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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Three Meadows Marsh

This afternoon I had the chance to visit Three Meadows Marsh, a private wetland area near where a friend lives. On the way, while running an errand, the birding got off to an excellent start with a western kingbird (168) near the Friday Harbor airport. This is only the second time I've seen one on San Juan Island:

On the walk from her house towards the marsh, the first bird we saw was this very busy hairy woodpecker. He didn't seem to mind us at all, too focused on the insects in this stump. Later on the walk we saw another pair of hairy woodpeckers, as well as heard a pileated woodpecker and a pair of northern flickers.

The woods were full of bird songs, and I heard my first Cassin's vireos (169) and Pacific-slope flycatchers (170) of the season. There were also lots of singing towhees, song sparrows, robins, and wrens.

The marsh itself was much bigger than I expected. Most of the winter ducks are gone, although there were a few bufflehead. There isn't a lot of wetland habitat on San Juan Island, so this marsh is one of the few places were some of the ducks we only see in winter might stay to breed - in particular I saw a few pairs of wigeon and ring-necked ducks, species that I generally don't see here in summer. There were also pairs of pied-billed grebes, Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, and - most excitingly! - a male cinnamon teal. This summer duck is only occasionally seen here. I saw one last year on another small marsh but it didn't stay around for the summer. I wonder if this one had a mate nearby?

There weren't a lot of swallows overhead, but I did see four different kinds: tree, violet-green, barn, and my first cliff swallows (171) of the year. Other birds identified while walking around the marsh included common yellowthroat, marsh wren, sora (another great find on the island), white-crowned sparrows, and golden-crowned sparrows. As we headed back into the woods I also heard a few black-throated gray warblers (172), bringing me up to 5 year birds for the day! In total, we saw 40 species on our two hour walk.

Before a spring rain shower had us heading back inside, my friend showed me her garden, and pointed out these tent caterpillars. Last year there was a big population boom of western tent caterpillars in the region, and it looks like the same will happen again this year, much to the chagrin of those who don't want their trees defoliated! I've seen the "tents" these caterpillars leave behind in trees often, and I've also seen larger caterpillars, but this is the first time I've seen them at such an early stage:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day Whales and Birds

It's a beautiful spring weekend here on San Juan Island. Yesterday we participated in the Great Island Clean-Up, picking up trash off a local beach, and then attended a community fundraiser for new sports fields. This morning the plan was to watch playoff hockey, but an alert from a friend about resident whales on the westside changed things in a hurry.

I just missed the whales at Land Bank, but while scanning for them I saw my first barn swallows (166) of the year. Someone told me the whales were slowly heading north so I went up to the San Juan County Park. Sure enough, just moments after I got there, J and K Pods started slowly passing by in several big resting groups.

They were pretty far offshore, but that was all right. In the flat calm waters it was easy to see them and the sounds of their breathing carried clearly across to where I was sitting on the bank. It's always fun to start seeing the whales again in the spring - I refresh my ID skills, and see how the whales have grown and changed over the winter. I didn't get tons of IDs since they were a ways out, but I did see members from the K12s, K13s, K21 and K40, and from every family group in J-Pod. Here's J28 Polaris and her two-and-a-half year-old calf J46 Star. They were in a little bit closer to shore and foraging while most of the other whales were resting.

I watched the whales lazily swim north for almost an hour and a half, and while sitting there was able to do some bird-watching too, seeing or hearing 19 species in that time. The most surprising was a sora (167), which has an unmistakable call, but I'm not sure where exactly it was hanging out as it was not it's preferred habitat! There were also two fishing bald eagles, some very chatty black oystercathers, and several pelagic cormorants in breeding plumage with the white flank patch:

It was a beautiful way to spend Earth Day morning!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

San Juan Channel: Bird Survey and Branded Sea Lion

Yesterday afternoon we participated in a marine bird survey transect down San Juan Channel. In the fall, a class at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs has been conducting surveys down this transect for birds and marine mammals over the last several years, and my friend Phil is interested in establishing a year-round data set following the same transect. Seven volunteers gathered to do the first one yesterday on a drizzly but calm afternoon.

While on the water I saw 13 bird species, the vast majority of them rhinoceros auklets. We did one survey going north to south, and one going south to north, and both times the other side of the boat saw WAY more birds than my side in terms of numbers. Still, we counted several hundred rhino auklets in each direction. Some other highlights included almost a hundred common murres, about 20 red-breasted mergansers, and a single long-tailed duck, the latest in the season I've seen one.

In terms of marine mammals, we had only one harbor porpoise and one harbor seal within our survey zone, but there were other marine mammals out there. Lots of Steller sea lions were hauled out on Whale Rocks, and this California sea lion was hauled out on the Reid Rock buoy just outside of Friday Harbor:

You can't tell in the above photo, but this sea lion is branded with the number 670, and this is the fourth spring in a row he's been hauling out on this same buoy! He was branded in Puget Sound in 2000 as a two or three year old, weighing 235 pounds. He has been seen multiple times on San Miguel Island, California (where he was a territorial male in 2008), as well as at Cascade Head, Oregon, and in the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia. That's a known range of over 1200 miles! Pretty amazing. As a 15 year old (or so) now, he probably weighs 800+ pounds. According to Wikipedia, the average lifespan is about 17 years in the wild. It will be interesting to see how many more years he keeps returning!

Monday, April 16, 2012

April San Juan Sightings

It's been a busy month at work, but on weekends and on nice springtime afternoons I've still made sure to get out and enjoy spring here on San Juan Island. Here are a few photos and sightings from the last two weeks.....

Last spring my friend Katie and I found a barred owl roosting in a tree near her house. We thought it might be a nesting site and checked it out earlier in the year this year. No luck, but by early April an owl was again spending its days in the same tree hole. Like last year, only part of its face was visible, but it was still cool to see:

Spring migrants have seemingly been slower to arrive here in the rest of the state, but one afternoon out turned up both my first savannah sparrow (161) of the year, and my first sighting of western bluebirds (162). The western bluebird reintroduction project has completed its five years of relocations, but they are still monitoring the local bluebird population. When I saw this male and female, 8 pairs had been known to have returned to the island.

There have been some clear nights with impressive stars this month, and one evening I got home just in time to see this impressive moonrise across the bay.

The local farmer's market has started up for the summer again, and on the first Saturday it was open I came home with a fresh baked chocolate croissant which I enjoyed while sitting on the front porch in the sun. While I was eating it, I heard a noise nearby, and saw I wasn't the only one eating a late morning snack. This mink was busily foraging, and came up with an eel-like fish. It dropped it, and was here scoping me out before going to retrieve it:

Sevearl birding excursions around the island have turned up first-of-the-year sightings for me in San Juan County, though they're birds I added to the year list early with the trip to California. Orange-crowned warblers, osprey, turkey vultures, wood ducks, and common yellowthroat are some of the species that have arrived. As a result, my county year list has surpassed 100 species this month.

With my parents up visiting this weekend, I did lots of birding with my dad, and added a few outright year birds as well. The brown-headed cowbirds (163) have arrived, which is not an exciting sighting since they negatively impact so many other bird species. While doing a COASST survey at Fourth of July Beach, I saw my first three northern rough-winged swallows (164) of the season. Then, while stopping to see the alpacas at the alpaca farm, I was surprised to see a chipping sparrow (165) sitting on a fence wire.

Also at Fourth of July Beach there was a small flock of shorebirds made up of about 10 black-bellied plovers and 20 dunlin, both of which are always a pleasure to see. Both of them are also starting the transition to summer breeding plumage, and probably won't be around much longer. Here's part of the flock:

Across the way looking over the Strait of Juan de Fuca were some impressive clouds, which as I know from my black and white landscape photography week (see last post) can make for some impressive shots. Here's one:

Finally, a hike at British Camp turned up lots of singing orange-crowned warblers, a few remaining surf scoters, and this very wet dark-eyed junco that had seemingly just taken a bath:

Next up, hopefully some more time outside, and some more regular blog posts again!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

San Juan Island In Black and White

My dad and I have been continuing our respective 365 Projects for the year, where we're taking a picture every day. Some weeks we come up with themes, which are great not only to come up with subject matter but are proving to be an inspiration to approach photography in whole new ways. Some of our themes, like "leading lines" and "forgotten" have kept me finding new photographic opportunities long after the week has passed. This week, the theme is "black and white landscapes". I've never really done much black and white photography before, but I've enjoyed trying something new. It's amazing how different a scene has to be to look good in black and white, compared to what looks good for a color landscape. Here are my results of this week thus far (one more day still to go!):