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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Migrating Shorebirds and Baby Foxes

While the last few days of chilly rain felt more like fall or winter, today's wildlife sightings confirmed that we are indeed in the middle of spring. I heard there have been some good shorebird sightings at False Bay over the last couple of days so I went to check it out. The first ones I found were a flock of about 100 dunlin amid the glaucous-winged and mew gulls. A bald eagle flew over and when they flushed I realized there were even more dunlin than I thought - about 100 or so:


In with the roughly 40 green-winged teal were four short-billed dowitchers (154), a nice find. There were also about a half dozen greater yellowlegs:


The greatest find was a single marbled godwit (155), a rare species for San Juan County. Unfortunately it was too far away for photos and flew even further away after the eagle came through, but I'm sure glad I found it!

Next up I went to Fourth of July Beach where the most interesting bird was not a sea or shorebird but the oft-overlooked American robin. There were many of them feeding in the grass, and this individual in particularly caught my eye. It would catch a worm, hold it in its beak, move along, set the worm down, catch another worm, then pick up the first worm. Gathering food to take back to a hungry nestling? Here's a photo from when it had three wriggling worms in its beak at once:


Next I stopped at South Beach, where I was distracted from birds altogether by the flowers blooming in the dunes. It looked like the hills were blushing under the force of the pink common storks-bill. The colors were impressive, especially when countered by this black fox:


Then on my way home I was elated to find a real treasure of the spring: a fox den with four playful kits. My all-time most popular blog post that continues to get the most hits is this one, featuring photos of the baby foxes I found in late April 2009. Today they were spending more time underground than in my 2009 encounter, but when they did emerge the light was even nicer than last time since the sun was shining. Here's the most distinct of the four, with an injured left ear:


The two reddish kits mostly just peeked up over a grassy mound at me:


These are my three favorite photos of the day. These little guys are just too darn adorable:
Prints of this photo available here

Prints of this photo available here

Prints of this photo available here

Monday, April 25, 2011

Land Bank Westside Preserve Wildflowers

A friend of mine recently posted some photos of wildflowers in bloom at the Land Bank Westside Preserve, and I was inspired to get out there and take a look. (I also spent a couple hours sitting on the rocks and reading in the warm sunshine for the first time this year! A nice respite before the two solid days of rain we've had since then!) Here are some photo highlights of the flowers I saw....

Field chickweed, Cerastium arvense

Barestem teesdalia, Teesdalia nudicaulis

Common camas, Camassia quamash

Lupine, Lupinus spp.

Strawberry, Fragaria spp., with a pollinator

Big leaf maple, Acer macrophyllum

Here's a couple that I'm not sure about....is this a saxifrage of some sort?


And I have no idea what this tiny plant is. Do you?


While having your nose to the ground looking at plants up close you see more insects, too. Here's one of my favorite macro insect shots from the day:

Seven-spotted ladybug, Coccinella septempuncata

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mt. Young Wildflowers

The other day I was writing when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a bird that looked "different". It turned out to be one of two osprey (150) that were soaring between here and Brown Island. Cool! Since then I stopped by British Camp where, while I didn't see the osprey, I saw that they are indeed working to rebuild their nest that blew down during one of our wind storms last winter.

We've finally had some gorgeous sunny spring weather and I took advantage of it the other afternoon to go up to Mt. Young and look for birds and wildflowers. It was my first outing focusing on taking flower photos with the macro lens I got for my birthday last fall. Most of the flowers are a bit late this year, but a few species are staring to peak, like these shooting stars that were everywhere:

Shooting star, Dodecatheon spp.

Fawn lilies are usually one of our earliest bloomers, but they're just starting to open up over the last week with many still in bud. They are also called Easter lilies, so I guess that's appropriate because we have a relatively late Easter this year, too.

Fawn lily, Erythronium spp.

I also found some of this plant, which confuses me every season. It's not self-heal, but purple dead nettle - a non-native:

Purple dead nettle, Lamium purpureum

On a rocky outcropping near the summit, I found a dense patch of these yellow monkey-flowers:

Monkey-flower, Mimulus spp.

Then, right towards the end of my hike, I found a few Calypso orchids (also known as fairyslippers) in the sunshine:

Calypso orchid, Calypso bulbosa

Even though my eyes were focused on the ground and I was, at times, literally crawling through the grass on my hands and knees, I still kept my ears tuned in for birds. There were lots of singing orange-crowned warblers and purple finches, and a few Townsend's warblers. One bird caught my eye and I was surprised to see it was a hermit thrush (151), a species I thought might have left for the summer already. There was another song I heard repeatedly among the treetops and I had to come home and confirm it, but as I had hoped it was the chorus of the black-throated gray warbler (152).

Next up, more wildflowers - but I'll go ahead and mention that I saw my first pair of brown-headed cowbirds (153) for the season while out looking at flowers. That keeps me dead even with Dave, who got his 153rd year bird on Wednesday. Is anyone else as amazed as we are that after four months of birding on different continents are year lists are keeping pace with each other almost tick for tick?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What's In A Name?

What do the San Juan Islands have in common with Wilkes Land in Antarctica? Other than being surrounded by water, you might think (like I did): not much. Actually, both were explored and charted during the US Exploring Expedition between 1838-1842. This amazing excursion, led by the controversial Charles Wilkes, is largely forgotten in American History in part because of personal and national politics that kept the results from being celebrated by the nation, and in part because the focus of American citizens was turning towards the wild and relatively unknown West rather than maritime exploring expeditions like those of Captain Vancouver and Captain Cook.

I recently read a fascinating account of the "U.S. Ex. Ex.", also known as the Wilkes Expedition.
Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery is written by Nathaniel Philbrick, an American author who has won the National Book Award for his works relating to the sea. It's a history that is full of high-seas adventure and personal drama. The make a couple of treks towards Antarctica and survey many of the islands in the Pacific, but I was especially interested in this tale because towards the end of the expedition they survey the inland waters of Washington as well as the Columbia River delta, both places with which I am familiar.

More than 300 Washington place names were designated by those surveying the region during the Wilkes Expedition, and it was interesting to read the stories behind some of the people for whom local landmarks are named. The San Juan Islands were originally explored by the Spanish, hence we have names like San Juan, Lopez, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. When Wilkes came through, they re-named everything, and modern maps reflect a mix of both the Spanish and American names. 

Here are a few of the local geographical features that were named after members of the Wilke's Expedition:
  • Waldron Island ~ Thomas and Russell Waldron were two brothers on the expedition. One was a purser and the other a captain's clerk. Waldron was known as Isla Lemos by the Spanish and Shi-ish-uvey by the Lummi Indians.
  • Vendovi Island ~ This is an interesting one. Vendovi was a Fijian arrested by the expedition for murdering an American sailor. As the expedition went on, he got more freedom aboard the vessels and became well-liked by the crew. He was known as a colorful character. Vendovi Island was recently purchased by the San Juan Preservation Trust.
  • Stuart Island ~ Frederick Stuart was also a captain's clerk on the expedition. This island was known as Islas Moraleja by the Spanish and Qunnis (whale) by the Lummi.
  • Spieden Island ~ William Spieden was a purser on the expedition. 
  • Sinclair Island ~ George Sinclair was the sailing master aboard one of the expedition's vessels. Sinclair was known as Cottonwood and Urban Island by local pioneers, Isla de Ignacio by the Spanish, and Scut-las by the Lummi.
  • Alden Bank ~ James Alden was a member of the US Ex. Ex. who returned in later years as part of another US Coast Survey and discovered this bank.
Luckily, not all of Wilkes' place names last. He originally named our collection of islands the Navy Archipelago. I, for one, definitely prefer San Juan Islands to that.

In doing a little extra research about these local place names, I came across another great resource. The Washington Place Names Index is a very interesting resource provided by the Tacoma Public Library. You can search for specific geographic names in the state of Wahsington and read the history behind place names.

So, what does all this have to do with Antarctica? During the US Ex. Ex.'s surveys of Antarctica, they discovered and names 1500 miles of shoreline that are now known collectively as Wilkes Land. Names like Spieden and Waldron are well-known by San Juan Islanders, and those that (like me) didn't know about this portion of American history may be surprised to know that along the Antarctic coastline are places like Cape Waldron and Cape Spieden, named after the same people for whom our local landmarks are named.

I generally focus on natural history on my blog, but part of fully understanding a place is learning about the human history, as well. I really enjoyed reading about the Wilkes Expedition, particularly as it related to the San Juan Islands, and feel like it gave me a new appreciation for part of our local history.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mitchell Hill Butterflies

I went up to explore the maze of trails on Mitchell Hill thinking I would be looking for birds, but I got more distracted by the butterflies. There was an abundant small white species flitting all over the place but no amount of effort was going to turn up a decent photo of those as they never seemed to settle down anywhere. I did, however, meet two new (to me) species. This time patience did prevail and I was able to get some photos....photographing butterflies takes a new kind of waiting that is very different from photographing birds!

Mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa
Satyr anglewing, also known as as the satyr comma, Polygonia satyrus
The moon has also been stunning the last couple of nights, and I've been able to watch it rising over Pear Point from our front porch. This is probably the best moon shot I've ever taken:


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Birding on San Juan

On Friday a friend came over to the island and we spent three hours birding around the southern and central portions of San Juan. Our first stop was at Jackson Beach just outside of town, where in addition to the regular species we saw our only pigeon guillemots and belted kingfisher of the day. Then it was on to Fourth of July Beach, where we found one of the bigger flocks of shorebirds I have ever seen there. It was made up of about 20 black-bellied plovers (now in their breeding plumage) and a dozen sanderlings. There were also about 150 bufflehead out in Griffin Bay.

There weren't any more shorebirds at Cattle Point like there were earlier in the week, but the red-breasted mergansers, harlequin ducks, and horned grebes were all there, as were a flock of surf scoters. We heard a Eurasian collared-dove and saw the resident flock of red-winged blackbirds. Apparently about the same time we were there a fishing boat reported about 15 transient killer whales right in Cattle Pass, but we somehow didn't see them while looking at all the birds - too bad!

At South Beach we saw the first of many savannah sparrows for the day and also a northern harrier to join the red-tailed hawk we saw at Cattle Point. Next stop was the American Camp visitor center where we walked around hoping to see some woodland birds. We didn't see much, but we did hear a Bewick's wren, northern flicker, golden-crowned sparrow and California quail.

Panorama Marsh is becoming a new favorite stop for me. It's a wetland on private land and there's no real place to park there, but it's on a quiet road so you can pull over and take a scan. A pair of marsh wrens was the highlight of the wetlands, but the deciduous trees bordering the pond were more active. We saw a male ruby-crowned kinglet displaying for a female, a chestnut-backed chickadee gathering nesting material, and a brown creeper creeping up and down the trees. 

At False Bay the over-wintering flock of mew gulls was still present, as were a small flock of green-winged teal and a half-dozen northern pintail. Two great blue herons were feeding in the mudflats, and two immature bald eagles were scavenging something on the far shore of the bay. 

Next we headed further inland, and saw our first turkey vulture for the day. At the pond on Beaverton Valley Road we found that the pair of Eurasian wigeon I found the other day were still present along with about 20 American wigeon. At Egg Lake a few ring-necked ducks joined a single lesser scaup and a pair of bufflehead on the lake, and I heard my first common yellowthroats on San Juan Island this year. Our last stop was at Sportsman's Lake where in addition to some violet-green and tree swallows, the very last species added to the day list was a single northern rough-winged swallow (year bird 148).

We ended the morning with an even 60 species seen by the two of us, though by comparing notes later in the day we collectively closed in on 70. He saw an osprey that afternoon, which is a newly returned species I haven't come across yet!

I did, however, hear and then see my first orange-crowned warblers (149) of the year on Saturday. I know other birders have been detecting this species since the beginning of April, and while it took me a little longer I've now seen them in multiple locations over the weekend!

Next up, as Warren predicted in his comment on my last post....butterflies!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rasar State Park Wildflowers

On our way home from our one night trip to Seattle, we had time to visit the first 10-20 miles of the North Cascades Highway. One day I would love to drive the entire thing, but for Wednesday morning I had to content myself with a drive around some of the side roads and a visit to Rasar State Park just east of Hamilton, Washington in Skagit County. Things were pretty quiet bird-wise, although we did see two eagles incubating eggs on separate nests and a northern shrike. The main highlight turned out to be all the woodland wildflowers blooming at the State Park.

Pacific bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa

Western trillium, Trillium ovatum

Indian plum, Oemieria cerasiformis

Salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis

Streamside violet, Viola glabella

Candyflower, Montia sibirica

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bothell Harris's Sparrow

On our way down to Seattle for a short trip, we had time to make a quick jaunt over to nearby Bothell, Washington to look for a Harris's sparrow that has been reported there. The Harris's sparrow is a species normally confined to the middle part of North America, and only occasionally wandering east or west to either coast. Interestingly, several have been reported in Oregon and Washington this winter. I've seen the species once before, back in 2004 in North Dakota.

The stakeout site was a small wetlands near a school district building right in the middle of an urban area. Upon arriving, we met a fellow birder who has spent a lot of time observing the sparrow. He gave us some tips on where it normally appeared, and we decided to spend some time walking up and down the short dike by the wetlands to see what we could see.

I was amazed by the number of bird species utilizing this little city pond. I immediately saw quite a few sparrow species, including song, white-crowned, and this golden-crowned:


There was also a flock of house sparrows, and this male was collecting nesting material:


The bushes were full of activity, owing in part to the presence of a couple of feeders along the dike. Red-winged blackbirds spotted towhees, bushtits, and black-capped chickadees all were making use of the feeders. Here's one of the chickadees:


The wetlands were comparatively quiet, although one double-crested cormorant, a pair of bufflehead, and a pair of gadwall were hanging out there. A Canada goose snoozed in the nearby reeds, and a small flock of mallards flew overhead. A kingfisher chattered here and there, and a handful of violet-green swallows swooped about. I was excited to find my first barn swallow (145) among them. I was listening to a marsh wren singing out of sight when another small bird caught my attention. It turned out to be a male common yellowthroat (146)! Usually this species attracts attention with its witchity-witchity-witch song, and I was surprised to find my first one of the year by sight and not by call. It was too quick for a photo, but one of the two myrtle warblers I saw was a little more cooperative:


At this point a little over half an hour had passed, and while I had found 20 species at this little marsh site, I hadn't spotted the Harris's sparrow. That's when I noticed the local birder motioning to me from the other end of the dike. I hurried down there and sure enough, saw the Harris's sparrow (147) for about 30 seconds before it disappeared into the brush again:


It may seem odd to go out of my way and spend all that time just to get a glimpse of a sparrow. I was excited to see this species that is rare to me and rare to the area, but as is often the case the unusual bird wasn't the only highlight of my trip to twitch this bird. A lot of people don't fully understand bird listers like myself, who try to see as many species as we can in a day, a year, or a lifetime. This day, however was a perfect example of why I list. The incentive of seeing a new species brought me to a neat little habitat I never would have visited otherwise, and I spent 45 minutes in the sunshine enjoying a mixture of common and newly returned spring species. The sentiment behind my enjoyment of bird listing was summarized perfectly by renowned birder Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway, his account of going for a year list record while hitch-hiking across the United States as a 19 year-old in 1973:

The list total isn't important, but the birds themselves are important. Every bird you see. So the list is just a frivolous incentive for birding, but the birding itself is worthwhile. It's like a trip where the destination doesn't have any significance except for the fact that it makes you travel. The journey is what counts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Birding for Dad's Birthday

Monday was my dad’s birthday, and we got to spend part of the afternoon birding around San Juan Island. It was sunny out, but windy, which left a chill in the air.

The first highlight of the day turned out not to be avian, but mammalian. On the trail towards Third Lagoon at the south end of the island, we spotted a mouse. Much to our surprise, it didn’t seem skittish at all. It soon became apparent that there must be something wrong with it – it seemed like it was blind, and possibly deaf as well. It was moving around all right and feeding, but surely its days (hours?) were numbered. It did provide a unique opportunity to observe one of the island’s small mammals up close, however, and after getting home I was able to identify it as a white-footed mouse. Here’s a photo of it, clearly unafraid with the feet of other human observers in the background:


Next stop was Cattle Point, where I was delighted to find a mixed flock of shorebirds. It was mostly black turnstones, but mixed in were a few surfbirds (year bird 144) and dunlin. Nearby was a pair of black oystercatchers, and out in Cattle Pass were the expected horned grebes, red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead, harlequin ducks, and surf scoters.

On the road back towards town we were delayed by an adult and immature bald eagle that were scouting out some road kill at the side of the road. The immature, as some young bald eagles do, had an amazing amount of white on it:

After a stop for something warm to drink, we went to Jackson Beach where we succeeded in finding what my dad considered a birthday present: a greater yellowlegs to add to his year list, which now stands at 137. We made one more stop at Turn Point County Day Park on Pear Point, hoping to find some interesting seabirds, but the highlight was a displaying male rufous hummingbird. These guys get very territorial, and indeed it buzzed us, our car, and another hummingbird while we were there. He also perched atop a tree long enough for me to get some photos. I was happy for the opportunity, because while the hummingbirds have rediscovered my feeder a couple of days ago, they are always backlit. It was nice to photograph this one in a better light:


Next up, a short trip to Seattle includes a side trip to twitch a rare bird for the area. Find out what I went looking for and whether or not I was successful in the next post!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Bald Eagle Sunset

Yesterday afternoon on a walk I finally confirmed a sighting of a rufous hummingbird (142). This guy was unmistakable - a male displaying by diving into huge U-shaped arcs from about 50 feet in the air. 

My parents arrived for a visit in the late afternoon, and I went with them out to Mar Vista, the amazing place on the west side of the island where they are renting a cabin for a few nights. It's one of the first places I stayed when visiting San Juan Island during the early years of my time here, and I still count it one of the most beautiful spots on the island and a site I love to visit. Shortly after getting out there, I heard my first savannah sparrows (143) of the season, singing their buzzy song among the tall prairie grass.

The visit with my parents was interrupted several times by bald eagles. At one point there were six to eight of them soaring over the water. They kept going down as if to catch something, but were never successful as far as I could tell. Several of them came to shore and would periodically perch in a big snag just outside the cabin window. As the sun began to set, the photographic opportunity was amazing. Here are a few of my favorite shots, showing two and then three bald eagles silhouetted by the April sunset:




Thursday, April 7, 2011

Celebrating the Small at British Camp

Yesterday I took advantage of a break in the rain showers to take a hike at British Camp. It turned out that everything that caught my eye was little:

Snail shell

First Calypso orchid of the season

Mushroom catching a ray of sunlight alongside the path

Blooming red flowering currant, which I'm sure is attracting lots of the rufous hummingbirds that are still eluding me

Then at the end of the day, I had a great visit with composer and fellow blogger Alex Shapiro, who has a studio on an amazing property at the north end of the island. Just as I was getting ready to leave, the sun came out from behind the clouds once more in this stunning prelude to the sunset:


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Building a Bluebird Aviary

This morning I volunteered with the San Juan Preservation Trust's Bluebird Reintroduction Project to help build an aviary on Cady Mountain. Western bluebirds are native to the San Juan Islands but were extirpated in the 1960s due to loss of the Garry oak habitat they prefer as well as from increased competition of the newly arrived European starling, also a cavity nesting species. In 2006, seven organizations combined to launch this reintroduction program, which is in its fifth and final year.

Birds are translocated to the island from a successful population at Fort Lewis near Olympia, Washington. Since the first year of the program, 38 pairs have been brought to the island. Nesting successfully occurred on the island in the first year of the project, though some birds leave and head right back to Fort Lewis! Last year, there were twelve breeding territories on the island that yielded a 84 young - nearly twice the number as in 2009. Some breeding pairs raised multiple broods. So far in 2011, ten breeding pairs have returned and established territories.

This morning the rain was coming down, but that didn't stop eight of us from coming out to a beautiful private property on Cady Mountain where landowners with relatively undistrubed Garry oak habitat are hosting an aviary. One of the owners had put this colorful phrase on a magnet board in front of her house - a very appropriate motto for us today!


 The aviaries, like the one I helped build this morning, are essentially acclimation chambers for birds brought in from off-island. They remain in the aviaries for 1-3 weeks before being released. The pieces of the aviary were already built and had been used in previous years - we just had to reassemble the whole thing and set up the inside habitat to be bluebird-friendly. Here are some of the other volunteers putting on the finishing touches:


The bluebirds will be delivered to this new home later this week. 

I don't yet have western bluebirds on my year list; I'm going to have to remedy that soon! I hope to see some flying around San Juan Valley before too long, but if I don't, the field technician invited me out to accompany her in the field one day which would be fun to do. Hopefully I'll be able to do that sometime this summer and report back on how this season's bluebird population is doing on the island.

On the way home from Cady Mountain I pulled over to look at a lone trumpeter swan that was still swimming around a roadside pond. A flock of about 20 wigeon were in the same pond, including a pair of Eurasian wigeon. That's a nice find! As I pulled away a turkey vulture flew overhead, too. I'm sure I'll be seeing more and more of those guys in the coming weeks.