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Monday, May 30, 2011

Common Birds and L-Pod Returns

When I was going through my bird photos to pick some of my favorites to feature in my new Zenfolio bird photo gallery, I realized that there are a lot of bird species I see all the time that I don't have great or even decent pictures of. Today, I decided to go out and focus on photographing some of these species.

White-crowned sparrow - the tip of the beak usually isn't that dark!
Brown-headed cowbird - a whole flock of them were down near the tidepools at Cattle Point, which was're more likely to see them in a farm field
One of the four brown creepers I saw near Third Lagoon
As is usually the case when you go out looking for one type of animal on San Juan Island, I ended up seeing a lot more wildlife than just birds today. I saw harbor seals, red foxes, and my first deer fawns of the season. These twin babies were running away from a fox. The fox wasn't interested in them, and mama deer followed behind at a more leisurely pace.

And, of course, orcas! Some L-Pod whales were seen coming down the Inside Passage on the east side of Vancouver Island yesterday, and as expected they made their way as far south as the Salish Sea today. At about 7:30 PM the 20 or so whales started passing Lime Kiln Point State Park on the westside of San Juan Island. The seas were a bit rough and they were moving quickly, so it was hard to track them let alone get IDs. I was able to identify L27 Ophelia, L47 Marina, and L53 Lulu. Here is L47 bursting through the surface:

It didn't look like these newly returned whales were going to stay around very long....they looked ready to blast out west the Strait of Juan de Fuca back to the Pacific Ocean. This was the first time L-Pod has been spotted in the San Juans in 2011. Last year, some L-Pod whales did the same thing in May: came down the Inside Passage, sped through the San Juans, and disappeared out west again. It was a few more weeks before they started spending regular time here. We'll just have to wait and see what these Ls do this year!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Finally Starting to Feel Like Spring

Yesterday I went birding with my friend Phil around the north end of San Juan Island. It was mid-day so there wasn't a lot of activity, but we still heard and saw some good species. It started at Sportsman's Lake with my first Swainson's thrush (181) of the year. At British Camp, we heard both Townsend's and black-throated gray warblers, Pacific-slope flycatchers, and a Cassin's vireo. There was a male hooded merganser on Westside Lake, where we also heard an olive-sided flycatcher. Walking the nearby upland trails turned up one black-headed grosbeak among the many singing robins.

What's really noticeable right now on the island is how GREEN everything is, like Cattle Point as seen earlier this afternoon:

Offshore was a large congregation of birds - mostly rhinoceros auklets and glaucous-winged gulls. I wonder if there were any tufted puffins mixed in? It was too far away and backlit for me to tell, but there have been recent sightings in that area. I saw three species of swallow - northern rough-winged, violet-green, and barn. There were lots (20+) of brown-headed cowbirds, American goldfinches, and European starlings. Other highlights included a belted kingfisher, a pair of bald eagles, three very noisy black oystercatchers, and five harlequin ducks.

There were also several ochre ringlet butterflies (Coenonympha tullia):

Flower-wise, there's lot of vetch, lupine, and chickweed in bloom. I also found some chocolate lilies and this Idaho blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense):

Also, I hope you can give me some input on something I've been thinking about. The rule, as designated by official taxonomists like the IOC, is that common bird species names should be capitalized. The reason is to avoid ambiguity - ie, there are lots of blue jays but only one species is called the Blue Jay, there are lots of tanagers in the west but only some of them are Western Tanagers, and so on. I personally don't capitalize common names because it goes against the basic rules of grammar and doesn't apply to other types of animals. We don't write Harbor Seals and Orca Whales, so why should write Chestnut-backed Chickadee and Dark-eyed Junco? The only time I put capital letters in bird names is when another grammatical rule dictates that a word should be capitalized, most often because it is a proper noun. You'll notice that above I did write Cassin's vireo and American goldfinch. Anyway, the debate can go on and on, but I want to know what my blog readers think. Please vote in the poll at the top right of the blog, and if you have additional comments, please leave them on this post!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

South End Wildlife: Foxes, Birds, and a Frog

I've been so busy with a couple of other projects that I've gotten a little bit behind reporting some of my recent wildlife sightings! A little over a week ago I went back to check on the four fox kits and found them rough-housing with each other. Here are some photo highlights:

Prints of this photo available here

Prints of this photo available here

Prints of this photo available here

Prints of this photo available here

Again I got to see the mother fox bring food to the kits. This time the baby black fox with the injured ear made off with what looked like a large rat:

You can see more photos of these fox kits on my previous blog posts here and here

This afternoon warmed up nicely so I went down for a walk at South Beach. I was hoping to find some migrating pipits, but no such luck. There were lots of savannah sparrows and American goldfinches as well as a yellow warbler, several common yellowthroat, a few house finches, and some red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds. The only seabirds in sight on the flat calm waters were about ten Pacific loons:

As I was climbing over the driftwood, something green caught my eye. I was surprised to find a Pacific tree frog right there on the beach! I associate them with wetlands and wooded areas, not coastline. I wonder what it was doing there?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

J-Pod Visits Friday Harbor

After coming south down the westside of San Juan Island this morning, J-Pod did an interesting thing: they went north up San Juan Channel! This is a body of water they travel through maybe a couple of times a year, but usually not very often. It meant that I could go to the shoreline just about a mile north of my house and see the orcas. (Okay, I might have even been able to see them from my front porch, but way further away and only through the very narrow window around Brown Island.)

Here is L87 Onyx (still traveling with J-Pod) circling around the buoy marker just outside of Friday Harbor:

Onyx along with J2 Granny and J8 Spieden were in the lead. One other whale was with them. I don't know who it was, but she breached twice!

Most of the rest of the whales seemed to be in two big groups. I was able to ID most of the big adult males including J26 Mike, J30 Riptide, and J34 Doublestuf. Not many pictures today because the orcas were so far away, but here is another strange sight I saw a couple of days ago out in Haro Strait: this stand up paddle boarder WAY offshore:

Is it just me, or does he not look to be dressed appropriately for the 50 degree water being more than a mile offshore? Looks like he's wearing shorts and a baseball cap! At least it was a flat calm day. He was making good progress northward, too. Maybe he knew what he was doing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Animals and Emotions Book: Exultant Ark

This month a new book was released by best-selling author and biologist Jonathan Balcombe. Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure contains more than 130 photographs of all types of animals engaged in pleasurable behavior surrounding play, touch, companionship, and more. I'm honored to have one of my photographs of a kelping killer whale included - orcas are very tactile creatures and the Southern Residents regularly engage in playing in the kelp, which possibly functions like something of a whale massage.

Prints of this photo available here

There are some amazing images in this book featuring mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and others. I hope you will take a look:

Monday, May 16, 2011

More Great Bird Sightings on San Juan

I had the chance to visit with a fellow bird watcher and see her beautiful garden earlier this week. As we sat and chatted, we saw and heard no fewer than 20 species at her feeders and in her yard. It was so impressive I had to come back with my camera! 

One of the first species I saw was a flock of pine siskins (year bird 176):

I was thrilled when a single red crossbill (177) came down to join the group, too! There were also golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows, a pair of California quail, and lots of American goldfinches. Their bright yellow sure stands out when they're at the feeders, but they camouflage in with the lilac bush:

We also heard a singing black-headed grosbeak (178) and several yellow warblers (179). Four year birds just in her yard - not bad! There are lots of neat aspects of living on a houseboat, but one thing that would be very cool about having a yard is being able to attract more bird species than the three or four regular that will venture down to the marina. One day....

The violet-green swallows were busy at the nesting box. This is the second time this month where I was able to distinctly see both the violet and the green (the other being at Ridgefield NWR on May 1):

She also had both rufous and Anna's hummingbirds coming to her feeders. This was by far the best chance I've ever had to photograph a male Anna's:

Then when he turned the right way, look at that gorget light up!

Then yesterday a friend of mine sent me a photograph of a bird she didn't recognize, and it was a fork-tailed storm-petrel! She had seen it on Friday right in Cattle Pass. Then another friend said she saw several on Saturday a bit further offshore. That's a very rare species to be seen in the county, so I went down there today to look for one. Not unexpectedly, I didn't have any luck finding it, although there was a very large bait ball several miles offshore, and if I was a storm-petrel, that's where I would have been. The trip was still well worth it, however. Right when I walked up a bald eagle flew by with something clutched in its talons, and it was being tailed by FIVE other bald eagles! It's always a cool experience when you get to be at eye level with an eagle:

Their antics in flight were amazing to watch:

I saw the expected surf scoters, harlequin ducks, and black oystercatchers. I also saw about four Eurasian collared-doves, which are now to be expected at Cattle Point, but I was thrilled to also find a pair of mourning doves, a less common species for the island. Then, as I was walking through the prairie, something "different" caught my eye. It turned out to be a western kingbird (180) - a very rare species for the county!!

It's been an exciting spring here on the island, with rare species cropping up all over the place. That's sure enough incentive to get out there as much as possible, because you never know what you're going to find, now more than ever!

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Thanks to a tip from my friend Katie, I went out to the westside of San Juan Island late this afternoon where I saw J-Pod. It was a much needed "whale fix", and the weather even cooperated for a brief window of rainless viewing. When I first got out there the whales were many miles offshore, milling, and taking long dives. My patience paid off, however, as it often does with the orcas, when a group of about 8 animals came by about 50 yards offshore. Magical!

I think this is youngster J42 Echo doing the cartwheel:

Included in the group was J2 Granny, who is estimated to be 100 years old this year. She's still going strong:

It was great to see my whale friends! This was a great start to what will hopefully be a whale-filled summer season.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Yellow Island Wildflowers: Part 2

In my last post I featured the most abundant wildflower species we saw on Yellow Island, but overall we identified more than 30 plant and flower species. Here are some photos of some of the smaller ones that you had to look more closely to see:

Small-flowered woodland star, also known as small-flowered prairie star, Lithophragma parviflora

Western saxifrage, also known as prairie saxifrage, Saxifraga integrifolia

Pacific sanicle, Sanicula crassicualis, a flower that comes in both red and yellow

Broadleaf stonecrop, Sedum spthuifolium, not quite in bloom yet - grows on rocky outcroppings

Sweet cicely, Osmorhiza chilensis - a new species for me

Blue and yellow forget-me-not, also known as small-flowered forget-me-not, Myosotis discolor - a VERY tiny flower

Brittle cactus, Opuntia fragilis

Wait a second....cactus, in the San Juan Islands? Yes, this is western Washington's only native cactus species. It is a type of prickly pear cactus and grows in small colonies on many of the San Juans. It is also found on Whidbey Island and on the Olympic Peninsula near Sequim, though it has been declining there. One theory is that local natives acquired cacti through trade with inland tribes and started cultivating them here. Perhaps they were able to grow here and not elsewhere in western Washington because of the rainshadow effect of the Olympic Mountains that makes this a drier climate. I've known about the San Juan cactus for years, but this is the first time I've ever seen any!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Yellow Island Wildflowers: Part 1

Yesterday I was lucky enough to get to visit Yellow Island, an 11-acre island that is a preserve of The Nature Conservancy. Located just north of Friday Harbor in San Juan Channel, this relatively small island hosts a stunning display of wildflowers every spring. There are multiple peaks as different species come into bloom, but I'd have to say it's in the middle of one of its peaks right now.

It's hard to capture the essence of standing in the middle of a meadow that is painted yellow, red, and blue with western buttercup, harsh paintbrush, and common camas - the three most abundant species in bloom right now. Even as we approached the island from a distance, it was apparent how it got named "yellow".

I had to switch between camera lenses a couple of times, trying to photograph both the wide-angle colorful landscape and the close-up beauty of individual flowers. One thing I didn't lack for was subjects, that's for sure. I'm not sure if I've ever seen so many flowers at once.

Harsh paintbrush, Castilleja hispida, was my favorite species to focus on:

Prints of this photo available here

Prints of this photo available here

Much of the common camas, Camassia leichtlinii, was still in bud, but this flower had burst open against a backdrop of the western buttercup, Ranunculus occidentalis:

Prints of this photo available here

Along the edges of the island some meadow death-camas, Zigadenus venenosus, was also in bloom. According to the caretaker of the island, a theory about why the death-camas doesn't grow towards the center of the island is because the natives would toss it towards the shoreline when they came to harvest common camas bulbs on the island. As the name suggests, death-camas is poisonous, while the similar looking bulbs of common camas were a regular part of the diet of early local people. The flowers, however, look totally different.

It was a visit to Yellow Island in the spring of 2009 that first kick-started my interest in local wildflowers. On this trip I took too many photos to feature in a single blog post! While the hillside was dominated by the reds, yellows, and blues of paintbrush, buttercup, and camas, there were a myriad of other species in bloom as well. I'll share my photos of some of these more subtle, but no less beautiful, flowers in my next post.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Spring Migrants Arrive in Force

I had an amazing moment yesterday at British Camp where I just stood in one section of the trail for about 10 minutes and saw/heard more than 15 bird species. There were downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers. Warbling vireos, rufous hummingbirds, orange-crowned warblers, Townsend's warblers, and black-throated gray warblers. I've come across pockets of birds before - they're always exciting to see - but what made this especially amazing was that I also got three year birds there, all newly arrived spring migrants. The Pacific-slope flycatchers (172) were singing, and I saw one pair chasing each other around a tree. A western tanager (173) sat amid the blossoms of one tree, while a Cassin's vireo (174) sang its questioning song from the brush. It was awesome.

Pacific-slope flycatcher ~ Prints of this photo available here
A little further up the trail I found both Pacific and house wrens, more vireos and warblers, and chestnut-backed chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, and white-crowned sparrows. I also saw a single chipping sparrow (175), my fourth year bird of the day.

Their nest blew down over the winter, but the resident pair of osprey at British Camp returned and rebuilt it, and when I went by one of them was sitting on the nest (you can just see its head in the middle). I saw the second one fly in with a fish a little later on.

Golden-crowned sparrows are only winter residents here on the island, but there sure still seems to be a lot of them around, including this one, who blends in amazingly well to the tree bark except for his yellow forehead:

I ended up finding 33 species during my hour at British Camp - not bad!

Next up, I'll be turning my attention (and my camera lens) towards wildflowers - I hope the weather cooperates!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cute Baby Fox Photos

There have been some great bird reports turning up on San Juan Island recently, including the second ever county sighting of a black-billed magpie and the first ever account of Lawrence's goldfinch. Even though they haven't hung around long enough for others to see, I was inspired to get out despite the blustery weather the other day to see what I could find. False Bay was pretty quiet except for a single black-bellied plover. At Panorama Marsh I heard my first Virginia rail on the island, and also my first warbling vireo (170) for the season. Along Cattle Point Road I also saw a pair of American goldfinches and a pair of western bluebirds (171).

The highlight of the day, however, was a stop by the fox den I found last week. All four kits were out and wrestling with each other, and in one priceless moment they all looked at me at the same time:

Prints of this photo available here
Here's another look at one of the brown kits:

Prints of this photo available here

There was a flurry of activity as mama fox came trotting in with a mouse. I love the motion captured in this image:

Prints of this photo available here
The short burst of activity ended when one of the black kits ran off into the den with the mouse. The other black kit followed mom around before she left again:

It was a pretty special encounter!

You can check out other baby fox photos from this den a little over week ago, as well as from the den I found in 2009 here and here.