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Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Macro Look at Turtleback Mountain

I had a fantastic birthday yesterday. The weather unexpectedly cooperated so we went over to Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island to go for a hike. My boyfriend surprised me with a macro lens for my camera, so it was the perfect opportunity to play with my new toy!

Okay, okay, Turtleback Mountain has some pretty spectacular scenic views, so I'll share a few of those with you first before taking a close up look at some of the flora and fauna from the hike.


The view from 950' Ship's Peak
Here are some of my favorite macro shots from the day....

Grasshopper on a leaf

Pine needle close-up

Puffball mushroom

Sap dripping down a tree
Another grasshopper portrait

Tiny mushroom and moss sporophyte
The weather deteriorated while we were hiking and the wind really picked up which made birding difficult. We came across one woodland flock of chestnut-backed chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets, and brown creepers, and also saw lots of ravens cartwheeling in the wind off of Ship's Peak. I spotted several raptors, including a probable merlin, but they were all too far away or going too fast to be properly identified. So, no new year birds for the day!

After getting back to "our" island we went out for a tasty dinner and then enjoyed this special orca birthday cake!


Friday, October 29, 2010

An Early Birthday Year Bird

Earlier today I had finished my chores and some computer work I had to get done, and had about half an hour before a meeting in town. That didn't leave me with too much time to go out, but with the sunshine peaking through the clouds I felt like getting outside and doing a little bird-watching. Just two miles from home there is a tiny county park that overlooks the water. Because it's so small, as well as the fact that I naively assume anything seen there I'll be able to see from our marina, I rarely stop there, but today Turn Point County Day Park seemed like the perfect place to go.


By the time I got there it was beautiful out, as the sun had burnt through most of the clouds - an unexpected surprise on what was forecast to be a weekend of clouds and rain, like we've had for much of this week. I sat down on the rocks (there's no where really to walk, it's so tiny!) and decided to see what sort of bird life might come by in the 15 minute I had to spend there.

Immediately I started hearing some killdeer over on the beach in front of some nearby private residences. Somewhat surprisingly, there are only a few good places on the island to look for shorebirds, but I may have to add this park to the list of spots to check during migration.

Out in the cove there were some distant sea ducks. Lifting the binoculars, I saw some surf scoters.....then a pair of white-winged scoters.....and then.....what is that??!.....a female black scoter (year bird 221)!!


My birthday is tomorrow and I was thinking earlier this week how neat it would be to get a year bird on my birthday. They're coming so few and far between now, that I'll certainly take this one even though it's a day early!

After my meeting in town there was a little bit of daylight left, so I went out to Lime Kiln Point State Park to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted. Here's the trail down to the coastline:


I often find myself taking pictures of Lime Kiln Lighthouse when I'm out there, even though I have so many photos of it already. Still, whenever the lighting is nice it's fun to photograph, and I'm always trying to find a slightly different angle:


Despite being chilly in town it was pleasantly mild at the lighthouse so I sat down to enjoy the sight of the sun disappearing behind the clouds over Vancouver Island. A couple flocks of Pacific loons came by while I was watching.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Visitors in the Night

Lately we've had some evidence of nighttime visitors coming up onto the deck of our houseboat.


Those are some raccoon footprints on the ramp. Looks like somebody took a peek into the house through the front glass door, too!


Monday, October 25, 2010

Lion's Mane Jellyfish and Current Flows

A lot of my beach walks this fall have featured dead lion's mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) washed up on shore or in the surf. I've noticed that throughout the year we have periodic explosions of live and/or dead jellyfish of various species, and I never really understood why that was until I came across this 2002 article by a scientist from the Friday Harbor Labs.


It turns out that despite the daily tidal fluctuations the prominent water flow in the area is out towards the ocean. Occasionally, usually at least once in the spring and once in the fall, the water flow temporarily reverses and we get a huge influx of typically oceanic species into our inland waters. These species then can persist here for months, giving researchers an opportunity to study species of plankton, etc. that aren't always as accessible. The influx of jellyfish I've noticed are also due to these current shifts. Typically, we see smaller jellyfish coming in with the spring flow, and lion's mane with the fall flow. I'm glad I finally learned a little more about this!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Skagit County Snow Geese

We had to go down to Seattle for a night, but on the way I took an hour to stop and bird a little bit in Skagit County. I was really hoping to turn up some greater white-fronted geese, a year bird that has somehow eluded me (it doesn't help that most of them pass right over San Juan Island without stopping!). Alas, it wasn't to be. Aside from lots of red-tailed hawks, a couple of great blue herons, and a single kestrel, it proved hard to turn up any birds at all. Finally, just before it was time to leave, I spotted a big flock of several thousand snow geese in a field.


I scanned the lot of them and turned up a small group of Canada geese in the middle, but couldn't find any greater white-fronteds or any of the smaller white Ross' geese, which would also be a year a bird. I should still hopefully be able to turn up both species before December as they're coming back in greater numbers now!

I made one more pull-over to take a few close up shots of the snow geese....


....and right on the other side of the road a flock of sandpipers took flight. I'm not 100% sure, but I think they were dunlin - my first of the autumn.



I expected the weather to turn yesterday as forecast, but it stayed fairly nice right through to this morning. Now we've all battened down for the first major storm of the season. The wind is howling outside now. It's blowing about 15 mph, gusting up to 25 mph, and supposed to get up to gusts of 40 mph tonight! Yikes! Goodbye, Indian summer.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Save 30% on 2011 Photo Calendars: Birds and Whales

It's not too early to get your 2011 calendars, and now is the time to save! I've designed a couple of new photo calendars on Zazzle, and if you buy before October 31st you can save 30% with the code 2011CALENDAR at checkout. All photos on both calendars were taken during 2010.

One calendar features birds of the Pacific Northwest, including the bald eagle, Steller's jay, Bonaparte's gull, tree swallow, brown pelican, trumpeter swan, and more.

The other calendar features photos of Southern Resident Killer Whales and includes captions identifying the whales in each picture.

Mixed Flock of Birds

This is the time of year when you start seeing large mixed-species flocks of woodland birds. I love coming across such a pocket of birds during a hike. All of a sudden the stillness of the forest is disturbed by a cacophony of peeps and chirps, and you see little bursts of movements among the branches as birds flit from limb to limb. Yesterday the flock I found myself in the middle of contained golden-crowned kinglets, bushtits, chestnut-backed chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, and brown creepers. Song sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows, and spotted towhees were also nearby.

 
Golden-crowned kinglet
Even though the birds are everywhere, they are extremely difficult to photograph! They are constantly on the move, so as soon as you find one in the viewfinder, they're gone before you can click the shutter. You also have to try and focus through a maze of branches. I spent a while turning circles on the trail trying my best, and these are the only two decent photos I ended up with.

Bushtit

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Catch of the Day

It was another beautiful October morning that called me outdoors early. With reports of orcas heading in yesterday afternoon I went out to the westside in case they would show up there this morning. No whales, but what it was still more than worth the trip out there.

It was a golden sunrise, and clear in town, but as I got to the middle of the island there was a dense bank of fog stretched across the valley that left me wondering if I would be able to see anything at all in Haro Strait. Amazingly, there was fog over in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but Haro was clear, providing this picturesque scene of a purse seiner in the early morning light with the silhouette of the Olympic Mountains in the background:


They soon got to work to try and catch some fish, and I decided to hang out and watch them haul their nets in. I ate my homemade zucchini bread that I brought for breakfast, and then I realized it was going to take them a while with their set, so I decided to walk down and see what sort of wildlife I could see in the meantime. It turns out there were all sorts of other critters fishing this morning too!

The first one I came across was this great blue heron perched on a kelp bed. It caught a gunnel (long, skinny fish) while I was watching. You can see the gunnel in its mouth in this photo:


There were a lot of other birds around too, including many Pacific loons (too far offshore for photos), a few rhinoceros auklets, a red-necked grebe, and a flock of glaucous-winged, Heermann's, and California gulls. This glaucous-winged gull found a sea urchin, but it didn't quite seem to know how to go about eating it:


Then a flock of about 100 common mergansers came out of the cove, and they were  busy diving for fish:


A few more flew in to join the gang:


Offshore a Steller sea lion came to the surface, and closer to shore a young harbor seal foraged under the kelp:


By this time the purse seiner was hauling in its net, but it had drifted further away and almost out of view, so I decided to head down the shoreline a little bit. I stopped where on the way out I had seen a red-tailed hawk feeding on a raccoon carcass (breakfast takes all forms this morning!), and stepped out of my car to watch a second purse seiner haul in its net:


While I was watching, I was startled by a deer that I hadn't seen browsing in a blackberry bush just a few yards from me. An Anna's hummingbird also flew by - what was it having for breakfast?! Possibly sap? While most of our hummers have departed by now, a few hardy souls stick the winter out in the Pacific Northwest. I'm not quite sure how they do it!

Monday, October 18, 2010

October Sunrise

I'm not an early morning person, and I'm also not a fan of the dark days of winter. So far the only good thing I can think of about the days getting shorter this fall is that now I may actually get up early enough to see some of the amazing sunrises we've been having. Here was one this morning, as seen from Jackson Beach:


Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Myriad of Mushrooms

The other day I went for a hike on the trails near Mt. Finlayson and Jakle's lagoon, and as I walked downhill through the woods I couldn't believe how many mushrooms lined the trail. It was almost like something out of a dream, as there were so many of them in all shapes and sizes. I counted easily over 30 species of mushroom, and have been back several times since then with my camera. Here is just a small sampling of what I've seen there....

Black elfin saddle, Helvella lacunosa
Probably candy cap, Lactarius spp.
Pholiota spp.
One of my favorites. Never seen anything like it before - does anyone have any identification ideas?
Shaggy mane, Coprinus comatus

Friday, October 15, 2010

Upcoming Lecture: November 5th

For those of you that are nearby, I encourage you to attend The Whale Museum's Marine Naturalist Gear-Down on Friday, November 5th from 10:00 AM - 4:00 PM a the Friday Harbor Grange. There is always a great series of informative lectures at these events, so there is a lot to be learned. I've been invited to give a talk at this one, so you should definitely make sure to be there!

"Which Pod Is That? An Introduction to Listening to Southern Resident Killer Whales"
by Monika Wieland

When Monika first came to the San Juan Islands, she started as a research intern for The Whale Museum and spent several summers at Lime Kiln Lighthouse recording and listening to the Southern Resident orcas. She went on to study their vocalizations further in her undergraduate thesis at Reed College, and as a result of her research published a paper in the journal Marine Mammal Science. Recently, more and more people have had the opportunity to listen to the Southern Residents via www.orcasound.net. In this talk, Monika will share some of her knowledge of killer whale calls and will give you tips on how to figure out which pod you are listening to. She will also have CDs available with pod-specific vocalizations, so you can take some recordings home and learn the calls better.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Butterfly, Two Whale Species, and Lots of Birds

The amazing October sunshine continues this week, and when I heard there were whales on the west side there was no question I had to find a way to head out there and see what was going on. Just after arriving at Land Bank the first thing I saw was a beautiful, bright butterfly - and one I didn't recognize! As soon as I looked at my field guide later it was obviously a red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), a new species for me.





Walking down the hill towards the water I started scanning, and I saw a huge blow right where I expected to see the orcas - but it was much to big to be an orca blow! It turns out it was a humpback whale! Humpback whales have been returning to inland waters, especially in the fall, in increasing numbers over the last five years or so, but more often they are out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca closer to Victoria, BC and not right in Haro Strait off San Juan Island. Although I could only see one, I heard there were two humpbacks there, and they were right in and among members of L-Pod, who I could also see in the distance.

Unfortunately the orcas started heading south away from me, but as one of the boats with them was leaving to go back to Victoria they suddenly stopped in the middle of the strait - often a clue they saw something. I started scanning with binoculars and saw they had found a third humpback whale just north of Beaumont Shoals. Cool!

There was also a lot of bird activity in the strait. A couple hundred gulls were hanging out near shore, a large flock made up mostly of Heermann's and glaucous-winged gulls with some California gulls mixed in. A little further offshore were couple dozen Pacific loons, their silver heads shimmering in the autumn sunshine. There were single pelagic cormorants, rhinocerous auklets, and common murres here and there, and also group of harlequin ducks feeding in the closest kelp bed. While watching the whales in the distance I saw a bald eagle fly by, and as I was leaving I spotted a red-tailed hawk. Not too shabby!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Earth Sanctuary on Whidbey Island

This weekend I went down to Whidbey Island to attend Fin Fest, an event put on by Orca Network and Whidbey Watershed Stewards to celebrate the return of orcas and salmon to Puget Sound (the Southern Residents, especially J and K Pods, spend part of the fall in Puget Sound feeding on salmon after spending most of the summer further north in the Salish Sea).

The day after the festival I had some time before I needed to head back to catch my ferry, so my mom and I visited  Earth Sanctuary, which is described as a nature reserve, meditation parkland, and sculpture garden. It is a 72-acre privately-owned preserve that is open to the public as a place to enjoy nature and experience a spiritual connection to the Earth via several sacred sites throughout the grounds.


While the weather was windy and rainy for most of the weekend, it let up while we were hiking some of the trails through the sanctuary.


There was quite a lot of bird activity including many mixed flocks of black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, a pair of mallards on the lake, multiple spotted towhees, the ubiquitous American robin,  some song sparrows, winter Pacific wrens (recently renamed after the winter wren was split into western and eastern forms) here and there, a Bewick's wren, and a large flock of European starlings. There was also one very different-looking thrush that I think may have been a veery, but I'm just not 100% sure.


Given the time of year and the dampness, it's not surprising that there were also mushrooms everywhere. Below are some turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) growing on a fallen tree:


I've never seen mushrooms growing like this before:


This is one of my favorite shots from the day:


There were even some mushrooms among the artwork, with these being cleverly crafted by placing rocks on top of tree stumps:


We also visited many of the sacred sites throughout the reserve, which included a dolmen, a labyrinth, and a Tibetan prayer wheel. My favorite spot was the Native American medicine wheel, which is a place of prayer "symbolizing the totality of existence". You weren't allowed to take pictures there, however, so instead here is a photo of the cottonwood stone circle, a meditative site based on the stone circles of ancient Europe:


Overall it was a very beautiful place to visit!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Autumn Haiku

October sunshine
Green trees are tinged with yellow
Skies without swallows