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Monday, August 30, 2010

Frogs and Dragonflies

This afternoon I was over at Katie's and we again took our cameras out into the amazing garden. The little Pacific tree frogs (also known as Pacific chorus frogs) were again abundant. I'm pretty sure we were mostly seeing juveniles, because adults tend to be 1-2 inches long and these little guys were more on the order of half an inch long:


I noticed a lot of variation in color, with some individuals being all green and others being almost completely brown or copper, with lots of intermediate color forms. I thought maybe you could tell individuals apart by these markings, but I read that some individuals actually seasonally change their color morph over the course of days or weeks based on the background brightness of their habitat. They think there are three common morphs: green, brown, and changers.


Above is a green Pacific tree frog. It's perched on a cattail leaf to give you an idea of how small it is! Below is a more copper-colored individual:


There were also all sorts of insects enjoying the garden, and today I had some luck photographing dragonflies. This first one is a striped meadowhawk (Sympetrum pallipes). Not much is known about the biology of this western species, but I was able to differentiate it from other meadowhawks by its black legs and pale diagonal stripes on the thorax:


There is one common dragonfly I have been seeing a lot of, including at Westside Lake, but I had never successfully photographed it until today. It's a darner of some sort (Aeshna spp.), but there are too many different kinds and I didn't get a good enough look at the necessary field marks to be able to figure out which one it is.


It's a little bit hard to tell here, but the one in the above photograph is a shimmery bluish. The one below was much greener, and as such probably a female:


The dogs were kept out of the garden today so they didn't disturb the wildlife, but they proved just as photogenic back in the yard. Here's the black lab, Ola:


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Superb Saturday with Js and Ks

Today was a pretty spectacular day to be whale-watching from Lime Kiln Point State Park. After lunch I got to the west side of the island just in time to see J and K Pods pass by heading north. The first two whales I saw were K20 Spock and K38 Comet, and they passed close to shore. There was a gap before the next group of whales came, and in that time I was joined on the rocks by three black oystercatchers:


The next group of whales included some of the J16s as well as J32 Rhapsody. There were also close to shore, swimming just off the kelp. Being mid-afternoon, the whales were silhouetted and it was hard to ID everyone, even from the photos. Sometimes it doesn't matter who is who:


This one is a little more abstract, but I love how it turned out. That's J16 Slick coming up in front:


The whales were definitely taking their time as they moved north, traveling at a slow pace. A few of them seemed to stop and forage north of the lighthouse. Most of them weren't very active, but J32 Rhapsody seemed to be in a bit of a playful mood - here is one of her tail slaps with J16 Slick surfacing in front of her:


Following this group were K21 Cappuccino and K40 Raggedy, then there was another gap before the large trailing group of whales passed by. This last group included the J11s, the J22s, and the J17s - including the three young calves. Here's one of the calves, J47, who already has a big notch in the trailing edge of the dorsal fin. What did he do to get that? It makes him look like his aunt, J28 Polaris, who also has a big nick in the middle of her fin:


Here is J17 Princess Angeline with her calf J44, who will be named at the end of this month. (If you want to help pick the names for four orca calves including J44, you have until the end of August to do so here.)


A couple of big purse seiners drove through, also just off the shoreline and right where the whales were traveling. There are a lot of them out fishing right now during this record salmon season. Some people were upset to see them driving so close to the whales, but there's something odd about how the whales behave around these boats. The orcas have dealt with them for a long time, so perhaps they're used to them? Whatever it is, they certainly don't seem to avoid the seiners, even when they're motoring right where the whales are traveling:


Paul Watson in Friday Harbor

Last night I went to a lecture by Paul Watson here in Friday Harbor. For those of you who aren't familiar with Watson, he is the president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an activist group sometimes characterized as eco-terrorists. Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd are the focus of the Animal Planet TV series Whale Wars, where they go to the Southern Oceans to attempt to stop Japanese whaling. The conflicts have escalated over the years, including the ramming and sinking of ships, the boarding of vessels, and crew members being taken prisoner.

I'm anti-whaling myself, but after studying the issue in depth in an anthropology course in college I know how politically, culturally, and economically complex of an issue it really is. Having watched a few episodes of Whale Wars where inexperienced crew members flip a zodiac into the frigid Antarctic waters and having seen their larger vessel which doesn't have an ice grade hull be at risk of collapsing when striking an iceberg, I wondered about the intelligence of this particular campaign. After reading more about their strategies that include ship collisions and boarding other vessels I also question their tactics.

Sea Shepherd is based here in Friday Harbor but they generally keep a low profile, so I was very interested to see Paul Watson talk. I wasn't the only one, as the standing room only crowd of well over 100 packed the Grange Hall last night.

Overall I'd have to say I have a lot more respect for Paul Watson than I did before. He is a charismatic speaker and called on sound scientific facts to back up his strongly biocentric world view. Among other things, he spoke of the economic forces that are driving our world fisheries to collapse, how Sea Shepherd is an advocate for other species and doesn't hold much regard for human opinion, and how their activities are not illegal under the UN World Charter for Nature which gives any organization or individual the right to enforce international conservation law. He shed new light onto the issue of whaling (pointing out, for instance, that Japan threatens to revoke trading rights to those nations that try to stop them) that left you wondering, if Sea Shepherd weren't doing what they were doing in Antarctic waters, would anyone else really be spearheading the campaign to stop whaling?

Watson also realized that "ramming whale ships wasn't for everyone" and encouraged individuals to make use of their own talents in the fight for conservation and protection of all species on our planet. He said we need a diverse front made up of activists of all sorts to have real success. He also advised supporting smaller, local activist organizations rather than the larger eco-corporations which end up tied up in larger political and financial problems and are less able to take true action. Sea Shepherd, for instance, runs no fundraising campaigns, instead letting members come to them, which results in a more loyal membership base. 

While I still personally disagree with some of Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling tactics and think we need to give more consideration to humans than Watson does, you cannot fault his principles and I found I agree with most of his ideals. In the end, though, he doesn't really care what I or anyone else thinks, and will continue to fight his fight on behalf of whales, fishes, sharks, and all the creatures in our world oceans.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wind, Waves, and Whales

It has been a windy summer and today was another one of those days. I was happy to be on land rather than on the water with the seas like they were today! J and K Pods made their way back south from the Fraser River and I saw them from Lime Kiln lighthouse. The whales never seem to come as close to shore in rough seas, but it's still pretty cool to see them. As some of the whales were approaching, I could see the blows but not the dorsal fins! Some of the whales came porpoising by, and their splashes blended in with the other white caps.


Combined with the harsh late afternoon lighting, I ended up with some abstract photos:



The calves were especially hard to see. They often come high out the water to make sure their blowhole clears the water when they take a breath, and it must be especially challenging for them in conditions like this. Earlier this season an orca calf was found dead on the southern end of Vancouver Island. It was later determined to be a newborn transient calf and they think it may have died because it was born during a wind storm and may have had trouble breathing and nursing. Thankfully this little calf today seemed to be doing just fine next to mom:


There were some sea bird bobbing out in the waves but it was hard to determine what they were - probably auklets and murres. There was a bait ball a little ways offshore too, so the gulls were finding something to eat, and several of the orcas stopped and milled around, presumably to fish for some salmon. This harbor seal wasn't interested in food at the moment, and instead wrapped itself up in the kelp just off the rocks. Was it trying to find some refuge from the waves?


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ls in Haro Strait

Aside from a 2-3 day absence (which we expect from time to time throughout the summer), the whales have continued to be around a lot. First thing this morning they were reported way out west, but luckily they were heading back east towards San Juan Island. This afternoon I was out on the Western Prince, and we headed south to see who we would meet up with down there.

On the way down San Juan Channel we saw a couple of harbor porpoise. In Cattle Pass there was a lot sea bird activity including Heermann's gulls, glaucous-winged gulls, a few mew gulls, lots of rhinoceros auklets, a couple rafts of common murres, and some groups of the tiny red-necked phalaropes. We also went over to Whale Rocks where we saw about 10 Steller sea lions. The Stellers returned for the winter early this year (they've been around since the last week of July!) but we expect to see more and more of them as we head into the fall. Look at those waves in front of the rocks! The currents were gnarly in the Pass today with the strong flood tide:


We met up with the orcas about a mile off of False Bay. They were very spread out, going on long dives as they foraged, so we would see one or two whales off the boat in one direction, then a couple off in another direction. We eventually just shut down and got some nice looks as they surfaced nearer to the boat.


Getting IDs of the whales proved challenging today, as there were some choppy waves and with the bright afternoon light sometimes the whales were silhouetted making it tough to see their saddle patches. The word was Js and Ks went north and mostly L-Pod whales were down south where we were, but you never know for sure until you see for yourself who is there! We spent quite a bit of time with the same two whales, but I'm still not 100% on their identities.


I was able to positively identify the L72 family group made up of L72 Racer and her two sons L95 Nigel and L105 Fluke. Before we started making our way home to Friday Harbor we got some great looks at Nigel. This 14 year-old male will probably start getting a taller dorsal fin in the next year or so:


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Birds and a Boat Fire at the South End

Despite a weather forecast to the contrary, today turned out to be a pretty nice day - windy, but sunny - and this evening was the same. It was a beautiful time to head down to South Beach.


The first thing I saw out on the beach was an intact dead common murre. We don't get many stranded sea birds in the San Juan Islands, so I kind of wished I had found it on my COASST beach! Maybe someone else will find it and tag it.


There were lots of (live) gulls about, mostly glaucous-winged and Heermann's. This looks to me like an immature glacous-winged gull, but I should probably let the gull expert Dave chime in to make sure.


The most exciting find was a lone sandpiper. It took some deliberating and the consulting of multiple field guides, but I've identified it as a fall juvenile sanderling. The bird looks remarkably similar to a semipalmated sandpiper, but after comparing to some additional photos and also given its size I've decided it's a sanderling. There have been fantastic shorebird reports from further south in the Puget Sound area, so I'm glad to get some migratory shorebird action up here too!


As we were leaving South Beach, we pulled over to check out a boat that was on fire in Griffin Bay. As we watched the fire boat came from Friday Harbor and put it out. I wonder what happened?


The seas were pretty rough out there by the looks of it, and I heard a fishing boat was sinking in the Cattle Pass area as well, so it was a good day to be on land! 

There have been a few whale-less days here, a rarity this summer. The Southern Residents had been in inland waters for 80 days straight before making a journey out to the open ocean. The word was they were heading back in this evenings though, so tomorrow could be a good day to be back out on the water and looking for whales!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

More Fair Pictures

I thought I would share a few more photos from the San Juan County Fair. These first three are from the horse games - how I miss horseback riding!




Also the lighting wasn't right the other day I was there to photograph them, so I went back again to get a few shots of these baby pigs, born less than two weeks ago:


Also, for those that were wondering, both my cookies and my pie got third place ribbons.  Sounds cool, but doesn't mean a whole lot since nearly all the entries got a ribbon of some sort. Several molasses cookie fans have already expressed their outrage that I wasn't awarded higher, but don't worry, this won't stop me from making them!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

San Juan County Fair

This week is the biggest annual community event in the San Juan Islands: the San Juan County Fair. Everyone in town is talking about the fair - from the traditional subjects like the food, the music, the rides, the exhibits, and the animals, to the more unique elements like the Zucchini 500 or the Trashion Fashion show.

I usually enter photos in the fair, but this year I was asked to be a photography judge, so I spent Tuesday evening looking at the great photos everyone submitted. I still felt like entering something, so I turned to one of my lesser known talents: baking. I made a blackberry pie using locally picked blackberries (I actually made two pies - one for the fair and one to eat!):


I also made my molasses cookies, which have become a favorite among my friends:


Today I spent part of the afternoon at the fair looking at all the livestock. The pygmy goats were probably my favorite:


There were also pigs, sheep, horses, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and cows.


4H is popular around here, and many of the island kids get to show off their work around the fair. One of the more unusual events, which I got to see today, were the chicken races:
Many local organizations also exhibit at the fair, and when I stopped by The Whale Museum booth I got roped into making a dorsal fin hat. This is not your traditional whale picture, but from the dorsal fins you can tell that from left to right you have K40 Raggedy, J28 Polaris, and J2 Granny:


Monday, August 16, 2010

Critters in the Garden

This afternoon I went to visit my friend Katie, who lives in the center of the island on a property with a pond and a huge garden. Despite the heat (we've had three or four days now with temperatures well above 80), there was quite a bit of activity on the wildlife front, and we were both ready, cameras in hand.

In addition to lots of cabbage white butterflies that are abundant right now all over the island, I also spotted a Lorquin's admiral (Limentis lorquini). This is a species I see every year but have yet to successfully photograph. Today I was so close to getting that perfect picture! Alas, I couldn't quite maneuver my way through the plants and this image is blurred by the stem of a plant in front of the rather tattered looking admiral. I'll have to keep trying, but this will do for now!


Near the edge of the pond we spotted several Pacific tree frogs (Pseudacris regilla) - amazingly enough the first frogs I've ever seen on the island! These were some of the smallest tree frogs I've ever seen: Katie described them accurately as being about the size of a thumb nail. They weren't very camera shy, either....


The bees were enjoying the wide variety of flowers in bloom in the garden, and I've tentatively identified the bumblebee species that we saw as Bombus mixtus:


The two dogs on the property kept us company and didn't really seem to disturb much of the wildlife, other than maybe the wood ducks on the pond which quickly made themselves scarce. With a face like this I couldn't resist pointing the camera at the domestic wildlife, too:


In terms of bird life, I saw a family of about ten California quail on my drive up. Overheard we had a pair of turkey vultures and a band-tailed pigeon (216) - I had to double check my year list and was surprised I hadn't picked up this species yet this year! In the trees in the yard and at the feeders we saw and heard cedar waxwings, chestnut-backed chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, and purple finches. Here's a male purple finch in the tree where the feeder was hanging:


One other species of butterfly also caught our attention. It was enjoying several different flower species including these daisies. I'm pretty sure it's a woodland skipper (Ochlodes sylvanoides), reported to be common in the region, especially in early August:


It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon the garden, though it was nice to retreat to the coolness of the shade after a while!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ks and Ls in Cattle Pass

After our amazing sunset superpod the other night all the whales headed north yesterday, then made their way back south towards San Juan Island in two separate groups today. The first group, which included J-Pod, came down the west side of San Juan Island then headed offshore and spent the afternoon foraging quite a few miles offshore. This is pretty typical behavior. The other group, however, did something completely different.

I heard about a group of whales in the north end of Rosario Strait off Orcas Island. Okay, the whales often come south through Rosario, though not as often this year. The next that I heard, however, they were westbound in Upright Channel! This means they took a route through the San Juan Islands, similar to the one the Anacortes-Friday Harbor ferry takes. I'm sure they've done it occasionally in the past, but this is the first instance I've been around for where the resident orcas actually cut through the San Juan Islands this way. (Note: The L2s did go through Thatcher Pass a couple weeks ago!)

When they reached San Juan Channel and started heading south I headed to Cattle Point at the southern end of San Juan Island to see them, and I was very interested to see who would be in this group. It's always fun to see the whales in Cattle Pass - something that only happens about two or three times a summer!

The reports I heard on the radio were that this group had at least some L-Pod whales, but when the first group of whales passed by me (in a beautifully tight group!) I realized right away it was actually a mixture of K-Pod and L-Pod whales. In the picture below, the two whales whose saddle patches you see are L27 Ophelia (left) and K12 Sequim (right):

K- and L-Pod whales pass just offshore of the Cattle Point Lighthouse. 

While I didn't identify every single member in all of these family groups, in my photos I documented whales from the following matrilines: K12s, K13s, and K14s in K-Pod; L26s, L7s, L72s, L4s, L47s, and L5s in L-Pod. A couple of interesting notes: L7 Canuck and L53 Lulu, the whales that often travel with J-Pod and were with J-Pod just a few days ago, were back with L-Pod today. Also, the four K-Pod whales (K16, K35, K21, and K40) that also often travel with J-Pod did NOT seem to be present.

K12 Sequim and her young calf K43.

Today was another day where the whales were all mixed up and intermingled with one another, so it took me quite a while to go through my photos and figure out who all was there, and who was traveling with whom. One whale that definitely stood out, however, was the only big adult male in the group, K26 Lobo:

K26 Lobo with a couple of Heermann's gulls and a glaucous-winged gull overhead.



One of the interesting combinations was the mixed up group containing the K13s and some of the L4s.

From left to right: K27 Deadhead, K13 Skagit, and L82 Kasatka.

The whales were quite active as they made their way down San Juan Channel, and as I saw them approaching I saw breaches, tail lobs, and cartwheels. Once they reached Cattle Pass and its strong currents some of them were porpoising or lunging high out of the water, like L103 Lapis on the right below. The other whale is L91 Muncher - another interesting combination!

L91 Muncher (left) and L103 Lapis (right)

As the whales headed out of the Pass they angled offshore and north, presumably heading out to meet up with the other Southern Residents that were still out there somewhere. All in all it was another great encounter with the whales - puzzling, because of their different and unexpected behavior, and uplifting to me personally, as I was the only person on the shoreline (in the busy month of August no less!) as a big group of whales passed about 150 yards offshore of me.