily crept ahead in the year bird race I picked up two more for my list in the last two days. Yesterday I saw violet-green swallows (137) - a good three weeks behind most people but there the first ones I've found! Then today, a pair of northern rough-winged swallows (138).

There are two types of butterflies that I've noticed flying about. One is a little black and white speckled job that has yet to settle down for me to get a close look at it, let alone a photo. The other is this spring azure (Celastrina argiolus), shown here perched on a western red cedar branch:


I also have quite a few wildflower shots to share, so I thought I would do them a few at a time. Last year was the first spring I really got into identifying wildflowers. This year, spotting a now-familiar flower species is just as exciting as seeing the summer bird species return. Here are three such species that I learned last year:

Spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata maculata), a parasitic orchid that feeds off of fungi.


Fairyslipper (Calypso bulbosa), another orchid species that is widespread but listed as threatened due to being especially susceptible to disturbance


Sea-pink, also known as thrift or sea-thrift (Armeria maritima), a common flower found in coastal habitats across the northern hemisphere and in parts of South America

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Orcas! Transients feed on a Steller sea lion

My first orcas of 2010! We headed out on the Western Prince this afternoon optimistic about an earlier sighting of some Ts (marine mammal feeding transient orcas). Another boat relocated them shortly before we got into the area and we picked them up about a half mile south of Bird Rocks in Rosario Strait, a little ways off Lopez Island.

The initial report was of three whales, but it soon became apparent there were more than that. The setting was perfect as they surfaced several times in front of us with Mt. Baker in the background:



There were about five or six whales in the main group, with the most distinct one being the big male T87, who is at least 47 years old. He has a big rectangular-shaped notch out of the top of his fin, with another smaller notch right below it. Here he is surfacing with a juvenile whale in front of him:


Also in the group was T80, an older adult female, the only other whale I was able to definitely identify. But based on the whales they usually travel with according to the ID guide, this may be the 30 year-old female T90 and her four year-old offspring T90B:


All the whales were hanging around in one spot doing a lot of circling and hanging at the surface. We didn't see them make a kill, but it certainly seemed like feeding behavior. Another clue was the several dozen gulls that were circling over the whales, and occasionally touching down on the water, apparently feeding. Our passengers were using the gulls to help figure out where the whales were next going to surface, as their literal birds-eye view helped them to keep better track of the whales underwater than we could! Hmm....what was going on?


Soon it became apparent what was happening when I saw this whale pushing something at the surface. A closer look revealed it was the brown hide of a Steller sea lion - check out the photo below, just to the right of the whale. In several of my other photos you can see the sea lion (already dead on our arrival) at the surface, or pieces of meat in a whale's mouth. They were feeding on a recent kill, and sharing the food among the group.



Steller sea lions are not easy prey to take down. The males we have hanging out in the area this time of year are behemoths with very sharp teeth that weigh up to a ton. Some notches and scratches on transient whales are undoubtedly inflicted by defensive sea lions. They're too much for a single orca to handle, so it definitely takes some expert teamwork among a group of Ts to kill one. It's just another example of how intelligent these animals are, and how their life-long bonds with family members pay off by allowing them to teach one another and refine their hunting methods.


While we spent most of our time with this group of transients, we did see another male orca off on his own a little ways off. He was later identified as T14, also known as Pender, a lone bull periodically seen in the San Juan Islands throughout the year. I wonder what his association with this other group of whales was like: what was he doing in their vicinity?

After leaving the whales, we stopped by Bird Rocks a little further to the north where we saw three adult bald eagles perched on the rocks. There was also a single Steller sea lion hauled out as well as a half dozen or more harbor seals. I thought it was a perfect example of how amazing wildlife viewing in the Pacific Northwest can be: orcas, sea lions, seals, and eagles all within about a half-mile of each other.