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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Early Spring Birding

It's strange weather in US this spring: the eastern two-thirds of the country are experiencing unseasonably warm temperatures and, as a result, very early spring migrations. Not so here on the west coast, where winter is hanging on with lots of wind, rain, and even a few sea level snow flurries. The weather over the last few weeks hasn't been too great for getting out a lot.

Last weekend I did go out for a walk at the Lime Kiln quarry, where the highlight was seeing my first Hutton's vireo (158) of the year. It was in with a very winter-like mixed flock of chestnut-backed chikadees, ruby- and golden-crowned kinglets, and dark-eyed juncos.

There were a couple awesome sightings right off our front porch recently, too. We've seen a river otter a couple of times, and one afternoon it was actively fishing between the two docks. While I was watching, it hopped right up on the dock at the base of our stairs to eat a fish, and didn't seem to mind me being there with the camera at all!

The fishing must be good right here, because we've continued to see all three (common, red-breasted, and hooded) merganser species too. This female common merganser caught a dock shrimp right off the houseboat on this rainy afternoon. I love how you can see the serrated teeth:

This weekend the weather has finally started to feel spring-like, so I got out for a few hours of birding both days. On Saturday, the highlight was my first San Juan swallows of the year; there were about a dozen tree swallows over Sportsman Lake. I also heard my first county marsh wren of the year there, but I saw both those species in California back in February, so they weren't year birds.

While there aren't a lot in the way of spring migrants here just yet, the winter birds are noticeably starting to decline in abundance. The flocks of ducks are much smaller, and I saw only two trumpeter swans yesterday.

Saturday I spent most of the time inland because it was pretty windy out, but with a calmer day today I headed to the south end of the island. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon down at Cattle Point.

For the first 10 minutes or so the only bird species I saw were a couple of glaucous-winged gulls and a flock of house finches, but after a little over an hour there I had upped that total to more than 25 species. There were still a few surf scoters and horned grebes in Cattle Pass, and I was thrilled to also see my first-ever eared grebe in San Juan County. I also saw a small flock of harlequin ducks and 8 black oystercatchers.

An eagle flew over Goose Island, stirring up all the gulls, and then went and perched in this tree. Here it is calling to its mate who was circling high overhead:

Another good find was this mourning dove, an uncommon species on San Juan Island. Usually I just see and hear Eurasian collared-doves at this location.

As I was walking back towards my car, I heard the unmistakable sound of a rufous hummingbird (year bird 159) doing an aerial display. I hung out long enough to watch it do several big parabolic dives. I only saw a male, but presumably there was a female nearby watching too! Then, while I was looking up immature scoter plummages in my field guide while sitting in the car, a single violet-green swallow (160) flew over! Not bad!

I also went for a walk over by South Beach, where it wasn't very birdy, but I did see about five western meadowlarks. It's a weird transitional time right now. There aren't very many birds around numbers-wise, but you can see small numbers of both winter and spring species. Hopefully this nicer weather will continue and some of our other migrants will start showing up soon!

Finally, I had to pull over to photograph this very nice looking red fox, still sporting his/her plush winter coat:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Plot Thickens Surrounding the Death of L112

Christopher Dunagan of the Kitsap Sun interviewed Ken Balcomb after his comment in the San Juan Journal, "Clearly the animal was blown up," referring to the three-year old member of L-Pod, L112. Ken elaborated on his comments, stating he believes she may have died due to a bomb dropped from an aircraft. This is starting to look like a more likely theory than after effects of the sonar exercises, in part because Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society, who conducted the cranial necropsy, said L112 did not swim far after receiving blunt force trauma to the head before she died.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Sonar Issue Intensifies

Last month I posted a blog about L112 Sooke, a young Southern Resident killer whale that washed up on a beach on the Washington coast. Initial findings led many to wonder if maybe she was killed by Navy sonar activity in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Since, then the Navy sonar issue has intensified and is getting more and more media attention.

An MRI was done on the head of L112, and while results from that test have not been revealed, a cranial necropsy was also conducted at the Friday Harbor Labs. (If you are interested in that kind of thing - it's not for the squeamish - video clips from the cranial necropsy can be seen here.) The scientists involved in the necropsy found trauma in the tissues of the head and evidence of hemorrhaging, though no official cause of death will be released until all tests are completed. Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, had some strong words about the issue in this San Juan Journal article. "It didn't die of disease or starvation. Clearly the the animal was blown up," said Balcomb, who was present for a beaked whale stranding that was also related to military activities.

As it is sounding more and more likely Sooke died of trauma related to sonar use, the question is looming: how many of her other family members have met similar fates? While it is not uncommon for members of K and L Pods, who were in the area during the sonar incident, to spend long lengths of time out of the Salish Sea this time of year, none of them have been seen again since Sooke was found. Until they are seen again, we won't know if Sooke was the only casualty. Candace Whiting ponders the same question in this Seattle PI blog.

Meanwhile, the Everett Naval Station has been conducting sonar exercises from their dock in Puget Sound, which has also been creating a stir. On multiple occasions the sound has been heard in the air or reverberating through the hulls of ships. While the Navy claims this is a standard procedure, it is being heavily criticized for coinciding with the arrival of the gray whales and occurring right in some of their prime feeding grounds in Puget Sound.

With all of these issues in the news, it's somewhat appropriate that there also happens to be a public comment period as the Navy seeks to reauthorize their training ranges in Oregon, Washington, and California. The draft Northwest Training and Testing Environmental Impact Statement can be read here. The proposed actions they hope to undertake are summarized here.

For some additional information on how sonar kills whales, as well as some suggested comments, check out the succinct summary posted by Candace Whiting on her blog.

I really hope many of you will take some time to learn a little more about this issue and submit your comments before the April 27th deadline. You can submit your comments online here. As is beginning to come to light with Sooke, this is a very real issue that could have some very serious impacts on our local marine mammals, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Military exercises are a necessary event, but they can be done in areas and at time where their impact on cetaceans is limited. They don't need to happen in the Salish Sea, a habitat for so many marine mammal species. Please take a moment to make your voice heard!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Coast Starlight: Northbound

Time always flies when you're having fun, and our California trip was no exception. On the morning of Friday, February 24th it was already time to check out of our hotel, but before we left we took another walk along the bluffs and the beach. There were lots of surfers out, and lots of birds too! I saw a northern mockingbird (151), which I thought might be a "big miss" on the trip. On the rocky part of the beach was a single northern tattler (152), and perched on a wire near a residential neighborhood was a Say's phoebe (153).

Right after our walk, the fog moved in really quickly, and the temperature dropped accordingly. Goodbye, warm California weather! It felt like it was happening to make it easier to leave. Because of the chill, we decided not to walk on the beach near the butterfly grove again, instead exploring part of the town of Pismo Beach which we hadn't done yet. The highlight was walking out the Pismo Beach Pier. In addition to getting a different perspective by looking almost straight down on the surfers, there was a lot of wildlife activity just beyond them. Bird-wise, there were brown pelicans, common murres, lots of gulls, and a couple of loons - one of which was close enough to differentiate as a red-throated loon (154). There were also some great mammals to be seen - sea otters, a pair of sea lions, and best of all - a small pod of dolphins!! I first spotted their dorsal fins just beyond the surfers, and they seemed to be surfing themselves. Then two of them jumped in synchrony, completely clearing the water! It was awesome. The volunteer in the information booth on the pier said he'd seen gray whales and porpoises from the pier before but not dolphins. I'm guessing they were probably bottlenose dolphins, but it was hard to tell through the fog.

After lunch, we headed inland to drop off the rental car and wait at the train station for our ride back north. Away from the coast, the sun was still shining, and it was warm enough to sit outside on a bench in a T-shirt and read for an hour before the train came. You can be sure I soaked up every ounce of California sunshine I could! Here was the view from my bench:

In that hour I also saw/heard an impressive 15 species of birds. Most entertaining were the three kestrels - one female and two males seemingly competing for her. One of them definitely had the upper hand - I actually saw him mating with her twice, but the other male was making quite a racket trying to get in there, too. There was also a very vocal pair of red-shouldered hawks that flew by twice. Spring was most definitely in the air!

Our train came, and I enjoyed the last couple of hours of daylight as we started our trek north. As the sun was setting over the hills to our west, this was the scene from the train just before it got dark:

That was the last we'd see of the warmth on our trip! When we awoke, it was near Klamath Falls, Oregon, where the temperatures were below freezing, the breeze was blowing, and we saw occasional snow showers. It was still pretty, though.

After pulling out of the Klamath Falls train station we passed right along Upper Klamath Lake, where there were eagles, ravens, and lots of scaup, bufflehead, and common mergansers.

I also saw a couple of black-billed magpies (155), which I figured would be my last species for the trip. We then headed up into the Siskiyou Mountains where more snowy scenes awaited us.

We descended back into the Willamette Valley and just before pulling into Portland, I added one more year bird - a wood duck (156) near Gladstone! We spent the night at my parents' house, and before heading back north to Washington the next day, I also got to see the evening grosbeaks (157) that had returned to their feeders while we were on the trip. Amazingly, from when we left Friday Harbor until we returned, I added an impressive 49 year birds to my total for 2012, including 3 life birds. That was way beyond my expectations!

While driving north through Washington we experienced every type of weather - sun, rain, snow, hail, and back again - and when we got on the ferry the sun came out again to welcome us home, even though the temperature was now about 45 degrees colder than in California!