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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Catching Up on Birds and Insects

Just because most of my recent posts have been about fantastic whale sightings, it doesn't mean I've stopped paying attention to birds or the rest of the natural world! Here I'll play catch-up by posting some bird and insect sightings from the last month.

When we had family in town a couple weeks ago, we went to see the place they were staying up on Cady Mountain. It was a spectacular sunset that night.

While we were outside enjoying it, I saw and heard three common nighthawks flying around high up above.

The same evening, a band-tailed pigeon (186) called and then flew by, helping the year list slowly trudge along towards my goal of 200 species. I also went out birding yesterday after reading some reports of migrating shorebirds starting to show up. Out at False Bay I found 2 killdeer, a flock of 20 western sandpipers, and 2 semipalmated plovers (187) - nice! That leaves me behind but within reach of Dave, who sits at 192 :)

Also yesterday I went to Fourth of July beach to do a COASST survey. No beached birds, but the highlight was this barn swallow nest with three chicks that must be close to fledging. They won't have any choice but to leave the nest if they get much bigger! This one was basically sitting on top of the other two:

Now on to the insects!

Western sheep moth, Hemileuca eglanterina, larva - about the size of an index finger!
Garden silphid, Heterosilpha ramosa, a beetle that feeds on decaying organic material
Rose leaf gall wasp, Diplolepis polita, found on Nootka rose
A tattered swallowtail butterfly, probably the pale tiger swallowtail, Papilio eurymedon

Finally, we came across an ant hill the other day, and it was pretty amazing to watch these guys at work. I accidentally disturbed their structure before I realized what it was, and they immediately poured out of the holes and set to work rebuilding it. These part-red, part-black ants are western thatching ants (Formica obscuripes) and build large nests out of dead plant material. It was impressive to see the size of the pine needles and twigs they were carrying and maneuvering as they climbed across the ant hill and the rocks it was built up against. It was worth kneeling down and watching all the drama play out in their little world, and after a while I had to pull out my macro lens, too.

Western thatching ant picking up a pine needle

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Whale of an Afternoon

On Tuesday right after I got out of work my friend Katie gave me a head's up that there were whales heading towards the lighthouse. I made a quick stop at home to pick up lunch and my camera bag and off I went! I got there just in time to see the first whales from J and K Pods heading slowly south against a strong flood tide at about 12:30 PM.

K25 Scoter and his mother K13 Skagit porpoising south - prints of this photo available here
The whales were super spread out, both north-sound and east-west, so they took a long time to pass by. Some were way out in the middle of Haro Strait, but a few others were much closer to shore. The groups I spotted closer to shore started with the K13s, K12s, and K14s. I'm not sure which whale this is, but she veered off and started heading right for the rock where I was sitting. As me and other onlookers waited for her to come to the surface again, I spotted her underwater, gliding by just off the kelp bed not 20 feet from where I was sitting. She surfaced just past me, continuing to head south. This full frame shot is uncropped - nothing in the world like being this close to a wild killer whale!

Prints of this photo available here
Around 3:30 PM there were still whales to the north of us in addition to all those that had passed by heading south, but now they all started going every which way. Many whales went north again further offshore, but one group with lots of juveniles and calves just hung out in front of the lighthouse for a while. I found this moment especially touching - the two youngest K-Pod whales, from different matrilines, with their moms. All four of them surfaced together several times before veering a little offshore and playing for about 15 minutes.

From left to right: K12 Sequim, K43, K44 (barely visible above mom), K27 Deadhead
Here's another shot showing silhouettes of just K27 Deadhead and her son K44, who is about three weeks old now:

There were lulls between groups of whales passing, and I was very close to leaving after it looked like they had all gone north. I was even halfway up the hill when I turned around and saw a whale surfacing directly off from the lighthouse - so back down to the rocks I went. Sure enough, they all came back south again. It was well worth the wait, as around 5:30 the last big group of whales came by. Included in this group were a bunch of males - J27 Blackberry, J34 Doublestuf, L41 Mega, L79 Skana, L87 Onyx, and at least one other.

Two tall male dorsal fins close together
It was hard to count whales when they were as spread out as they were, but I saw or identified in my photos whales from every family group in J-Pod and K-Pod plus the L12 subgroup of L-Pod, so there were probably about 60 whales out there!

L79 Skana
The males were having a very good time together, tail slapping, rolling at the surface, and swimming upside down.

A big male orca lunging upside down at the surface - prints of this photo available here
They were clearly enjoying themselves, as I saw several "sea snakes" (orca penises) extended. It's not unusual for orcas, or other species of dolphin, to engage in sexual behavior for fun rather than just for breeding, and that includes sexual behavior among individuals of the same gender which is definitely what was going on that evening!

An upside down male orca with his "sea snake" visible, with a second male swimming towards him from the left
After that big group of whales passed I had to leave, already late for somewhere I was supposed to be by 6 PM. But as I drove south past Land Bank, I had to stop again because the whales were going slowly and were even closer to shore. It was impressive to see such a large group together, and it was kind of neat to see them from the road rather than down on the rocks where I usually am! It was more of a perspective from above:

J28 Polaris and another female surface inshore of the kelp bed off Land Bank
I was on the west side for five and a half hours, with whales in sight the entire time I was there - definitely a whale of an afternoon! It reminds me of some of the epic passbys we had during some of my first summers here, where a superpod would just go back and forth on the westside for hours at a time.

Three adult male orcas - the one in the middle is throwing a little tail slap as he dives
A photo gallery of all the photos in this blog post can be seen here, where any of them can be ordered as prints.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

That Was Awesome

Today was one of those days - the kind of day that made me want to live on San Juan Island in the first place. The title of this blog post is rather unoriginal, but it's probably the phrase I most uttered today, so I thought it was appropriate.

We went out to the westside around noon today with word that some whales were heading down from the north. Just as soon as the boats and some distant blows were coming into view to the north of Lime Kiln Lighthouse, we heard some people screaming to the south of us. I turned around and saw a big disturbance in the water just offshore of the rock to the south of me. A few seconds later, just long enough for me to grab my camera but not to adjust any of the settings, this big male orca surfaced just north of me, cruising north towards the other whales heading our direction. Surprise!
L85 Mystery heads north to meet up with J and K Pod whales
It was L85 Mystery, and right behind him were the rest of the L12 sub-group. This family group of whales likes to spend a lot of time off the southwest end of San Juan Island, going up and down, up and down, but rarely really committing to going north. They're well known among shore-based whale watchers as the group that just comes into view at Lime Kiln before nearly always turning south again. This afternoon, however, they were interested in going just a little bit further north to meet up with some of their J and K Pod friends. Best of all, as they sped north, they did so very close to shore.

L12 Alexis - the best photo I've ever gotten of this female estimated to be 78 years old. Prints of this photo available here
L41 Mega - prints of this photo available here

The whales all met up just north of the lighthouse, and spent a bit of time milling around before slowly making their way back south. While we were waiting for them to come back, we noticed a very unafraid little bird making its way through all the whale watchers on the rock. It was an immature brown-headed cowbird, and it was totally unfazed by all the human activity. It hopped right between my feet, and perched on my radio sitting with my stuff right next to me:

I've never seen anything quite like it! He even seemed to perk up and get interested as the whales started coming by, but then I must admit I lost track of him as my focus returned to the orcas.

All the male orcas seemed to be grouped up, which was an impressive sight with all those tall dorsal fins. Here's L41 Mega and K25 Scoter, and at least J27 Blackberry and J34 Doublestuf were in there with them, so I suspect the other L12 subgroup males were as well.

This large group of whales, including more than just the males, was a little ways offshore, but they were playful. They were just slowly making their way south, doing some tail-slapping, cartwheeling, upside-down swimming at the surface, logging on the surface, and they threw in a couple of breaches for good measure:

Prints of this photo available here

Then I noticed two whales that were much closer to shore, and heading right for us. Let me tell you, my favorite feeling in the world is sitting on a rock on the west side of San Juan Island and seeing this - a wild killer whale heading right for you:

Prints of this photo available here
It turned out to be J31 Tsuchi and L77 Matia, two female whales ages 16 and 24. I always think it's especially cool to see whales from different pods hanging out together. It's a glimpse into the social lives of these animals outside of their matrilines, with whom they travel with 24/7.

J31 Tsuchi - prints of this photo available here
A note on this next photo, to give you an idea of just how close these whales come to the shore - this image is not cropped, and my lens was only zoomed in to 180mm to take it:

L77 Matia - prints of this photo available here
So after the L12s had gone north, the L12s, K13s, and half of J-Pod (the J11s, J22s, and J17s) came back south. Where was the rest of J-Pod? They were coming down San Juan Channel past Friday Harbor, which gave us enough time to drive down to Cattle Point to see them down there. We got there a little ahead of the whales, and while waiting for them we saw lots of other wildlife, including a single male Steller sea lion over on Whale Rocks.

I was also watching a single rhinoceros auklet diving on a school of small fish. Every time it dove, bait fish would start jumping at the surface, and a single glaucous-winged gull was sitting on the water nearby and taking advantage of this feeding opportunity. As we watched, more gulls came in, and then more auklets, and then some pelagic cormorants, and some Heermann's gulls, and before we knew it a nice bait ball had formed.

Then the whales came into view passing Cape San Juan close to shore, heading south towards where we were on the rocks in Cattle Pass. I was excited they were on "our" side of the channel, but I know they usually veer out and go around Goose Island. In fact, I heard some people commenting on the radio that they had never seen them go inside of Goose Island. Well, if you keep watching these whales, every so often you are going to see them do something you've never seen them do before, and today was one of those days! They swam through the San Juan Island side of Goose Island!

They continued swimming close to shore as they passed us at Cattle Point, and since they were active and surfacing a lot I was able to find each and every whale from the J2, J14, and J16 family groups in my photos. The lighting was also perfect, much better than the harsh lighting off the lighthouse earlier in the afternoon. Here's J2 Granny with a Vancouver Whale Watch boat in the background:

Prints of this photo available here

J26 Mike was looking good - I remember seeing him before he was even a sprouter male, and now he's so huge!

J26 Mike - prints of this photo available here
He must have been feeling good, too - look at that tail slap!

Tail slap by J26 Mike - prints of this photo available here
The whales don't travel through San Juan Channel very often, but when they do I've never seen them kelping at Cattle Pass. That's what some of them were doing today, though! Here's J16 Slick, Mike's mom, with kelp draped on her dorsal fin:

J16 Slick kelping - prints of this photo available here

Not to be outdone by her mother, J37 Hy'shqa surfaced with kelp, too - a lot more of it!

J37 Hy'shqa kelping - prints of this photo available here

Behind the J16s were the J14s. J14 Samish was surrounded by all of her offspring. Here's a close-up look at Samish, who was what looks like black scribbles going through her saddle patch. I always think of Samish as having the most perfectly shaped dorsal fin. She always stands out to me:

J14 Samish - prints of this photo available here
Samish's oldest son, J30 Riptide, is another big male in J-Pod. He surfaced here with Mt. Rainier visible in the distant background:

J30 Riptide with Mt. Rainier in the background - prints of this photo available here

If you want to take another look at all the above whale photos from today, you can look at the gallery here or see a slideshow of them here. I'm sure you can see how after this epic whale-of-a-day, the only words I could come up with to summarize it were: That was awesome.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Whales Go Up and Whales Come Down

On Monday after work we went out Land Bank on the westside after hearing the whales had been around a lot that morning. Some whales had already passed heading north, but right when we got there the J14s were passing by in a tight group close to shore - it was an awesome sight.

From front to back: J37 Hy'shqa, J30 Riptide, and J14 Samish - prints of this photo available here

I couldn't *quite* get all five members of the J14 matriline up in the same shot, but here are four of them:

From front to back: J37 Hy'shqa, J30 Riptide, J40 Suttles, and J45 Se-Yi'-Chn

There was a gap after that, then another big group of whales came, including many members of J-Pod and the L12 sub-group of L-Pod. J27 Blackberry and J34 Doublestuf, two males from J-Pod, were doing a lot of rolling around with L77 Matia, a female from L-Pod. At one point Doublestuf lifted her out of the water:

Matia lost her first calf last year, but maybe she'll be having another one in about 17 months??

Shore-based whale watchers at Land Bank's Westside Preserve

Yesterday afternoon I decided to try my luck on the westside again. The L12s came back south on Monday, but the rest of the whales had continued north and I expected them to be making their way back down towards San Juan Island. Soon after I got to Lime Kiln lighthouse the L12s started coming up from the south, but just as they got into view they did the expected (for them) and turned back south again. I just saw a few breaches and cartwheels in the distance before they disappeared. Up north, J-Pod had split into two groups. One group went down Rosario on the east side of the San Juan Islands, and they other group was heading north (away from the lighthouse) at Moat. I was just getting ready to leave since the whale prospects looked slim, when I heard that the Moat group turned south.

Settling in for a bit of a wait, I passed some of my time by turning my camera to the big waves in Haro Strait. There were a lot of kayak groups out for day trips, and I suspect  some of them probably shouldn't have been out there. This group decided to turn back but they were still dealing with some pretty rough seas. It didn't look like much fun to me!

Since we're in inland waters here we don't often get much wave action along the rocky shoreline, especially in the summer. Yesterday was an exception, so I took some wave photos while I was waiting, too. Here's one of my favorites:

Finally around 6 PM we could see some blows to the north, and by 6:30 the whales were passing us, porpoising south through the waves against the strong flood tide. This isn't a black and white shot, but it almost looks like it since it's taken into the harsh late afternoon light:

The highlight of this passby was seeing new mom K27 Deadhead and her calf K44 porpoising side by side. The little guy was almost completely hidden by the splashes they were creating, with usually just his dorsal fin visible. Here's the one shot I got that shows a little more of him:

K25 Scoter was one of the last whales to pass by, and he was porpoising a ways offshore. It was a neat sight with the Olympic Mountains lit up in the distance behind him:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Into the Rain and Fog Aboard the Western Prince

With some family in town visiting this weekend, we booked a morning whale-watching trip aboard the Western Prince. A month in advance, we figured that surely a Saturday in July promised to be a lovely time on the water. This summer has been a bit different from years past, however, and we woke up this morning to yet another gray day complete with rain and fog. Despite this, I had a positive feeling about today's trip, and when we got on the boat I was ready to go:

We left the dock without a whale report and headed out into the mist of San Juan Channel. Here's the view looking back towards Friday Harbor just after we rounded the bend of Brown Island:

We headed south, because last night there was a superpod off the south end of the island and especially since nothing had been reported on the hydrophones further north last night it seemed like a good place to start our search. As we pulled out through Cattle Pass into the straits we started to see lots of birds, including numerous flocks of about a dozen rhinoceros auklets each, a few pigeon guillemots, and lots of gulls. They were mostly glaucous-winged gulls, but I found a couple of Heermann's gulls perched on some floating driftwood:

Before long we got a report of whales near Discovery Island off the south end of Vancouver Island, so off we went across the glassy calm waters (the nicest thing about fog is it means no wind, so the waters are nice and flat!). The initial report was of the L12s, a small sub-group of L-Pod, but when we got on scene I knew right away that's not who we had. There were too many females and juveniles, and then J27 Blackberry surfaced and I recognized that it was J-Pod we were with.

J27 Blackberry (right) and his younger brother J39 Mako emerge from the fog - prints of this photo available here

Before long the weather cleared up a little bit and we traveled parallel alongside a nice group of whales. It was an interesting mix of J-Pod animals, including members of three different matrilines. Present were J27 Blackberry with his brother J39 Mako, J28 Polaris with her young calf J46 Star, and the family group known affectionately as "The Cookies": J22 Oreo, J34 Doublestuf, J38 Cookie, and their honorary member and relative J32 Rhapsody.

From left to right: J28 Polaris, J39 Mako, J27 Blackberry, and J32 Rhapsody - prints of this photo available here

It's been a while since I've seen the whales traveling in a tight group, and it's always a special sight to see so many dorsal fins on the surface at the same time. I always think it's interesting to figure out who is traveling with whom, too, because it gives us the smallest glimpse into killer whale social relations. Here's J28 Polaris, an 18 year-old female, surfacing with J39 Mako, an 8 year-old male:

Prints of this photo available here

Here's another nice group shot of multiple whales on the surface at the same time:

From left to right: calf J46 Star, mom J28 Polaris, young male J34 Doublestuf, J38 Cookie, and J39 Mako - prints of this photo available here

J-Pod was spread out into several tight groups, and we got a quick look at one of the other groups. In this group I saw J8 Spieden, L87 Onyx (who has been traveling with J-Pod for quite some time), J14 Samish, J30 Riptide, J40 Suttles, and J37 Hy'shqa. Since they were further away I'm not posting any photos of them here, but here's another shot of the big male J27 Blackberry with a sailboat:
J27 Blackberry and sailboat - prints of this photo available here

Because of the fog I got completely turned around. I had thought we were heading west, but the whales were actually accompanying us back east towards San Juan Island! Before it was time for us to leave, they started getting a little more active with lots of taislaps, some cartwheels, and a few breaches.

J39 Mako cartwheels next to his big brother J27 Blackberry - prints of this photo are available here
A big breach by a J-Pod whale - prints of this photo available here

For those of you that were on the trip (or if you're a blog reader who just likes the pictures!), if you would like to have some of these whale photos, you can view the whole gallery of these images here, where you are also able to purchase prints or digital downloads (without watermark) for your own personal use. Buy at least $15 worth by August 1st and you can get 20% off your total order using the coupon code WP716 - covering not only images from this trip, but from any of my photo galleries! Enjoy!