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
- 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