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Monday, October 31, 2011

Orcas Island Birthday Weekend ~ Part 1

Yesterday (Sunday) was my birthday, and this year I got an extended celebration with a weekend trip to a nearby Orcas Island. When we got on the ferry on Friday afternoon it was pouring rain, and I figured that at least we had a nice cabin to stay in and watch the showers if that's what the weekend had in store. By the time we pulled in to the Orcas ferry landing, however, it had slowed to a drizzle, and by the time we drove to Cascade Lake the rain had stopped altogether. We decided to hike the 2.7 mile trail around the lake, and the weather mostly held off. There were still lots of low-lying clouds hanging in the trees around the lake, making for some especially scenic (and iconic Pacific Northwest) views.

There were lots of Pacifc wrens, golden-crowned kinglets, dark-eyed junocs, and chestnut-backed chickadees in the woods. We even saw a bald eagle fly out of the forest, but the lake itself was pretty empty until we came to this bridge that separated the main part of the lake from a smaller offshoot. In this more protected cove we saw a flock of about twenty ring-necked ducks, four hooded mergansers, and three pied-billed grebes. Nearby were also some bufflehead and double-crested cormorants.

As we neared the end of the hike, we noticed it was getting lighter. As the sun was getting lower in the sky, it started to shine through a break in the clouds, changing the scene from the foggy one above to the bright one below:

The reflections in the water were really amazing: the near-perfect mirror image of the scenery was only disturbed the water droplets falling from the branches, creating a ripple effect across the surface. Once we got back to the car, the late afternoon light was especially stunning.

We got to our cabin just before sunset proper, and settled in for a nice evening including a spaghetti dinner, a fire in the wood stove, and a dip in the outdoor hot tub where the only sound you could hear was the gentle waves crashing on the nearby shoreline.

Despite a forecast for rain, I was thrilled when we woke up the next morning and the clouds started to clear shortly after sunrise. After going out for a nice breakfast, we made our way up Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands at about 2,400 feet. There were still some clouds up there, and the summit was actually above the clouds, which again made for some interesting, ever-changing views.

Even up here the sun was starting to work its way through the clouds:

There wasn't a lot of bird activity up here. We heard a common raven, a flock of red crossbills flew by a couple of times, and we heard and saw several Pacific wrens. The wrens sure seem to be around in great numbers right now! They're one tiny forest dweller.

After our excursion to Mt. Constitution we decided to spend the rest of the day at the cabin. There were some hiking trails on the property there and a great view out the front windows into a secluded bay. Next up - some wildlife and scenic highlights from around the cabin!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Getting to Know Third Lagoon

The San Juan Island Trails Committee has been hosting a series of Know Your Island walks where naturalists, historians, and others share information with locals during a guided hike at one of our island's numerous recreational areas. Last Saturday I went along on the hike exploring Third Lagoon to share information about birds. Third Lagoon is probably one of the least visited trails on the island, despite being a beautiful access to both deep forest and the shoreline of Griffin Bay. I was surprised how many islanders I told about the hike said, "Where is that?"

It was a rainy Saturday, but we still had 20 people show up for our hike. In addition to birds, others talked about trees, lichens, and mushrooms. I definitely learned a thing or two!

Shaggy mane mushrooms
My friend Kari knows quite a lot about mushrooms, and had a sharp eye for finding them too! She collected a whole basket of chanterelles - all of which I probably would have walked by without seeing.

Kari with a chanterelle
There is an amazing variety of trees at this part of the island, and we saw a couple of species I'm not that familiar with that I didn't know we had here - quaking aspen and Douglas maple.

Douglas maple (Acer glabrum)

Our two youngest participants got particularly excited over this tiny tree frog found among the detritus. I thought it was pretty cool, too.

The rain held off for the first part of our hike, but it started an earnest as we headed out into the open near the lagoon itself, which was where the best birding was. As a result I don't have any pictures of that part, but we saw lots of harlequin ducks, red-breasted mergansers, and horned grebes, along with a couple of black oystercatchers, common loons, and a great blue heron.

It was supposed to stay rainy all weekend, but Sunday turned out to be a gorgeous (if chilly) day. I went back to the south end of the island again, and had to pull over when I noticed these California poppies in full bloom - at the end of October! This looks more like the type of photo I would take in July:

One final sighting to share is that last week we heard and then saw two barred owls right from the deck of our houseboat! I couldn't believe it. Their call is accurately described as "Who cooks for you?" but that doesn't really capture the booming quality when you hear it, especially in the middle of a cold night. Get a feel for it by listening to the audio recording from Bird Web here. It sounds so cool.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bluebirds, Lincoln's Sparrows, and More at American Camp

Sunday was another beautiful autumn day, so I headed out for some more afternoon birding at the south end of the island. This time I went to American Camp. My first great find was near the parade grounds where I found three western bluebirds. This species has been reintroduced to the island over the last five years. I got close enough to see the leg bands on one of the birds, and learned that this one was a fledgling from this year from a few miles away. The birds are probably gathering up to flock in places like American Camp before migrating away for a few months.

One stretch of the trail that winds through the prairie is often pretty quite bird-wise, but not so that day. First I saw a northern shrike off in the distance, and then a single western meadowlark flew by - my first one of the winter. In a patch of brambles I also came across a mixed-species flock of sparrows. The most exciting find was two Lincoln's sparrows, but there were also song sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows, and a single fox sparrow.

Down towards the water's edge the first thing that caught my eye was several big rafts of surf scoters.

It was amazing to watch them all diving in unison. At times there would only be one or two dozen birds on the surface, and at other times hundreds. Closer to shore there was also a flock of 75 or so red-breasted mergansers and a few horned grebes. I was also able to spot some common and Pacific loons.

As I made my way along the shoreline I found a mixed flock of black turnstones and surfbirds. They flew over towards Grandma's Cove, so I decided to go that way too to see if there was anything else to see in the cove. Was there ever! Some of the scoters had moved in, creating a huge feeding frenzy in the bay. Mixed in with them were some more loons, grebes, and mergansers, plus harlequin ducks and four gull species: glaucous-winged, mew, Bonaparte's, and a few Heermann's. It was quite a spectacle, and I probably sat on the bluff watching them all feeding for about 20 minutes.

Part of the Grandma's Cove feeding flock: mostly surf scoters, but some mergansers and a Pacific loon are in this shot, too
Back on the home front there has also been lots of birding activity. The other morning I saw a Townsend's warbler out the window on the embankment - the first time I've ever seen this species from the marina. When I went out to try and get a photo it was already too far away, but an ever-bold red-breasted nuthatch landed on our new feeder just a few feet away from me.

Other regular visitors have been chestnut-backed chickadees, house sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and, unfortunately rock pigeons. The pigeons were a novel species in the spring but wore out their welcome in just a couple days. Not only do they eat a lot of seed, poop all over the deck, and scare away some of the other, smaller native birds for whom the feeders are intended, but they've started digging through the planters, uprooting plants, and throwing dirt all over the deck, too. One reason for the new feeder was to transition away from the tray feeder that they have easiest access too, but unfortunately one bird at least has figured out how to hold onto this new hanging feeder. Ah well.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Flickers and Other Fall Birds at Cattle Point

I went down to Cattle Point on this sunny afternoon expecting to spend most of my time looking at seabirds, but I was stopped before I got to the coast by the antics of about half a dozen northern flickers who were busily chattering and flying from tree to tree. After watching them for a few minutes I realized that one of the reasons for all the excitement was the presence of a merlin in the same patch of trees, which every so often would chase one of the flickers around the prairie and then back into the trees. It was quite a sight! Despite half an hour of observation I wasn't able to get a photo of both birds in the same frame - they were just too fast!

Northern flicker (red-shafted) in flight
Merlin in flight
I noticed a glimpse of a different color on one of the flickers, and sure enough it was a yellow-shafted color morph! Formerly considered separate species, the red-shafted (primarily western) and yellow-shafted (primarily eastern) birds were merged into one species, the northern flicker. The yellow-shafted form also breeds in Alaska, and some birds are occasionally seen in the western Lower 48, particularly in winter.

No doubt about it - this is a yellow-shafted flicker!
While the color is most noticeable in the underwings, they're called red- and yellow-shafted because the shafts of the feathers are indeed different colors. You can see the red shafts on this flying flicker:

There are some other subtle differences more apparent in perched birds, too, relating to the presence and color of the mustache and nape crescent.

This female red-shafted flicker has a pale brown mustache (and has red under the tail)
This female yellow-shafted flicker has no mustache (notice the yellow just visible by either wing)
While watching all the woodpecker activity I did get a glimpse of one other woodpecker - a red-breasted sapsucker (197). I was a bit surprised when I checked my list that this was in fact a year bird; I thought maybe I had seen one, but I guess not! I finally tore myself away from the flickers and checked out what other birds were around. There was quite a bit of raptor activity in addition the merlin - a northern harrier, a bald eagle, and three red-tailed hawks. I also saw my first northern shrike of the season, which was a really nice find!

When I made it to the shoreline at last there was a lot of bird activity there as well. It looks like most of the Heermann's gulls have moved on, as I didn't see any today, but there were lots of glaucous-winged and mew gulls feeding on several small bait balls with one Bonaparte's gull in the mix as well. As far as diving birds go, more and more of winter resident birds are returning. I saw surf scoters, red-breasted mergansers, and horned grebes in addition to the year-round resident pelagic cormorants. Further signs of winter were the pigeon guillemots adorned in their winter plumage and the presence of only two rhinoceros auklets (most of them head to the outer coast to feed for the winter). A couple of other people were out enjoying the crisp autumn day, and it was cool to hear one of them comment that seeing the beautiful male harlequin ducks was the highlight of her day.

I had to put my binoculars down when I heard a loud chuff down below me. It was a big male Steller sea lion coming up for air in Cattle Pass!

Another noise redirected my binoculars at one point, and it turned out to be the calling of a black turnstone in flight. There was only one, but it was another nice find. Overall, it was a pleasant afternoon at Cattle Point, and after a little over an hour my bird list totaled out to 23 species.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

One Very Wet Vulture

Upon my arrival at Lime Kiln this afternoon, I was greeting by my first of the season mixed species flock of woodland passerines: chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, and both golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets. After trying and failing to photograph the kinglets for a bit, I continued down to the shoreline where I sat in the surprisingly warm sunshine for a while. There were no fewer than five gull species foraging in Deadman Bay: glaucous-winged, Heermann's, mew, California, and, the biggest surprise, ten or so juvenile Bonaparte's gulls.

I walked down to the lighthouse and was talking to some visitors when someone said, "What is that?!" I turned around and saw something waving in the air above the water. My first thought was that it was a flipper, like that of a sea lion, but as soon as I got my binoculars on it I saw that it had feathers. It was a bird!

It's not unheard of for bald eagles to end up in the water when they go after a fish that's too big for them to carry. Since their talons lock onto the prey, they find themselves having to swim to shore. In some cases they end up drowning. I haven't ever seen this myself, but I assumed that's what we were witnessing. As the bird tried to make its way towards shore these kayakers came by and looked at it. The bird seemed surprisingly calm.

I walked down the shoreline towards where the bird was heading to take a closer look. As it approached shore, I realized it wasn't an eagle at all - it was a turkey vulture! How in the world does a turkey vulture end up in the water? I don't know.

It did some "swimming" with its wings, but also seemed to be paddling with its feet somehow to get closer to the coast. It hopped up on a piece of kelp for a moment, then made it a little further to this rock just offshore.

Needless to say, I was concerned about it. Turkey vultures aren't designed for getting wet, and it didn't seem to be making any attempts at first to dry itself off. I called Wolf Hollow, the local wildlife rehab facility, to see what they thought. They wanted to make sure I wasn't looking at an eagle, but no, it really was a vulture! They decided to come out and take a look at it. Shortly after I got off the phone, the vulture started moving up the rocks a little further. It got off its little rock to the main part of the shoreline.

Then, much to my surprise, it kept hopping its way towards me! By now I could see it was a juvenile vulture, lacking the bright red head of the adults. Most vultures seem to have left the island by now, heading south for the winter. A few birds stay in the area during the winter; usually one or two are reported during the Christmas Bird Count. But I wonder if this bird was migrating, and tried to fly across the strait from Vancouver Island to San Juan Island? Maybe if it didn't quite have the strength it crash-landed into the water? The only other thing I can think of is it was investigating a carcass or something close to the shoreline and got caught by a wave or somehow got too low to the water.

The person from Wolf Hollow arrived, and despite the fact the bird was holding one of its wings a little bit strangely, she thought it was okay - maybe a little sore, but no breaks in the wing from what she could tell. Luckily it seemed to figure out the best way to dry itself off, and turned its back towards the sun and spread its wings. What a sight!

We decided to wait to see if it would try to take flight. It looked like it was thinking about it. Sure enough, about 45 minutes after it had climbed out of the waves onto the rocks, it took flight! My camera was in hand but unfortunately I didn't get a photo - it took off right towards me and wasn't gaining altitude very fast, so I ducked instead! But here's proof it ended up in the trees behind me:

What a strange thing to witness! But I'm sure glad this story had a happy ending - this vulture should be safe from dogs and people up in the trees, where hopefully it can dry off the rest of the way before flying on its way.

Monday, October 3, 2011

October Orcas (and other Autumn Animals)

With the L2s, L5s, and L54s on the westside yesterday, we decided to go to bundle up against the chilly autumn breeze and head to Lime Kiln to hang out for a while to try and see them. Unwilling to admit that summer is over, we settled in on our favorite rocks to read for a couple hours. The whales were several miles to the north and slowly heading our direction, so the prospect of seeing them made it a little easier to wait. In the meantime, just like on my previous trip to the westside, there was lots of other wildlife to look at. Here's a look at a few of the gull species that are common here in the fall:

Heermann's gull
California gull
Mew gull
The gulls were hanging out hoping to take advantage of some food scraps made available by the foraging harbor seals. It was fun to watch the gulls soaring about 15 feet above the water, and based on their actions it was possible to predict where the seals were going to pop up (presumably the gulls could see the seals underwater). The gulls either didn't see or didn't care about this seal pup that popped up inside the kelp beds off the lighthouse, and I almost missed it as well - it was one of those moments where you wonder who is watching whom?

The careful observe could find a few other bird species, too. A rhinoceros auklet dove in the bay to the north of the lighthouse. A loon flew by, and so did these scoters:

A black oystercatcher also made an uncharacteristically quiet appearance, feeding on snails on the rocks just below the lighthouse:

Eventually the very spread out, very slow moving orcas did show up, foraging as they made their way south. The L12s had just made their way in to the San Juans past Victoria, and Js and Ks were heading north out of Admiralty Inlet, so with all three groups of whales on a collision course I was a little surprised that the group of whales we saw wasn't traveling a little faster to go meet up with everyone else. But, they didn't seem to be in any hurry.

The whale that came closest to shore was L78 Gaia, a big male who looked especially big yesterday:

The last group of whales to come by was L54 Ino and her two youngest offspring, L108 Coho and unnamed calf L117. (For those keeping track, Ino's other son L100 Indigo was there, too, just a little ahead of this trio.) The three of them were actively foraging, doing all kinds of circling and lunging at the surface. It looked like they were successful, because the gulls started doing the same thing to the whales that they had been doing to the seals earlier: hovering up above where they were underwater, and swooping down the surface to pick up scraps of fish. It was fun to watch.

Mama L54 Ino on the left, with calf L117 surfacing in the slipstream of older sibling L108 Coho on the right.
It's common for resident whales to prey share, so presumably Ino was catching fish and sharing them with at least Coho. Some of the circling behavior could have been whales converging to tear up the fish. Since there was so much surface activity, I wonder if Coho was playing with a fish that was still alive, or perhaps the little calf was getting an early training session. How cool it would have been to see what was going on underwater to correspond with all the lunges, rolls, and dives we saw at the surface.

Eventually the whales did continue south, and it wasn't until then that I realized just how chilly I was! It was time to go home and crank the heater in the car on the drive back. Later in the evening, I listened to the whales on the hydrophones for about an hour, and it sounded like all three groups did indeed meet up. Based on the vocalizations alone, they were having quite a superpod party!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

West Side Feeding Frenzy

I went out to Land Bank this afternoon for an hour to see what activity was going in Haro Strait. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was all the sport fishing vessels out there, and sure enough, upon closer inspection, I saw there was lots of wildlife taking advantage of what looked like good fishing on this first day of October.

A couple of rhinoceros auklets were diving, and about twenty gulls were taking advantage of the resulting bait ball from the surface. In the mixed species flock were glaucous-winged, Heermann's, mew, and California gulls. Several harbor seals were in the vicinity, and offshore I heard and then saw a Steller sea lion surfacing. Closer to the rocks, a group of four harlequin ducks were diving and feeding, too.

Shortly after that a group of about 10 Dall's porpoise started surfacing. Despite being chilly and a little drizzly, the water was calm and it was quiet enough that I could hear their breathing from a quarter-mile away. One of the porpoise looked a little different from the others, and I think the top of its dorsal fin was missing. I recalled seeing a porpoise like this before, so I came home and looked at my photos. Here's the porpoise I saw in October of 2009, almost in exactly the same spot that I saw the group of porpoise today:

The porpoise is swimming from right to left in the above photo, but since it can still be hard to figure out exactly what you're looking at here unless you've seen lots of Dall's porpoise, here's a comparison shot. This porpoise is in nearly the same surfacing position, but has a complete dorsal fin:

I wonder if it was the exactly same animal with the chopped fin that I saw today? It seems plausible, especially since it's the same time of year and the same place. We're spoiled a little with the orcas that can each individually be identified. Sometimes I wonder more about the individual lives and habits of our regional Dall's and harbor porpoise, that we don't get to observe or study in such detail. Dall's porpoise can live to be 15-20 years old. Locally, they used to be common all summer, until the last couple of years when they seem to leave the area in the summertime until returning in great numbers in September.

Too bad the chopped-fin porpoise today was a little too far away for a photo, but I'll keep an eye out for it over the next few weeks to see if it's hanging around.

By the way, did I mention I saw all the wildlife listed in this blog post in about 10 minutes? It was quite a feeding frenzy out there! The orcas were around, too, but well to the south out of view, where I heard that they were also foraging.