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Saturday, June 30, 2012

June 26th Orcas - Part of Ls, Part of Js

K-Pod has still been scarce this summer, but J-Pod and various parts of L-Pod have been around a lot. I spent a nice afternoon with members of both pods last Tuesday, June 26th, but it took a while to figure out just who I was seeing! By comparing notes with a few friends who were both on shore and on the water at various times of day, I've pieced together the specifics of what happened:

In the morning, all of J-Pod and all of the L-Pod whales that were in (L12s, L55s [aka L4s], L72s, L47s) were up north. In the morning, half of J-Pod (J11s, J17s, J22s) came south in Haro Strait. Later, the rest of the Js and the Ls were at Turn Point, and the other half of J-Pod (J2s, J14s, J16s) split off and went back north up Swanson Channel. When I got to Land Bank's Westside Preserve at 12:45 PM, I saw just the L-Pod whales heading south.

I was about to leave, but when driving past Hannah Heights I saw the whales had turned around and grouped up closer to shore. No going home now! I went back to Land Bank and saw the L-Pod whales again, now with the J11s, J17s, and J22s, go north, and then south again until about 3 PM.

Follow all that? It seems that in my early days of watching whales here in the early 2000s that the pods didn't split up as much. I think this is partially true, but I also wasn't able to ID the whales as well so probably missed some of the nuances of different whale associations. It's an interesting glimpse into killer whale society to see all the changing associations; for instance, when the rest of L-Pod left on June 27th, four whales (L53 and the three L72s) stayed with J-Pod. I don't think we saw very much of that type of thing ten years ago.

Okay, I just had to write that all out to get straight in my head what happened! Now, for some photos.

The first group of whales that came back north were traveling at high speed. Several whales were sharking, or swimming at high speed with just part of their dorsal fins above the water, creating a splash at the surface and also allowing you to track just how fast they're swimming underwater. The above photo shows the top of an adult male's dorsal fin in the back as he's "sharking".

Another example of an interesting association: L41 Mega with J27 Blackberry, two adult males from different pods
Some other whales were porpoising, which is where more of their body lunges to the surface when they're swimming at high speed, creating a tremendous splash. It's a difficult behavior to photograph, because it's hard to track where they will surface and it happens so quickly. Often the photos will be like this one, a little blurry and not showing much of the whale at all:

But my timing was just right on this one - my prize shot of the day!

See a larger version of this photo here
After the first group of whales passed, the others were coming much slower, making it easier to get some IDs.

L72 Racer, a 26 year-old female
L95 Nigel, a 16 year-old male and brother of Racer
The whales didn't get far again before turning back south, doing what many people call the "westside shuffle" just going up and down the westside of San Juan Island. A group of three whales was hanging out pretty close to shore before heading south:

I like the angle on this shot, as the three whales turned to head offshore:

Finally, a quick bird note: a recent ferry ride turned up my first Heermann's gull (209) of the season - the first time I think I've seen one up here in the month of June. Also, somehow I hadn't seen marbled murrelets (210) yet until that same ferry ride, putting me within just 5 species of my year list goal of 215 and still half the year to go!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Elwha River and Hurricane Ridge

This last weekend we went over for some camping in Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula. The weather report was a wet one, and indeed in rained for the entirety of the drive and two ferry trips it took to get to the Elwha River valley where we decided to camp. Luckily, once we arrived, the rain ceased giving us a chance to set up camp and take a walk around looking at the flora and fauna before cooking dinner.

Olympic National Park contains three distinct habitat zones: the rocky coastline, the Olympic mountain range, and the lush temperate rainforest. The latter is where we were - and the amount of green everywhere is sure impressive. Trees, ferns, mosses, and lichens abound.

There were lots of snails and banana slugs about:

There was also a pair of deer out browsing, perhaps also enjoying the break in the rain:

We also saw some of the regular avian visitors to the campground: American robins, dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, Vaux's swifts, and, most excitingly, evening grosbeaks and red crossbills.

The drizzle resumed during our post-dinner campfire, and after entering the tent the night-long torrential downpour began. This gave us the opportunity to find all the less-than-waterproof portions of our tent, and the optimistic camper in me insisted it was only appropriate to be experiencing heavy rains while in the rainforest. 

Our camp site was right along the Elwha River, which is making headlines right now for its historic dam removal project aimed at revitalizing the salmon population. There were two dams on the lower Elwha River, and one of them failed to have any fish passages, which was illegal even when the dam was built in the early 20th century. The result was the 70 miles of relatively pristine river habitat protected within the National Park have been cut off to native salmon populations for the better part of 100 years. In 1992, a bill was passed saying the salmon runs had to be recovered, even if it meant taking the dams down. Years of study indicated that dam removal would be the best option for salmon recovery, and in September of 2011 the dam removal began.

This is the largest dam removal project to date in the United States and the second largest restoration effort undertaken by the National Park Service in its history (after the Everglades). It's a monumental event, and one that I hope will start a trend of dam removals in the Pacific Northwest - places like the Lower Snake River and Klamath River are ideal sites to remove dams where salmon runs would also benefit. It was inspiring to visit the Elwha amid all of this going on. One of the park rangers said, "The river is changing every day," and already there are signs that it is only becoming healthier. 

The 108-foot Elwha Dam was fully removed by March, and the lake behind it was fully drained in April. Here's what the whole structure looked like:

And here's what it looked like on Sunday, June 24th, 2012:

 On the surface it looks like a mud pit, but a recent post on the Dam Removal Blog explains how life is already encroaching on the barren sediment that covers the remains of an old forest. Sandpiper and otter tracks crisscross the mud, and seedlings of native trees are taking root on the stumps of 500 year-old cedars that have been buried under the reservoir for the last century. Very cool stuff.

Back to our trip....The weather broke again first thing on Saturday morning, just long enough to cook a delicious breakfast of bacon, eggs, and potatoes. Then, the clouds moved in and the rain continued as we decided to make our way up Hurricane Ridge. At 5200+ feet elevation, it is known for its stunning views of the interior mountains the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Those vistas were not to be enjoyed on this day! Here's what we were supposed to be looking at:

But this is what we saw:

The 17-mile drive up to the ridge was even treacherous, with the fog severely limiting visibility:

But the weather conditions didn't stop us from seeing some really cool wildlife! First stop was to look at this very tiny fawn, which must have just been born as it was still wobbly on its legs:

We also saw a couple of sooty grouse, a species I only heard while in Winthrop the weekend before:

Somehow, the wilderness seemed even larger, looming there in the unknown:

Up at the summit, feet of snow still blocked off many of the trails, and sub-alpine wildflowers were just beginning to bloom where the snow was beginning to fade away during this colder-than-average spring in the Olympics. A horned lark (208) and an American pipit foraged right along the snow line - species that prefer open habitats but which I've never seen at these elevations before.

Drenched by the time we left the summit, we decided we might as well keep exploring and stopped by Madison Falls:

There were lots of maidenhair ferns - my favorite fern species - in this part of the park along the creeks and waterfalls:

We also walked about three-quarters of a mile up the Griff Creek trail, which was narrow and wound its way up through the woods. Here's what part of the trail looked like:

Upon our return to camp, we discovered our tarp had fallen under the weight of all the rainwater, drenching our chairs and firewood. With damp clothes and a damp tent, this was the low point of the trip, but it quickly turned around when 15 minutes later the sun peaked out for the first time, and the rain stayed at bay for the rest of the evening and another enjoyable (if hard to get going) campfire.

Sunday morning it was time to pack up and start heading home, but with the weather clearer it was too tempting not to make another jaunt up Hurricane Ridge to see if we could see the views this time. It was well worth it:

 This time the vistas matched the signs:

We didn't see as many birds this time, perhaps because there were a lot more people around, but we did see this deer and these ravens that nicely posed in front of the mountainscape together:

Back home, it was a challenge to get everything clean and dry, but over a late dinner one more cool weekend wildlife moment awaited. It was almost dark, when I heard and then saw a very distressed violet-green swallow. A pair nests nearby, but they're usually roosting by this time of night, and I went outside to see what it was upset about. It was circling right around the houseboat, so I walked up the dock to see if something was on the roof. I thought it might be a Cooper's hawk, which we've seen around here a few times before, but I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a barred owl perched right on our gutter! Before I could return with my camera to try and get a dim-light photo it had disappeared back into the trees on the bank. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't see it among the narrow strip of woods here between the marina and the road. It got me thinking about how many natural wonders lay hidden within the Olympic National Park forests - 95% of which are designated as wilderness. It didn't matter if I didn't see the mountain lions, black bears, and spotted skunks that make their home in the Elwha River Valley. Just being in the same forest with them was enough.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Winthrop Trip: Part 2

Just as impressive as the birds and scenery in Winthrop last weekend were the wildflowers. Here are a few of the highlights.....

White campion (Silene latifolia)

Small-flowered tiger lily (Lilium columbianum)

Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata)

Rosy pussytoes (Antennaria rosea)

Mountain lady's-slipper (Cypripedium montanum) - a rare orchid

Elegant cat's ear (Calochortus elegans)

Red columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

Larkspur species (Delphinum sp.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Winthrop Trip: Part 1

Last weekend a bunch of co-workers and their families headed over to Winthrop in north-central Washington, and I was excited to go as well and get the chance to explore a new part of the state. It was my first time taking Highway 20 east of I5 and through the North Cascades, and it was well worth it just for the drive alone. The stunning scenery reminded me at times of Alaska, especially at this overlook near Diablo Lake where you're looking down on the water but surrounded by towering mountains.

In a nearby rockslide I also saw several pica, the first time in quite a while I've seen this small mammal.

The next time I had to pull over to take in the landscapes and snap some photos was at Washington Pass, the 5000+ foot high point on this stretch of the highway. I was very impressed while talking to a young French-Canadian biker who had just climbed a 30 kilometer (18 mile) hill to reach the pass and had gone 90 kilometers (nearly 60 miles) on the day. He wanted his picture taken in front of the elevation sign and I was glad to oblige. Here's some of the craggy mountain peaks that were nearby, and though the road was dry there was still a couple feet of snow on the ground:

We camped at Pearrygin Lake State Park just a little bit north of Winthrop. While the campground was a little bigger and busier than I would have liked, the scenery here was absolutely beautiful as well. The lake was surrounded by rolling green hills that had an almost high-desert feel to them, and then the still snow-capped mountain peaks could be seen here and there in the distance.

A group of female mallards and their ducklings occasionally visited us at our campsite, showing little to no fear of all the people around:

 Seeing a spotted sandpiper (198) at Jackson Beach on San Juan Island had me poised to break through 200 bird species on the year list during this trip, and it didn't take long on Saturday to start adding to the list. While walking around the campground in the morning I saw a pair of vesper sparrows (199). Then, while driving with a friend towards a trailhead for a hike, I spotted a pair of mountain bluebirds (200) as well as a couple of western bluebirds. What a nice species to be #200!

Male mountain bluebird
The hike I had scoped up was a bit more remote than I had anticipated, being several miles up bumpy, rocky roads with no signs, but we found it: Pipestone Canyon.

Pipestone Canyon trailhead
All I had time to do was step out of the car before the birding started in earnest. Right away I heard some sooty grouse (201) calling from up in the hills. A moment later, I heard my first canyon wren (202) of the day. Way up in the interesting rock formations above us was a (presumably) nesting colony of white-throated swifts.

A prairie falcon (203) flew by, causing quite a stir among the swifts. Later, at the end of the hike, I spoke to another birder who had located the prairie falcon aerie (nest) high up in the cliffs. I was able to spot it, too, by the white wash on the rocks below the little ledge, and sure enough the falcon was perched there, not far from the swift colony.

The Pipestone Canyon trail gently descended through a wooded forest habitat, where I heard a mountain chickadee (204). Eventually the landscape opened up into a meadow valley between the canyon walls.

Here, the calls of western meadowlarks echoed across the open space at amazing volumes. Black-billed magpies also chattered away in the trees at the edge of the meadow. Lazuli buntings could be heard here and there, too. Another highlight was seeing three golden eagles - two adults in one spot and an immature further down the canyon.

Lazuli bunting
Slowly, the day started heating up, and the bird life quieted down. After having a snack we turned around and started heading back, and this part of the hike was dominated instead by butterfly sightings - we saw at least six different species. They seemed particularly interested in the dried horse droppings.

Dotted blue (Euphilote enoptes)
Northern checkerspot (Chlosyne palla)
Lorquin's admiral (Limenitis lorquini)
Once back in the woods, there was one more notable bird sighting: a red-naped sapsucker (year bird 205, NA life bird 348). I was pretty sure I had a glimpse of one on the drive in, but this time I got a good enough view to be sure. It's a very pretty bird, with especially striking facial markings.

The birding continued to be good on the drive back to the campground, including a western tanager and a western kingbird. The whole drive was just beautiful, too.

Saturday evening, while at the company picnic, a couple of common nighthawks (206) flew way overhead. With all my talk about birds, several people wanted to go on another bird walk the next morning, and it didn't take much convincing on my part! We went to the Beaver Pond trails near Sun Mountain, a place some birders I had talked to at Pipestone Canyon had recommended.

One of the first things I saw at Beaver Pond was an osprey nest:

We saw and heard lots of cool birds, including western wood-pewees, yellow warblers, house wrens, and a Bullock's oriole. I saw several more red-naped sapsuckers, and was especially thrilled to find one Williamson's sapsucker (207), another life bird (NA #349).

It was a bit of whirlwind weekend trip, and after this hike it was time to start heading back west to catch the ferry from Anacortes home. This post covered all the bird sightings, but there were also lots of amazing wildflowers to be seen...stay tuned for the next post!