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Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Yellow - cool, crisp, bright
Color of sunsets, of leaves
Changing overnight

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Catching Up

I've been so busy with a few different projects lately that I haven't had much time to get out and bird or whale watch, let alone take photos and blog! When I've needed breaks I've still managed a few short trips out, however, and here are some highlights of what I've seen....

Last week I spent an hour down at Cattle Point on an overcast afternoon. It was pretty quiet bird-wise, but a flock of about 20 sanderlings flew in, which was a nice surprise.

Also, right near the Cattle Point Lighthouse I found two American pipits (196), a migrating species I was hoping to catch sight of this month as they pass through the island. It was a only a brief look so I didn't have a chance for pictures, but here's a photo of the lighthouse instead :)

I went down to Seattle for a three-day conference, and on the way made a stop at Fir Island in Skagit County for a little bit of birding. At one of the Skagit Wildlife Areas there were lots of western sandpipers, a few least sandpipers, and two more American pipits. There was also an adult bald eagle perched nearby, which reminded me that I haven't seen many eagles on the island in about a month! That's not unexpected, as after fledging their chicks in August they head over to the mainland to feed on the salmon runs over there in the fall, but they should be coming back to the island soon.
A walk at the Skagit Game Range also proved to be productive bird-wise. Walking on the dikes, it was amazing to be surrounded by many hundreds of calling and singing red-winged blackbirds in the trees and marshlands all around. It was an almost dream-like experience to be hearing nothing but blackbirds in all directions. There were also wood ducks, mallards, and a few northern shoveler, plus a couple of calling greater yellowlegs. The most unexpected find was a shrieking great horned owl that I would have never seen had it not been yelling every few minutes. It didn't seem to mind our presence, as after giving us a stare-down it closed its eyes and yawned.

I got back home to the island this weekend and yesterday went out near dusk in hopes of seeing some whales off the westside of the island. Amazingly the morning fog still covered much of southern Haro Strait so I wasn't able to see the whales, but the water was calm and the lighting was beautiful so I just sat and enjoyed the view for a while.

The sunset was stunning with some of the fog blowing in the evening wind:

Things should calm down considerably as the week goes on, so hopefully I'll have some more time to get out. I would love to see the whales a few more times, but sightings will probably start to drop off pretty quickly as we approach October!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Update coming soon!

I can't believe it's been a week since I've blogged! I'm not sure if that's ever happened before. But, I've been very busy with multiple different projects, though that hasn't kept me from seeing some things worth blogging about. This weekend I'll post more of a proper update, including San Juan bird sightings, Skagit County bird sightings, and perhaps in my following post some interesting facts learned at the conference I'm attending in Seattle. Right now, the view out my window isn't made up of Brown Island, Mt. Baker, and the hundreds of cross jellyfish that have been floating by on a daily basis, but rather I5 running through the downtown area:

The only wildlife seen from this window has been rock pigeons, crows, and glaucous-winged gulls. But more coming soon....

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fantastic Afternoon Aboard the Western Prince

This afternoon was rainy and windy, but something told me it was going to be a good afternoon for a whale encounter so we jumped aboard the Western Prince. We were not disappointed! Not only did the seas lay down and the sun come out, but we had an amazing orca encounter and saw tons of other wildlife. Here are some photo highlights....(for any of these images, clicking on them will allow you to see a larger view in a photo gallery)

We headed south in San Juan Channel and out through Cattle Pass. A few miles offshore we met up with the L12 subgroup of L-Pod.

From left to right: L41 Mega, L25 Ocean Sun, and L94 Calypso. L77 Matia and L113 Cousteau were also present.
L89 Solstice
They seemed to be actively foraging, with whales splitting apart and coming back together, occasionally changing directions and lunging at the surface. 

L89 Solstice with his mother, L22 Spirit
We followed along with Solstice and Spirit who were traveling together. I was just wondering where Solstice's brother L79 Skana was when all of a sudden he popped up a little ways behind us.

L79 Skana
He proceeded to swim along the side of the boat, surfacing four times - it was stunning!

I love this shot - the water flowing off the tip of Skana's dorsal fin as he comes to the surface

What was amazing when he surfaced closest to us (other than his size - wow is he big!) was all the scratches on the front edge of his dorsal fin. It looks like he's acquired some serious rake marks, probably from the teeth of another killer whale. Here's a close-up look:

Scratches on Skana's dorsal fin

Before we left, another bigger group of whales swam past. It turned out to be the K13 family group!

The K13s

As we headed back towards San Juan Island, we saw lots of birds, including several flocks of common murres. This one is transitioning between summer and winter plumage:

Common murre

In addition to the ubiquitous glaucous-winged gulls, there were lots of Heermann's gulls and a few California gulls (later on I saw a small flock of Bonaparte's gulls too).

Over near Long Island off of Lopez there were more birds, including harlequin ducks, a belted kingfisher, a turkey vulture, and these brandt's cormorants perched on a rock alongside a harbor seal:

Captain Peter set up an awesome photo op at Whale Rocks, with the Cattle Point lighthouse in the background. There's lots of Steller sea lions and harbor seals on Whale Rocks along with more cormorants.

Steller sea lions on Whale Rocks with Cattle Point Lighthouse in the background

Here's a closer look at some of those massive Stellers. One was branded, and another one had a huge wound on his side. Despite hanging out so close together, they don't really get along all that well - it was probably an injury from another Steller.

Steller sea lions
Did I mention there were LOTS of cormorants? I saw all three species: brandt's, double-crested, and pelagic.

On the way back to port the sun came out, lighting up our boat wake, though storm clouds could still be seen in the distance to the west behind us:

Overall, it was an awesome trip! You can view a photo gallery of all these images here, where you can also purchase prints or digital downloads.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Enjoying September

The weather continues to be awesome and the wildlife continues to abound, helping September to live up to its billing as my favorite month on San Juan Island. Here are a few scenes from the last week or so...

Down at American Camp I was pleased to find a vesper sparrow (194) - not an entirely unexpected species here but still a pretty rare sight on San Juan Island. Not a great shot by any means, but enough to see the eye ring, streaked chest, and dark cheek patch bordered by white.

There have been so many cedar waxwings on the island this summer. Also at American Camp I came across this single bird, and then a little later a flock of a dozen:

On Saturday I saw the whales from Land Bank. Word was all three pods were there, but they were very spread out and mostly backlit, so I wasn't able to get many identifications. Some groups of whales were way out in the middle of the strait. Most of the whales went north, but the L12s and L2s stayed south. This male decided at the last minute to go south, and cruised by quickly, but closer to shore than most of the other whales had been.

On Sunday we went out to see the sunset (hard to believe it sets at 7:30 already, and getting earlier in the hurry!). We saw a few distant whales to the south, some harbor porpoises surfacing in the flat calm waters, and a couple of small bait balls made up mostly of glaucous-winged gulls. Although my favorite sunsets usually have some clouds, this one was stunning in its own right.

Finally, yesterday I went out to South Beach hoping to find some migrating American pipits to add to the year list. No luck with the pipits, but I was thrilled to find a flock of a dozen horned larks (195). Not only was this a year bird, but it's the first time I've ever seen this species on San Juan Island. If they hadn't flown a little ways I never would have seen them, because their camouflage against the sand dunes is amazing! Again, not a great shot, but enough to show what it is - I didn't want to get too close and flush them.

What will the next week of September bring? Hopefully some more whales, and according to the weather forecast also some of our first rain of the month...

Friday, September 9, 2011

Awesome Osprey

Earlier this week I was enthralled by the osprey at British Camp. A breeding pair returns every summer, and this season it looks like they fledged two chicks as we saw four birds in total. They were all calling to each other, intermittently flying around and perching in the trees. Although we didn't see them actively catching fish, I saw birds carrying fish in flight and one eating a fish while perched right below the nest.

This bird for some reason dropped a large headless fish back into the water, then circled around and landed in a snag right next to me:

I think that's the closest I've ever been to an osprey!

I need to note a few updates to the year list, too - last weekend I saw a merlin (192) at Jackson Beach, and then at British Camp I saw a Hutton's vireo (193). With a little luck, I'll be able to reach my goal of 200 species for the year! Some other highlights from our hike at British Camp included a pileated woodpecker and 30+ double-crested cormorants.

It wasn't just birds at British Camp, however - we also came across a mama deer with a curious fawn:

Monday, September 5, 2011

September Superpod

September is my favorite month in the San Juan Islands: usually the weather is nice, the whales are around a lot, and the busiest part of the tourist season is over. I kicked off the month in style yesterday by spending much of the day on the west side of the island. In the morning, I beat the crowds to Lime Kiln Point State Park and spent some time reading on the rocks in the sunshine. No whales were around at that time, but there were lots of harbor seals fishing in the flat calm waters. I'm also pretty sure I saw two harbor seals mating - the first time I've ever seen that!

I went home for lunch but with word of the whales coming south I went back to Lime Kiln in the late afternoon. At first it looked like the whales, who were slowly approaching, would pass well offshore. I settled in to wait, and as they approached the park many of them veered in towards shore. Yes!

It started with just one or two whales passing by at a time, but then all of a sudden there were whales everywhere. It was an amazing sight!

Though the whales were backlit, making them hard to identify, the lighting was actually pretty cool. The water was calm, making for some nice reflections, and the late day sun just lit up the blows and splashes around the whales. I love more abstract shots like this one:

I was able to identify some members of all three pods. I'm pretty sure all of J-Pod, all of K-Pod, and about half of L-Pod were present. One group that passed close to shore included most if not all of the group I call the L55s. Here's L27 Ophelia:

L27 Ophelia

Nearby was L112 Sooke, Ophelia's niece:

L112 Sooke

Sooke's mom L86 Surprise was there, too:

L86 Surprise

A little further offshore was another L-Pod matirline: the L47s. Mom L47 Marina is in the middle, and she's flanked by her two daughters. That's L91 Muncher on the left and L83 Moonlight on the right. 

From left to right: L91 Muncher, L47 Marina, and L83 Moonlight

Moonlight's son L110 Midnight was just ahead of them, and I hope L47's one year-old calf L115 was in there too!

L28 Baba and her nephew Crewser came by next, and I was glad to see that Baba's daughter L90 Ballena was not far behind them. Ballena was the whale involved in the alleged vessel strike last weekend. While researchers could find no external injuries and determined she was not in fact hit by a boat, she was acting strangely, spending a lot of time at the surface, breathing with apparent difficulty, and later on lagging behind the other whales. She's a whale the Center for Whale Research has been concerned about for a long time because of her small size and strange shape. They figured she may be sick or, given her age, potentially experiencing a difficult first pregnancy. When the whales left shortly after the incident, many of us worried about L90 and whether or not she would return with them. I was glad to see her out there yesterday. Though she was traveling behind her family members, she seemed to be breathing normally and was not the very last whale.

L90 Ballena - still with us on September 4, 2011 after a strange incident on August 26 (see link above)

The last whales to pass close by were K40 Raggedy and her brother K21 Cappuccino. It's been a while since I've seen them so it was nice to "check in" with them!

K40 Raggedy and K21 Cappuccino

I was really glad that a lot of the people I saw or met at the lighthouse in the morning made it back to see the whales in the late afternoon. There were many visitors that were very hopeful for whales, and they sure got a special encounter! A gallery of all of today's whale photos can be seen here, where you can also order prints.

The whales continued on south, and a little later on there was a spectacular sunset. There were sun dogs on either side of the setting sun, though the one of the left, seen here, was brighter:

What an amazing place I live!!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Exploring Near Campbell River, BC

After our whale-watching trip last Saturday, we had a full day to explore near Campbell River on Sunday. We spent some time on the trails near Elk Falls Provincial Park along the Campbell River. We didn't see any elk, but did see a mama deer with this fawn:

Despite being relatively close to the roadway, it was a beautiful trail through the woods:

It was an interesting site right along some industrial complexes. The bridge visible in this picture was actually built on top of a pipeline that crosses the river there. There were also lots of people actively fishing, and a few snorkeling down the river. One thing they advertise that you can do in Campbell River is go snorkeling with salmon - interesting!

We got to Elk Falls when the lighting was just right to create this little rainbow. It made for an interesting contrast in a bright waterfall lit by the sun, the dark shadows of the river valley behind, and the scintillating rainbow:

It was a warm day - warmer than most of the afternoons we've had on San Juan Island this summer - so after birding a little along the shoreline of Discovery Passage it felt great to sit on the shade of the deck at the hotel and enjoy this interesting beverage: hard cider made out of saskatoon berries. Known in the US as serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), the road or trail side plant often gets overlooked by Americans. Canadians, however, enjoy the fruit in pies and jams, dried, or infused into beverages. Look at that color!

That's Quadra Island in the background of the above photo, reflected both right side up in the middle of the glass and upside down at the top of the liquid.

We also made two visits to Tyee Spit at the mouth of the Campbell River, and this was the best little birding spot we found in our explorations. On each visit we saw half a dozen bald eagles, multiple swallow species, harlequin ducks, common mergansers, Canada geese, mallards, killdeer, and several hundred Bonaparte's gull. On our second visit, however, we also found a single mute swan (year bird 191)! The mute swan, introduced to North America, is more established on the east coast, and only has a few population centers this far west. One is at the southern end of Vancouver Island, and occasionally they roam over to the San Juan Islands from there, though I have never seen one in San Juan County. I was surprised to see one this far north on Vancouver Island, but I have no idea if this is normal or not!

The park at Tyee Spit, looking inland
Overall it was a great trip to Vancouver Island! I also succeeded in proving to myself that it's really not so hard to get over there - after all, it's only a ferry ride away, just like the mainland. Next year I hope to go back, spend a little more time, and get a little further north on the island.