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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Porpoise Video Clip and Upcoming Short Film Contest

As promised, here's a short video clip of the playful Dall's porpoise we encountered last weekend while out on the Peregrine, Jim Maya's boat. Having a Dall's bow ride or surf the stern wake is one of the coolest wildlife encounters you can have in the San Juan Islands. This will give you a glimpse of what it's like:

Also, I was contacted by someone from Quiert Heart Films informing me about an upcoming short film contest relating to whales and dolphins. They asked if I would mention it on my blog, and it seems like a cool project I thought I would give them a plug. 

It's called the Whale Like Me Short Film Contest and the theme is how people view whales and dolphins in 2011. You have until October 15th of this year to develop a movie that is between 30 seconds and 4 minutes in length. They actively encourage entries from people who don't have cetaceans to star in their films, so even if you live far from the ocean they have some tips on their site for what you could enter. 

I've been inspired to come up with an entry, which I'll debut here once it's finished. I'm pretty excited about it, so stay tuned. Hopefully some of you will decide to enter too!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Friday Harbor Birds in the Snow

As much as it felt like spring was just around the corner while out on the water in the sunshine with Jim Maya last weekend, today we got a stark reminder that it is, in fact, still winter. The snow started falling last night, and this morning several inches had accumulated, enough to bring most of the island to a screeching halt for the duration of this frigid weather. It was a perfect day for building a fire, reading a magazine, having a hot bowl of soup, and, of course, photographing birds in the snow.

The resident belted kingfisher on her usual perch, with snow-covered trees in the background.

One of the seven dark-eyed juncos that regularly visits my feeder.

A chestnut-backed chickadee on a snowy branch - it's a mystery to me how such a tiny creature survives this chilly weather.

A crow near Friday Harbor's Sunken Park.

They're forecasting more snow tonight and tomorrow, plus winds gusting up to 60 mph - yikes! Sounds like it will be another day to hole up and stay inside tomorrow. That's okay, though, because even the view from here over to Brown Island is a beautiful one in this weather:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Amazing February Day on the Water

I've never had the chance to take a wildlife cruise around the San Juan Islands in February, so I was excited when I got the chance to go out with Jim Maya at Maya's Westside Charters today. The weather was perfect - blue skies, chilly but sunny, and the wind had finally subsided. What marine life would we find out there?

The bird-watching started in Snug Harbor itself, as while we were departing I saw a pair of hooded mergansers, a bald eagle, a gaggle of bufflehead, and a mixture of glaucous-winged and mew gulls. We headed out and crossed Haro Strait, and made our first stop at Kelp Reef where we got a stunning look at a pair of bald eagles on the Kelp Reef marker:

A couple of Steller sea lions were lounging in the kelp beds, but they were just a preview of things to come. Next we cruised over to Lime Kiln Lighthouse and birded along the shoreline there where we found some red-breasted mergansers and harlequin ducks. We also saw lots of double-crested cormorants:

And we also found a pair of pigeon guillemots. Interestingly enough, one was in its black summer plumage, while the other one was still in winter plumage:

 Since the waters were calm we jetted down to South Beach where, just as I had hoped, we found some long-tailed ducks (126). I thought we might see one or two, but I was thrilled to find there were approximately 20 of them scattered around!

The view looking over towards Mt. Baker was gorgeous on this clear day, especially with the Cattle Point Lighthouse in the foreground:

Over on Whale Rocks were loads of hauled out Steller sea lions, and in and among them were bunch of cormorants:

Most of them were pelagic cormorants, and it wasn't until I came home and took a closer look at my photos that I realized some of them were Brandt's comorants (127)!! In addition to the funny face made by the sea lion on the right, note the tan throat feathers on the cormorants in front of him:

I just couldn't get enough of the sea lions today. They looked especially regal with the Cattle Point Lighthouse in the background:

On the way back north along the west side of San Juan Island we pulled in at Eagle Point where, appropriately, an eagle was perched. While we enjoyed this eagle, a second eagle flew by with something clutched in its talons. It turned out it had caught a male hooded merganser!! I couldn't believe it - I've never seen anything like it. In this view you can see one of the merganser's feet hanging down. It's head is on the left under the eagle's tail, where you can see the distinct white patch on the crest as well as the open beak of the merganser. Unreal....

As if that weren't grand enough of a finale, we found some Dall's porpoise out in the middle of Haro on our way back to Snug Harbor. We only got a few brief views before one decided it wanted to play with us, and it rode the bow and stern wake for a good 10 minutes or so. Here's a photo of it, though I also took a video clip that I'll post in the future.

What an amazing day on the water!!

Since it's still GBCC weekend I couldn't neglect conducting a bird count while we were out there. It was a three cormorant species day today, to match the three merganser day yesterday! Here are the 20 species I saw:
  • Harlequin duck
  • Surf scoter
  • Long-tailed duck
  • Bufflehead
  • Hooded merganser
  • Red-breasted merganser
  • Common loon
  • Pacific loon
  • Double-crested cormorant
  • Pelagic cormorant
  • Brandt's cormorant
  • Great blue heron
  • Bald eagle
  • Black oystercatcher
  • Mew gull
  • Glaucous-winged gull
  • Common murre
  • Pigeon guillemot
  • Rhinoceros auklet
  • American crow

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count: Day 2

I got out for two and a half hours of birding this afternoon in the sunshine, out to see how many species I could find in my bigger backyard of San Juan Island. It was chilly and unfortunately with the wind a lot of the passerine birds were either hunkered down or difficult to detect in the waving branches. As a result I wasn't able to top the 44 species I saw during the GBBC two years ago the island, but finished the day with a respectable 38 species.

My first stop was Jackson Beach where the highlight was my only western gull of the day. The yellowlegs was no where in sight, but I did also see my only three green-winged teal in the lagoon. American Camp and South Beach were pretty quiet, but there was good birding to be had at Cattle Point where I found a flock of 17 black turnstones. Out in the turbulent waters of Cattle Pass were a lot of sea birds, including a red-necked grebes, horned grebes, pigeon guillemots, harlequin ducks, surf scoters, double-crested and pelagic cormorants, and my first Pacific loon (126) of the year.

I stopped by False Bay, and though it was high tide there wasn't much bird activity. The large flock of mew gulls was mixed in with the large flock of pintail, both of which seemed to be foraging on the sandbar that was still out of the water. I spent the rest of my birding time driving around some of the inland roads of the island, mostly looking at some of the freshwater lakes and ponds. I turned up many of the expected ducks, and had to pull out my camera for a close encounter with some trumpeter swans:

Adult trumpeter swan in the sun

Pair of immature trumpeter swans in the shade
Toward the end of the day, I also found a single common merganser, which made for a three merganser species day, which is always cool.

Here's my species count for the day:
  • Canada goose - 18
  • Trumpeter swan - 22
  • Mallard - 2
  • American wigeon - 50
  • Northern pintail - 100
  • Green-winged teal - 3
  • Ring-necked duck - 30
  • Lesser scaup - 10
  • Harlequin duck - 8
  • Surf scoter - 6
  • Bufflehead - 115
  • Hooded merganser - 2
  • Common merganser -1
  • Red-breasted merganser - 12
  • Pacific loon - 3
  • Common loon - 2
  • Horned grebe - 10
  • Double-crested cormorant - 20
  • Pelagic cormorant - 30
  • Bald eagle - 10
  • Red-tailed hawk - 1
  • Black turnstone - 17
  • Mew gull - 100
  • Western gull - 1
  • Glaucous-winged gull - 120
  • Pigeon guillemot - 4
  • Belted kingfisher - 2
  • American crow - 25
  • Chestnut-backed chickadee - 6
  • Red-breasted nuthatch - 1
  • American robin - 6
  • European starling - 120
  • Song sparrow - 1
  • Golden-crowned sparrow - 2
  • Dark-eyed junco - 6
  • Red-winged blackbird - 10
  • House finch - 2

Friday, February 18, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count: Day 1

Today is the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count, and it was a beautiful day for it. After a gray, windy week today was partly cloudy and calm. The view from our marina over towards Mt. Baker was a beautiful one:

Over the course of the afternoon I saw a respectable 16 species (plus one hybrid). That already tops the 13 species I saw at my parent's house in Portland during last year's GBBC weekend. Here's the results of my count today:
  • Surf scoter - 2
  • Bufflehead - 18
  • Hooded merganser - 1
  • Red-breasted merganser - 4
  • Red-necked grebe - 1
  • Double-crested cormorant - 8
  • Mew gull - 2
  • Western x glaucous-winged gull hybrid - 1
  • Glaucous-winged gull - 10
  • Rock pigeon - 5
  • Belted kingfisher - 1
  • American crow - 30
  • Chestnut-backed chickadee - 6
  • Red-breasted nuthatch - 2
  • Song sparrow - 1
  • Dark-eyed junco - 7
  • House sparrow - 1
So far it looks like I'm the only person to submit any checklists from anywhere in San Juan County! Looking at the past couple of years, only about 5-10 lists get submitted for San Juan Island, during the GBBC, so I want to make sure to contribute. Despite the name, you don't just have to count birds in your literal backyard, so since I got a good count at the marina today I'll probably go out tomorrow and do a good search around the island to see how many species I can turn up. Two years ago when I did a mini big day on GBBC weekend I found 44 species, including a new life bird! We'll see what tomorrow brings....

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

San Juan Island Beached Birds: Then and Now

I went down to Fourth of July Beach to do a COASST survey this afternoon. I've been conducting these surveys for almost two years here in the San Juan Islands, but have yet to find a beached bird on my beach. In general, beached bird numbers for the San Juan Islands are very low, probably the lowest of anywhere COASST surveys along the west coast of North America.

The other day I came across an article that mentioned beached bird surveys that were conducted on San Juan Island in 1989 through the Department of Fish and Wildlife's Adopt-A-Beach Program. They reported finding a whopping 69 birds on San Juan beaches over the course of 10 surveys, which was the highest number reported in the state. The second highest was 32 birds found in Grays Harbor. Curious, I e-mailed COASST to see if they had any insight into what was going on and/or what has changed.

It turns out they have the old Adopt-A-Beach data in their office and they took a look at the San Juan 1989 surveys, and they were kind enough to share some of what they found with me. A single survey on Jackson Beach in August of that year had 11 common murres, 7 rhinoceros auklets, a California gull, and a tufted puffin. Another survey around that time noted that many of the birds were very decomposed and that the gill net fishery was open at that time. The COASST folks concluded that the  use of gill nets probably had something to do with the spike in beached bird numbers.

Fishing is more restricted now than it was in the 80s, but it still goes on. Last year during August I found a dead common murre on South Beach, which also coincided with a fishery opening, though it was mostly purse seiners on the water at that time. I recall others reporting murre carcasses out on the water and requesting reports to try an monitor affects of the fishery on bird populations. It's a stark reminder of one of the many ways human activity influences marine bird populations.

But today, there were no dead birds on my beach, so I paid attention to the live ones. In the brambles near the trail to the beach I saw a fox sparrow, as well as several song sparrows. The trees in the field across from the parking area held a trio of American robins and a northern flicker. Out in Griffin Bay were about 40 bufflehead, 20 surf scoters, 7 double-crested cormorants, 6 horned grebes, and 5 common loons. In the lagoon were 11 mallards, a pair of American wigeon, and a single male gadwall.

It's hard for me to be at the south end of the island and not head over to South Beach and Cattle Point to see what's going on bird-wise, especially with potential for the white-winged scoters, long-tailed ducks, and Pacific loons that have still eluded me for a tally on the year list. South Beach was quiet, but there was a bit more activity at Cattle Point today.

A flock of about 35 red-winged blackbirds provided a constant soundtrack for my visit there. There were about 8 red-breasted mergansers patrolling the shoreline, and a single horned grebe, a single pelagic cormorant, and a few more surf scoters out in the channel. I could see about a dozen or more Steller sea lions hauled out over on Whale Rocks. Goose Island was empty compared to the summer, but there were  a couple pairs of Canada geese, a few immature double-crested cormorants, and a black oystercatcher hanging out, along with the seemingly resident harbor seals that were hauled out on the north end of the island. A few other harbor seals were fishing in the currents. 

I walked down to the cove near Cape San Juan and was rewarded with finding a single black turnstone (125) to add to the year list. In the cove itself were half a dozen harlequin ducks and about ten more bufflehead. 

No photos today - too dreary and no close encounters. They're forecasting potential snow showers from tonight through the weekend, so we'll see if any of that accumulates. Next up will most likely be reports from the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. If you're in North America, you too can participate in this citizen science project!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A few recent sightings

On Sunday there were reports of part of J-Pod heading in (east) from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Hopeful to maybe catch them on the west side of San Juan Island, I went out to the Land Bank Westside Preserve in the afternoon. There weren't any whales, so I walked around the property and did a little birding. In the south cove were four harlequin ducks, and the bald eagle was in his usual snag to the south as well. A few glaucous-winged gulls hung out around the shoreline, but otherwise the water was pretty quiet. To the north I could see a pair of black oystercatchers on the rocks, and they eventually took flight with their characteristic whistling calls. On the trail that winds through the blackberry brambles I came across a flock of nine golden-crowned sparrows:

I went down to South Beach hoping to find another year bird, but the water was pretty quiet down there as well, and there were no shorebirds on the beach. I did find a few surf scoters, a couple of horned grebes, and a trio of red-breasted mergansers.

At this point I got an update from a friend that the whales were still heading in, so I decided to stop by Land Bank one more time. Right when I pulled up and lifted my binoculars I saw two blows and the distinct dorsal fins of a male and female orca. These weren't the incoming J-Pod whales, however, but two transient whales! (Maybe T20 and T21 who have been around?) They were miles away heading south from Beaumont Shoal and soon disappeared into the late afternoon gloom. I waited another 20 minutes or so, but the residents never made it in, nor did they later judging by the lack of vocalizations on the hydrophones that night.

Yesterday was a wild windy day, with heavy rain last night, and then more wind this morning. It hasn't been weather conducive for going out birding, but when I was driving home through town just a little bit ago I saw a Eurasian collared-dove (124) in somebody's front yard! It looks like these guys are spreading around the island in a hurry, as this is my first sighting in town, though I haven't seen any in their regular perches near False Bay or Cattle Point yet this year.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The "I'm On Hold" Bird Count

I was dreading the phone call I had to make today to dispute my internet/phone bill, which was incorrect for the third month in a row. From past experience, I knew I would probably be put on hold for a while as the appropriate supervisors were consulted with. I realized instead of letting my anger rise as the minutes of the hold ticked by, I would take advantage of the time to conduct an informal bird count out my window, in preparation for next weekend's Great Backyard Bird Count. Here's the decent list I generated during my 30 minutes (!!!) on hold:

9 dark-eyed juncos
1 belted kingfisher
5 glaucous-winged gulls
2 rock doves
1 Pacific wren
3 chestnut-backed chickadees
1 song sparrow
1 red-breasted nuthatch

And I even got the billing issue resolved!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Downy Woodpecker Art

My dad gets a lot of the credit for turning me into a bird-watcher. I remember being about eight years old and driving around Sauvie Island with him on a Saturday, as he pointed out such novelties as northern shovelers and bufflehead. I was as amazed at the variety of birds as I was at my dad's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of them. How could he keep them all straight? I wanted to try, too.

My mom, on the other hand, gets some credit for my creative, artistic side. While primarily a stained glass and then a glass bead artist, she always has a project of some sort on hand and loves to try her hand at a wide variety of crafts. Before I left Portland last month I got a chance to try her latest endeavor, encaustic art. It's basically abstract painting with hot wax. You "paint" melted colored wax onto a board, then use a small torch to heat it further on the board. As you add additional colors, they mix and swirl into one another. There are tools you can use to manipulate the hardening product, or you can transfer Xeroxed images onto the final product.

I combined my love of birds with my artistic side to create this piece, featuring a downy woodpecker drawing that I Xeroxed out of one of my favorite children's books.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Great Day's Birding in Skagit County

First a note: yesterday while walking to town to watch the Superbowl at the local watering hole I saw my first fox sparrow (116) of the season!

Last week a couple of great birding reports came through on Tweeters, the Washington birding listserv, about sightings in Skagit County, which is just over on the mainland from here. I was inspired to get over there and see if I could find some of the great species they had been seeing, and the first day I had a change to do so was today. Last night I drew out a map of the target places I wanted to visit, and I was ready.

I get a bit made fun of for my not-to-scale hand-drawn birding maps, but they help familiarize me ahead of time with places I'm not used to birding and are a simple reference throughout the they work for me! :)

I woke up in the morning to the sound of a Pacific wren singing in the pre-dawn light, which I took to be a good omen for the day. On the ferry ride over I spotted all the expected species including mew and glaucous-winged gulls, common murres, pigeon guillemots, pelagic cormorants, two rhinoceros auklets, and a single common loon.

I was especially keen to look for the rock wren that had been reported near Burlington, so we (my boyfriend came with me) headed straight there. While looking for it, we saw a displaying male Anna's hummingbird, a flock of bushtits, and three bald eagles soaring above. Then, after about 5-10 minutes, there it was, perched right on top of a boulder!

The rock wren (117) is a rare species to get west of the Cascades as it tends to prefer more arid habitat. I've only seen this species once before, in 2002 at Malheur in southeast Oregon, so it was a real treat to see it again.

Just a block away from the rock wren was a cattail marsh, and I got a Virginia rail (118) to respond almost immediately to the call I played. This was based off another great tip from a birder who had seen the rock wren, and because of his report I recorded the Virginia rail call on my cell phone last night. I don't have a very fancy recorder/playback ability, but it was good enough to get the rail to call back! I couldn't believe it!

What was also neat about the rock wren/Virginia rail area was that it was a really industrial part of town. It's not the ideal place to go birding in terms of beauty, but it's pretty cool to see so many great species living there right among all the industry.

Next up we went north on Old Highway 99 to Pomona Grange County Park where I quickly found one of the American dippers (119) that had been reported. The old mixed forest was pretty quiet besides, but it was amazing to see the variety of deciduous and coniferous trees that grew all together there.

I drove down Bow Hill Road through Edison and had to pull over along Bayview/Edison Road when we spotted no fewer than 20 bald eagles hanging around the same small stand of trees. I've read about the eagle congregations near the Skagit River but this was the first time I've seen so many in one place. Here's ten of them, all sub-adults:

It was an active area, with several eagles, red-tailed hawks, and northern harriers flying about nearby. These three adult bald eagles perched right together were one of the most impressive sights. The eagle count for the day, by the way, ended at a whopping 73.

After I could finally turn my attention away from the eagles, I noticed a flock of golden-crowned sparrows and this ring-necked pheasant, one of two males that was hanging around in the area:

With a squall looming on the horizon, it was time to move on towards Samish Island, but we stopped along the way at the Samish Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area where a couple of other birders had scopes set up. They were generous enough to let us take a look at the pair of short-eared owls (120) they had found acrobatically flying around in the distance. While looking through their scope we also found a rough-legged hawk (121), our only one of the day. There was a lot of raptor activity around with more bald eagles and harriers around as well.

Our time admiring the raptors was cut short by the downpour, so it was on to Samish Island. Looking up towards Samish Bay it was pretty quiet except for a few red-breasted mergansers, surf scoters, and bufflehead. Maybe everything else took refuge from the rain. Bay View State Park was similarly quiet.

There was more activity, however, at the Padilla Bay Shore Trail trailhead, where there was a flock of green-winged teal, a few northern pintail, and a singing western meadowlark. There was also a single house finch and several song sparrows in the brambles. 

As we headed south of Highway 20 we started seeing more and more trumpeter swans, with a few tundra swans mixed in. By the end of the day I wouldn't be surprised if we saw nearly a thousand swans. Here are a couple of the tundra swans, distinct here with the small yellow marking at the base of the bill, which isn't always there (and isn't always visible when it is there if they're too far away!):

We stopped in La Connor to pick up a snack, but weren't able to locate the wild turkeys that they regularly see there. (It's debatable how wild they are, anyway.) There wasn't much to see on Valentine Road, but down on Rawlins Road on Fir Island was a pair of northern shrikes and also a large flock of snow geese (122) in the distance. The snow geese were absent a couple of weeks ago, but seemed to have returned in force, perhaps because the hunting season is now over. There was another large flock in a field north of Fir Island Road. Also nearby was this American kestrel. Between rain showers, there were many raptors attempting to dry out, like this kestrel with his tail fanned:

I had stopped at the Fir Island unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area before, but just learned there is another public access to the reserve off of Wylie Road. The area down there was very muddy and flooded, but I heard and then we were able to locate the black phoebe (123) that has been seen there over the last couple of weeks. Another rare find for this area, and I was very glad to have found it!

Before heading back to run a couple errands and head for the ferry home, there was one other place I wanted to stop just east of Fir Island where snow geese had been reported. I found them a little further south than they were the other day - just south of Johnson Road this afternoon - but there were thousands of them. A few of them were close enough to the road for photographs, unlike the other two flocks we saw:

The sights and sounds of a large flock of snow geese are so impressive I decided to try and capture a short video clip of it. While I was filming, the flock all of a sudden became alert and then took flight as a bald eagle came right through them. They circled around as the eagle chased them. What an amazing wildlife spectacle. Check it out - the eagle is visible at a couple points during the clip.

It's a bit hard to see the geese when they get further away in flight due to the video compression to post on the web, but you get the idea.

The last sighting of note for the day was a tagged red-tailed hawk just south of Exit 226 on I5 while we were heading back north. It had a blue marker on at least its left wing, which appeared to be marked with an "I" or a "1". I'm going to try and figure out who I can report the sighting to, like I did with K5, the red-tailed hawk near the Portland airport earlier this year.

Overall, a fantastic day's birding. More than 50 species were seen (49 in Skagit County plus a few more from the morning ferry), and seven year birds were added to the list. I had a list of about 10 potential year birds for the day, and decided I would be very happy finding 3 of them - so 7 of them was real treat, especially because after the rock wren first thing in the morning I proclaimed the day a success and said everything else on top of it would just be a bonus!

P.S. Since it's Monday, I thought I would share a brief update about Flex the gray whale, who I posted about last week. After his tag didn't transmit for 5 days they thought it had fallen off, but then he resurfaced (pun intended) nearly 300 miles west of the north end of Vancouver Island. He has continued his trajectory south since then, passing the Washington coast and heading into Oregon, approximately 15 miles offshore. When weather permits they are going to attempt to relocate him by boat. Read this week's update and see his updated map here. Is he going to Baja??

Friday, February 4, 2011

Unexpected Cetacean Sightings in Puget Sound

The Ways of Whales workshop last weekend included a lecture by John Calambokidis, one of the co-founders of Cascadia Research and a local cetacean expert. One of the things he talked about was a series of bizarre whale and dolphin sightings that have occurred over the last year in Puget Sound. 

In January 2010 a dead Bryde's whale was found in Puget Sound after there had been several reported sightings of an unusual (live) whale in the region. Bryde's whales are medium-sized (relative to other whales, that is) baleen whales that are found in tropical waters. In the United States, they usually aren't found north of southern California. After conducting a necropsy, it was determined that while the whale had some evidence of propeller wounds and rope entanglement, neither of these were the apparent cause of death. Instead, due to the empty stomach and thin blubber layer, it was hypothesized that starvation may have played a role. This was the first-ever sighting of Bryde's whale in the Pacific Northwest.

The story got stranger when another live Bryde's whale was found in Puget Sound in November 2010. This animal had severe injuries along its back from a ship strike, and Calambokidis expressed that he thought it was amazing the animal had survived at all, as the most severe of the multiple injuries had actually severed off the tops of multiple vertebrae. He estimated the injuries had occurred about a month prior. Unfortunately in December 2010 this whale also died, succumbing to his injuries.

There have also been sightings of two members of another unexpected species in local waters - the bottlenose dolphin. The only previous record of a bottlenose dolphin in the Pacific Northwest goes back to a dead animal that was found in the late 1980s. The first live sighting occurred in June 2010, of an animal that was seen multiple times before it stranded in July. Then a second bottlenose appeared in December 2010, and was seen alive on numerous occasions up through January 18th, before it too was found dead. Bottlenose dolphins also tend to be a more tropical species, usually not occurring north of southern California, though they have seen as far north as San Francisco in the last 30 years.

There are anomalies in nature, so when I first heard about these sightings I figured they were wayward animals, probably sick or injured which led them to deviate from their normal range. Once you have four tropical animals showing up well out of their range within a single calendar year, however, you start to this part of some greater trend?

The instinct right away is to point to climate change and shifting ocean temperatures, but there have been no greater trends established about altered cetacean ranges. Most animals are still sticking to where they're expected to be found. Also, we're in the middle of a La NiiƱa cycle, which makes for cooler, not warmer, water temperatures.

Scientists involved aren't offering any explanation for the multiple unusual sightings, but it will be interesting to see if more tropical cetaceans are sighted throughout the rest of 2011. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gull Debate and Year List Check-In

Mark Lewis, co-author of Birding in the San Juan Islands, left a comment on my recent Whidbey Island blog post questioning the ID of the gull in the photo I posted. I identified this gull as a western gull, but he suggested it might be a Thayer's gull:

After closer examination and a little research, I'm still doubtful it is a Thayer's gull for the following reasons: A) The bill does not show a two-tone greenish tinge, B) the legs are not a deep pink, C) the head shape is more flat than rounded, and D) the underside of the far primary is not pure white (see Greg Gillson's discussion here). However, I'm now wondering if it couldn't be a herring gull? Or a glaucous x western hybrid? Your input encouraged.

Is anyone else starting to think that maybe most or all of the Larus gulls should be considered one species? Once I'm getting into reading about all these hybrids and back-crossings, I've got to wonder.

Regardless of the final conclusion on this gull's identity, I for the time being am going to keep it #114 on the year list. Thus I closed out January with 114 birds on the year list, 14 species above my goal and a whopping 27 species above last year's January total.

The only other bird I've added since then is this greater yellowlegs (15) I saw at Jackson Beach yesterday:

I also went for a walk at British Camp today, but was unable to find the varied thrush that has eluded me thus far this year.

Next up, a couple more marine science notes of interest, plus a report back after checking in with some other gull references.