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Thursday, March 31, 2011


Change, as the old adage says, is inevitable. Knowing this, however, hasn't kept transitions from being difficult for me. I always tend to be most comfortable with the current state of affairs, and am reluctant to say goodbye to the present and embrace the future.

One classic example for me is when I have been spending time either in Portland or in Friday Harbor. Right now, after a couple of months back on San Juan Island, I think to myself, "This place is great. I love living on a houseboat, I love all the natural areas and wildlife here, I love the small community and all the friendly people. Portland is so far removed from so many of the people and places that I love." Exactly a year ago today, I was loading my car after having spent the winter in Portland. I thought to myself about my hometown, "This place is great. I love being so close to my family and my old friends, I love all the natural areas and wildlife here, I love the city I grew up in with all the familiar haunts. Friday Harbor is so far removed from so many of the people and places that I love." The first week spent in one of my two homes is always rough as I navigate the transition, and then I start to remember why I love it here, wherever here happens to be.

The essence of the month of March is transition, and these last 31 days have been a good time for me to reflect on the transitional season of spring. I've had practice saying goodbye to the trumpeter swans and bufflehead, the cold dark nights reading by the fire, the weekly gatherings to play hockey in the old fairground building - the symbols, for me, that embody winter on San Juan Island. I've tried not to get too sad as these staples of the chillier months melt away one by one. I'm realizing more and more that time, especially in the natural world, is cyclical. So these aren't permanent farewells, but rather a fond, "Have a great summer, I will see you next year."

My first Blue-eyed Mary of the season, seen in March

The holes left by these traits of the season of course don't remain empty for long. In place of the winter waterfowl and seabirds, I get to say hello to species like the violet-green swallow (year bird 139), not seen since last summer, and I know the arrivals of the warblers and flycatchers are just around the corner. Dark nights reading by the fire are replaced with warm afternoons reading on the west side of the island perched on one of my favorite rocks. The end of the hockey season coincides almost naturally with the beginning of the whale-watching season in inland waters. 

Variety, goes the other saying, is the spice of life. My goal is to try harder to embrace that concept, and do my best to enjoy this beautiful, tumultuous, unpredictable season that is spring.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Photography: Taking It Up A Notch

Despite doing a lot of photography since 2005, I've never had any formal photography training. I've never taken a class, and the books that I've read have never stuck with me enough so that I felt like I really understood my camera and how it works. I've taken a lot of great photographs over the years, but they have all been taken with some or all of my camera's settings on auto. I've always known that I could take my photography to the next level if I learned to really utilize my camera's manual functions, and I've finally found a tool that is helping me to do just that.

At Powell's Books in Portland last year I picked up a copy of Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, and I was intrigued. I should have bought it right then, but I thought it might be just like other photography books I've picked up over the years: not really all that helpful. However, it stayed in the back of my mind until a couple of weeks ago when I finally bought it. It's probably the best investment in my photography I've made to date. After reading just the first chapter, I was comfortably shooting with my camera on manual for the first time.

It's possible to take great advantage of light and composition with your camera on auto, but using your manual settings gives you far more creative control over your images. I had always more or less understood shutter speed, but after reading the chapter in this book about aperture I was ready to go out in the field and experiment with getting correct exposures while manually setting aperture. One of things I learned is demonstrated in these two images. For the above photo, I isolated the grass by intentionally making the background fuzzy. In the photo below, by adjusting the aperture, I was able to get everything from the foreground to the distant background in focus.

I am now confidently shooting with all of my camera's settings on manual, and plan to leave my camera in manual mode most if not all the time. I look forward to exploring my new found understanding of photography and making more creative images while having full control of my exposure settings. I will as always continue to post photos here on my blog as I learn more and continue experimenting!

This book is far more understandable than other photography books I've read, as Peterson's great analogies of how the camera works and what the different settings mean are memorable. They stick with me in the field in a way that other photography advice I've read has not. I highly recommend this book to all you photographers out there that want to improve your own photos! Click the link below to read more about this fantastic book, and if you purchase through this link you'll also be helping to support this blog.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Stranded Harbor Porpoise

This afternoon I was walking at American Camp with a friend when we came across a bald eagle feeding on a harbor porpoise carcass. This is something I've never seen before! After our walk I went back with my camera in hand. There were four eagles nearby, but unfortunately none of them were feeding at the time. I took advantage of the feeding break to take a closer look at the adult porpoise.

I've written before about my mixed fascination at/aversion to having the chance to look at dead animals, in relation to the beached bird surveys I do. While it's not something I particularly enjoy, it is an opportunity to look at a wild animal closer than is possible when they are alive. This porpoise was the same type of experience for me. While the open innards of the porpoise were pretty gross, it was still amazing to see this animal up close. I was particularly fascinated with the tail, which is just a beautiful shape:

Here's a close-up of the face. In addition to being amazed at the tiny teeth in the mouth, I thought the striations in the gray coloration, particularly around the mouth, were pretty remarkable. (Click on the image to get a better look.)

Other than the eagles, the birdy highlight of the visit was the two pairs of black oystercatchers on the nearby rocks. There were some sea birds well offshore, including a flock of red-breasted mergansers and ten surf scoters, but most of them were too far away and too backlit to be identified.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Birdy Spring Weekend

After getting a mild ankle sprain playing hockey earlier in the week, I wasn't able to do any hiking, but on Saturday the sun was shining so bright that I just had to get outside. Deadman Bay doesn't sound like the most beautiful place to take in some warm spring weather, but it was:

In Deadman Bay I saw four harlequin ducks, six red-breasted mergansers, and a pair of black oystercatchers. I also spotted two groups of foraging Dall's porpoise. And once I took my eyes off the water to look more closely around me, I found another tiny sign of spring - a common storks-bill flower (Erodium cicutarium):

On the drive home I stopped by Panorama Marsh on False Bay Road to see what was happening there. It was mostly mallards, though there was a also a single double-crested cormorant, American coot, and female bufflehead. Most of the other buffleheads are gone all of a sudden, surely heading back north for the summer. Another birder pulled over to see what I was looking at and thought it was surely the bald eagle perched right in front of me that I had embarrassingly missed while looking at the ducks! In my defense it was well-concealed among the trees, but it was still very close. While talking to my fellow bird-watcher I also heard my first marsh wren (136) of the season.

Today the weather wasn't quite so spring-like, but I had plans to go up and visit my friend Katie and see if we could find any owls in the woods near her house. It's my experience that rarely do you find owls when looking for them - they prefer more serendipitous encounters - but since she's seen some owls up there before we decided to try our luck.

As we entered the deepest part of the woods we came across a pair of pileated woodpeckers - always a delight!

We walked a little further, scanning branches and holes in the trees for an owl, but no such luck. Then on our way back I heard Katie whisper something frantically to me. I headed back to where she was behind me and I could not believe my eyes - she had found a barred owl (137)! I don't know how she spotted it, as it was barely peeking out of its hole:

I wouldn't be at all surprised if this was a nesting cavity. We're going to check back in a few weeks to see if we can see some chicks. One of her neighbors has also reported a northern saw-whet owl nest nearby, and I would love to track that one down too since that would be a life bird for me!

After getting home I was surprised to hear that someone else had seen a short-eared owl at the south end of the island earlier today. I know that's a species sometimes seen there, but I've never had any luck turning it up. Knowing I wasn't likely to be lucky enough to find not one but TWO owl species in one day I headed out to see what I could find. As expected, I was not able to locate the short-eared owl, but on the way home I did see my first turkey vulture (138) of the season. That made the trip well worth it!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Crossing Admiralty Inlet

As we headed back to Friday Harbor after a great trip to Sequim last weekend, the winds continue to blow as we took the Port Townsend --> Keystone Ferry across Admiralty Inlet. I thought that might hamper the bird sightings a bit, but I was surprised by how species many I saw during the 30 minute crossing. Here's my count:

Surf scoter - 1
Common goldeneye - 2
Red-breasted merganser - 3
Pacific loon - 1
Common loon - 1
Red-necked grebe - 1
Double-crested cormorant - 3
Pelagic cormorant - 2
Mew gull - 2
Western x Glaucous-winged hybrid - 2
Glaucous-winged gull - 3
Gull sp. - 5
Common murre - 1
Pigeon guillemot - 20
Marbled murrelet - 2
Rhinoceros auklet - 65

The highlights were definitely the pair of marbled murrelets (135), a year bird, a well as the number of rhinoceros auklets. While we see auklets in inland waters all year, most of then tend to head offshore to feed for the winter. All the ones I saw in Admiralty Inlet, the first ones back for the summer, were decked out in their breeding plumage.

I've had a couple of neat bird sightings since returning home. The other night, no fewer than 30 double-crested cormorants gathered together outside the marina, then took flight and swirled through the sky before settling to roost in the trees just down the shoreline from us. Then, this morning, I heard a European starling mimicking a Swainson's thrush....maybe I'm not the only one who is ready for summer?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Part 2: The Sequim Coastline

After visiting Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, I wanted to visit several other places along the shoreline near Sequim that I had read about. The first couple of stops were along Dungeness Bay. One of the neatest places was Oyster House Road, which provides the closest view of the protected Graveyard Spit that juts off of Dungeness Spit. The parking lot at the end of this road also gives you a chance to scan Dungeness Bay and its associated mudflats. When we pulled up, I was delighted to see a flock of shorebirds not too far away. There were over a hundred dunlin, and mixed in were about twenty black-bellied plovers (133). I was excited because, along with the brant, this was one of the two species that I really thought I had a good chance to see while in Sequim.

Above Oyster House Road we spotted a bald eagle perched on a snag. Nearby was a tree full of bustling European starlings, but one starling was perched right below the eagle, singing his heart out. Maybe they're too small for eagles to bother with? I still think he was pretty brave. It was quite a sight!

Many of the rural roads also had productive birding, with lots of ponds filled with a variety of ducks. Along Jamestown Road we found a nice mix of non-aquatic species. While there were no raptors perched in the "Jamestown snags", we saw our only Steller's jays of the day and a mix of House sparrows and golden-crowned sparrows. In an orchard were a flock of California quail (134), my first of the year. A little further on in the same field was another flock, this time of eight Eurasian-collared doves. I don't think I've ever seen more than two at a time before.

Marilyn Nelson County Park was one of the biggest highlights of the afternoon. This park is situated near the mouth of Sequim Bay and you can walk down the rocky beach of the half-mile Travis Spit. From there you also get a view of Protection Island, a national wildlife refuge in the Strait of Juan de Fuca that is one of the most productive breeding seabird colonies in the state. I've read about it so much that it was nice to finally see it, even from two miles away!

There was surprisingly little activity out on the water, but I realized shortly that was because all the birds were right along the shoreline! This female bufflehead was one of the few diving ducks present:

Up one direction of the beach I spotted an immature bald eagle feeding on something. At first I thought it was a dead harbor seal, but upon closer inspection I realized it was actually what looked like a deer carcass. The deer are known to swim across some of the channels in the region...maybe this one drowned and washed up? I didn't want to get too close to examine it more carefully, since it was pretty clear it "belonged" to this eagle:

Along Travis Spit were about a hundred brant right along the beach. After seeing them only way in the distance from Dungeness Spit, it was nice to get a closer look. They were actively feeding on eelgrass, their primary food source, in the shallows. These are the typical black brant of the west coast. The brant on the Atlantic are gray, and were formerly considered a separate species.

After stopping a couple more places along Sequim Bay, we headed over to the Dungeness River Audubon Center which has a trail over a railroad bridge and through the woods. The feeders near the visitor center were very active. We saw both black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, and more golden-crowned sparrows. There was also a pair of Anna's hummingbirds taking advantage of the hummingbird feeders. You can only barely make it out on this lower resolution version of the photo, but she's actually sticking her tongue out a little bit:

By this time we had been birding for 7 hours straight and I was famished. The trail mix and bananas we had been subsiding on all day weren't quite enough to keep me going, so we headed back to Sequim for an early dinner. After having some great Mexican food at Las Palomas (an appropriate restaurant for the day - la paloma is Spanish for dove), it was still light out so we headed out for one more short excursion back to walk on the trails we didn't have time for at Dungeness Recreation Area in the morning. I wondered if we would be able to add two more species to the day list? 

The best part of this trip actually turned out to be on the drive there, when we pulled off on a side road to where a huge flock of several hundred wigeon had just landed. The pond was very active, and within the American wigeon I found two male Eurasian wigeons - a new species for the day list. There were also a pair of Canada geese, a small flock of ring-necked ducks, and along the edges a pair of pied-billed grebes - another day list species! 

The grebe turned out to be the last new species for the day, and when I tallied it up at night back at the hotel, we reached a nice even 60 species for the day. Not bad at all, and definitely better than the 39 species recorded the day before. It was an awesome day - one of those real breaks from everything else that goes on in life, and a chance to just explore a new area and look at birds. Can't complain one bit.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Part 1: Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge

Today we had a full day to bird-watch around Sequim, and I intended to take full advantage of it. The morning started out a little tenuous, however, as in the aftermath of the huge earthquake off the coast of Japan we learned that a tsunami advisory had been put in place for much of the west coast, including Washington. When your plan is to walk out one of the longest natural sand spits in the world, this is not good news. 

After a little research, we learned that the advisory was pretty minor for the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so we decided to go ahead with our plans. Our first stop was Dungeness Recreation Area, which is adjacent to Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. On the way there I spotted my first bird of the day: a hooded merganser. A good start! Within the Recreation Area are viewpoints atop a bluff, where we encountered quite a few tsunami watchers hoping to see what was projected to be a one-foot tsunami.

While the locals were convinced the waves were a little bit bigger than normal, they really weren't all that impressive and I was far more interested in the bird life. Out in the strait I could see some surf scoters, horned grebes, and red-breasted mergansers, as well as a single red-necked grebe. On the bluffs just below the lookout were a flock of gulls. Most of them were glaucous-winged, but there were a few western gulls as well.

Looking the other direction from the water, back towards Sequim, was a pretty sight as well. I just loved all the colors:

We continued on to Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, the highlight of the day. The refuge, made up primarily of a long sand spit and its adjacent tidelands, also includes a bit of forest and that is where the trail began. In the half-mile stretch of woods we found our first chestnut-backed chickadees of the day, as well as a singing Pacific wren. There were several bird feeders near a maintenance building that also attracted a flock of juncos, a few golden-crowned sparrows, and a surprising nine spotted towhees (I don't think I've ever seen so many in one place). A couple of native Douglas squirrels and a chipmunk were taking advantage of the seeds, but this fox sparrow was taking advantage of this small puddle in order to have a bath:

Dungeness Spit itself is an impressive sight. It juts four and a half miles out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with a lighthouse perched on the very end of it. Graveyard Spit, long in its own right, breaks off from the main spit and is entirely protected from public access to provide undisturbed habitat for birds, including the thousands of brant that over-winter here.

 One side of Dungeness Spit is open for walking (the other side is also protected for shorebirds), but there is no established trail. You have to make your way over the gravelly beach, which is strenuous walking. They tell you to allow 4-6 hours to make the whole trek to the lighthouse and back, and with other sites we wanted to see we decided to just walk partway out.

One of the first birds I saw out there was a loon. Upon getting a closer look, I realized it wasn't a common or Pacific loon, but rather a red-throated loon (129) - my first of the year! We ended up seeing about eight of them out there. Note the speckled back and thin, upturned bill that help characterize this species:

After getting a ways out on the spit, I decided to peak over to the restricted side to see what birds were in the tidal lagoon. They were way far away over by Graveyard Spit (near the eelgrass beds that they feed on), but I was able to make out that the nearest birds were indeed brant (130). If all the specks in the distance were also brant, there were easily hundreds and hundreds of them.

At about a mile and a half out we decided to turn back, but I stopped to take one more scan up the beach to see what was ahead. I saw a large flock of shorebirds land another half mile or so up the beach and was just about to insist on pressing on a little further when a small flock of shorebirds landed right in front of me. They turned out to be about a half-dozen sanderling (131) and about ten dunlin (132). This glaucous-winged gull didn't seem to mind at all that these birds were foraging all around him:

Satisfied at picking up four year birds on the spit, I was ready to turn back and go explore other areas, but not before snapping a photo of the lighthouse at the end of the spit. This was as close as we got today, but one day I'd like to come back and do the full hike.

With fewer stops for photos and looks through the binos, the hike back was a bit faster, and soon we were leaving the refuge and driving back through the recreation area. While driving through the marshlands, a male northern harrier was keeping pace with my car and then landed near the road. I pulled over and was able to snap this photo of him:

We had spent between 3 and 4 hours at Dungeness but had a lot more exploring left to do. Next up, I'll report on what all we found in the afternoon....

Thursday, March 10, 2011

From Skagit to Sequim

Before the meeting I had to go to today in Everett, we had a little bit of extra time which we spent in Skagit County. My new favorite birding stop here is West 90, where we spent about 20 minutes watching northern harriers, short-eared owls, and a pair of rough-legged hawks flying around in the heavy winds. This is the same spot where I added the owl and hawk to my year list last month, so it's a great place to see these species with regularity.

After Everett we caught another ferry over to the Olympic Peninsula and made our way to Sequim. It was mostly traveling today, but it still turned out to be a pretty respectable day list. Here are the species we saw:

Northern pintail
American wigeon
Green-winged teal
Northern shoveler
Surf scoter
Common goldeneye
Barrow's goldeneye
Red-breasted merganser
Hooded merganser
Canada goose
Trumpeter swan
Red-necked grebe
Horned grebe
Rhinoceros auklet
Pigeon guillemot
Common loon
Double-crested cormorant
Pelagic cormorant
Glaucous-winged gull
Mew gull
Red-tailed hawk
Rough-legged hawk
Northern harrier
Bald eagle
Short-eared owl
Ring-necked pheasant
Great blue heron
Rock pigeon
Eurasian collared-dove
American robin
American crow
Common raven
Pacific wren
European starling
Brewer's blackbird
Dark-eyed junco

39 species....not bad! That could be tough to beat tomorrow, but that's my goal!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Clash of the Seasons

We're at the intersection of winter and spring and signs of it are everywhere. The topsy-turvy weather has been a clear indicator of change. This morning I awoke to heavy winds and rain showers, but by this afternoon it was sunny, no trace of a breeze, and had topped out at a balmy 55 degrees. It was beautiful out! Here's the view from Jakle's Lagoon:

The bird life is starting to show subtle signs of change, too. While I'm still waiting for the spring migrants to show up (I hope to see my first swallows any day now....), the fact that red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead, and common goldeneye are still present is a reminder that it is, indeed, still winter. I saw a mixed flock of all three species diving amidst each other, which was a cool sight. They were far away so this is a heavily cropped photo, but here's a couple of goldeneye:

The common loons, however, are now sporting their very finest summer garb:

Next up, I'm taking advantage of a necessary trip to the mainland to take a side trip over to the Olympic Peninsula, and bird an area I've never had the chance to visit before: Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge. It should be good!!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Nothing Like Surprise Whales....In March!!

We were heading out to the west side of the island to go for a hike, and while driving past Land Bank I quickly scanned Haro Strait, as I always do, only to exclaim, "I just saw a whale!" That immediately changed plans, so I quickly pulled over and headed down towards the water with camera in hand. Seeing the whales is always exciting, especially in March which is a time they're still not expected to be around much, and ESPECIALLY when you have no idea they're in the area and they make a surprise appearance! Needless to say, I was all smiles.

I spotted about three whales pretty quickly, but they were all going down for very long dives, so it was good timing that I saw one surface initially. The first whale I saw, a male, headed south, and then there was always a mother and calf a little ways to the north. I was able to identify them as J28 and J46 - so it was J-Pod that had come in! They were just milling around, quite a ways offshore, but we found a spot to settle in out of the wind and see what would happen.

While watching the whales, quite a few interesting birds came by, including a harlequin duck, a black oystercatcher, a pair of red-breasted mergansers, and this immature bald eagle:

Then it seemed the whales were starting to head north with more of a purpose, and to the south I spotted a group of seven whales heading our direction. Here's two of them startling a cormorant:

Offshore two males came by, who I was able to identify from my photos as J27 Blackberry (left) and J34 Doublestuf (right). I can't believe how big Doublestuf is compared to last year! At 13 years old, his fin has really sprouted.

The group of five or six females and juveniles came in closest to shore, maybe about 200-250 yards off. It looked like J31 Tsuchi and J39 Mako, Blackberry's younger siblings, were in this group. It was exhilarating to hear whales breathe again after a 4-5 month absence. 

It wasn't until the whales had moved on that I realized how icy cold my hands had gotten. After planning to go for a walk in the woods, I wasn't quite dressed warmly enough for the breezy shoreline, and it's funny how you don't notice those things when the whales are in front of you, only after they're gone.

It was so great to see them....I wonder if they'll stay around for a few days? I'll have to keep my eyes out!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Year List Update

We've thawed out over here in the San Juan Islands and after five days of sub-freezing temperatures we've returned to our regular array of drizzly, gray, windy weather - though in early March there have been a few sunshine breaks as well! Here's hoping the "In like a lion, out like a lamb" holds true and we'll exit this month in the midst of spring. Overall I've been working hard on another writing project - I'll be posting more about that at some point in the future - which means my creative energy has been focused elsewhere and I was somewhat surprised to realize I haven't blogged in almost a week!

With a couple of recent sightings and another month gone by it's time to check in on my year list. Last weekend during the snow I finally saw the varied thrush (127) that had surprisingly eluded me through the first eight weeks of the new year. Alongside an icy road was a large group of them mixed in with some robins.

With that, February concluded with 13 more year birds added to the list. That's down from the 18 birds notched last February, though my two month total in 2010 was only 106.

A walk along the Airport trails yesterday yielded my first March year bird - a Cooper's hawk (128). It's presence also perhaps explained the fact that I hadn't seen a single other bird along that stretch of the trail. Once I headed into the woods, though, about a half mile on past the hawk, I came across a nice variety of birds including this male Anna's hummingbird:

It was mostly too dark for other photos, but here's one of a spotted towhee taking flight:

I'm exciting to see what the rest of March will bring, as some of the first spring migrants should start showing up any day now!