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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cloud Collecting

but to add color to my sunset sky. 
- Rabindranath Tagore

A friend recently showed me a new book she got called The Cloud Collector's Handbook, and that was all it took to get me off and running looking at a whole new part of nature I've never paid too much attention to before! I ordered my own copy of the book (it's a good one!) and have spent some time every day over the last week carefully looking at the sky, learning about the varieties of clouds, how they form, and what they mean in terms of forecasting the weather.

The book starts by introducing the ten main cloud types. When I mention clouds it seems most everyone is compelled to start naming as many kinds as they remember from their early science classes. Here are a few of them that I've seen over the last few days:

Stratocumulus - one of the most common, most varied cloud types
Cumulus - the "fair-weather" cloud; forms on thermals during sunny days
Cirrus - a high cloud type formed of ice crystals, shown here in its "uncinus" form where the falling ice crystals give a comma-like appearance to the clouds
Altocumulus - mid-level patches of clouds that look like cotton balls or, in my mind, a flock of sheep
The book then goes into all the varieties or "species" of the main cloud types, including accessory clouds and other special cloud features. Here's one I'm seeing everywhere now that I know to look for it:

Undulatus - a wave-like appearance in the clouds, created by undulating (air) currents much like waves in water
I have yet to add any cloud optical effects to my "collection" since getting the book, but you can bet some photos of such things will appear on my blog in the near future now that I have a keener eye for them. The possible sights go far beyond the colorful rainbow to include features like sundogs, crepuscular rays, iridescence, and circumzenithal arcs. I can't wait!

Each moment of the year has its own beauty, 
a picture which was never before and shall never be seen again.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Wet and Wild Whale Watch

The weather forecast Sunday evening wasn't exactly ideal for a whale watch: 25 knot winds, rain showers, and a chance of lightning isn't what you expect when you book a sunset whale watch trip in July. It's always luck of the draw when it comes to going out on a wildlife tour, but the friends and family I had in town were all game to take our chances and see what we could see. It turned out to be a pretty epic trip aboard the Natsilane with San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours.

J-Pod, K-Pod, and their few L-Pod friends had been doing the "westside shuffle" all day, going from False Bay to Salmon Bank and back again. As we headed south down San Juan Channel, the waters were calm, but I knew all that could change after we pulled through Cattle Pass. Indeed, in addition to the rain starting to come down harder, we started taking on a lot of spray as we made our way around the south end of San Juan Island in steady three-foot chop.

When we first got on scene with the whales a little ways off False Bay, it was hard spotting. The whales appeared to be spread out and foraging, so we would just see one whale here, one there, and they would only surface once before diving again. Soon, however, we found a little group of whales that was spending a little more time at the surface. Within the group was K26 Lobo, and even though it wasn't quite the golden evening lighting I had imagined it might be, it was still neat to see the sun breaking through the clouds and reflecting off his tall dorsal fin:


The waves didn't seem to be affecting the whales at all - of course they often deal with much more adverse sea conditions in the winter on the outer coast - but as we bobbed in the waves, it was still apparent just how built for the sea they are.


The second group of whales we got a good look at closer to shore included mom J22 Oreo and her son J34 Doublestuf. I love this picture because it shows a key ID feature on each whale: Oreo's black beauty spots on her left eyepatch and Doublestuf's notch on his rapidly growing dorsal fin. (Click to see a larger view.)


It was amazing we got to see the whales as well as we did in those sea conditions, but as we started to head back to the harbor, our amazing sightings weren't done. The cloud formations were among the most amazing I've ever seen.



The sun fully broke through the clouds just before we got back to Friday Harbor, and with the light drizzle it created rainbows everywhere. I don't think I've ever seen so many in such a short time span before! We saw a double rainbow, which is caused by a double reflection inside the rain drops, and we also saw two overlapping rainbows going off at arcs at different angles. Apparently this might have something to do with the light bouncing off the ocean before reflecting through the raindrops. Unfortunately both the secondary rainbows were too faint to show up in my pictures.



Photographers often have goals of certain shots they want to get one day, some challenge based on lighting or a certain combination of elements to help keep photographing the same subject interesting over the years. One I've always wanted to get is a rhinoceros auklet with its beak full of fish. I've gotten distant silhouetted shots of this before, but this was the type of shot I was really after. I never would have guessed it would come while at speed on a boat in choppy water, but there ya go!


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Waldron Island: A Different Kind of Life

There are over 100 islands in the San Juans, and though only four are accessible by the Washington State Ferry, many others are inhabited. It's amazing how rarely I get off San Juan Island itself, but I always relish the chance to visit one of the other islands and explore another piece of the archipelago. Last weekend I was thrilled to have the chance to visit Waldron, the 4.6 square mile island that is just a little bit different from every other place in the San Juans.

We hopped on the ferry Saturday morning to head over to Orcas, where one of our hosts, Bob, met us in his boat to take us the rest of the way to Waldron. It didn't take long to start leaving the bustling tourist scene behind. As we walked down to the docks, our captain stopped to say hello to a family cleaning up an old boat. "He's the son of the first man I met when I came to Orcas," he explained. That small town community feeling is part of living in the San Juan Islands. I always say there's only one degree of separation here: you don't know everyone, but you know someone who does.

As we pulled out of the marina, a family of four kingfishers patrolled the shoreline, chattering away. We passed an old boat - one that has apparently sunk "two or three times" - with a gull nesting on it. Then it was out into the more open waters to make our way the ten miles from the Orcas ferry landing to Waldron.

We were staying near the north shore of Waldron, and hopped onto the gravel beach near Boundary Pass, with views of Saturna Island and the other Canadian Gulf Islands to the north. We were also welcomed by Bob's wife Winnie and another Waldron neighbor, who helped us get our gear to shore.


The roads on Waldron are county roads, but none of them are paved. They're also narrow and for the most part completely concealed within a tunnel of trees. While there are cars here, most people get around either by bike, ATV, or one of the seven small golf-cart sized pick-up that several families ordered together. The one car we passed on our one-mile walk to the house where we were staying ran on biofuel.


Many of the cars on the island look like this:

 
 We were lent a couple of bikes and given the "keys to Waldron", a map with some of the points of interest hand-drawn in, including the location of all the bald eagle nests and the lands that are protected as a natural reserve. There are about 80 year-round residents on Waldron, with two or three times that many in the summer, but with no commercial tourism, neighborliness prevails. If you're on the island, you must be a friend or relative of someone who lives there, and since everyone knows each other, there's a distinct lack of "no trespassing" signs, fences, and other borders that serve to keep us apart rather than bring us together.

While there is a county dock at one end of the island in Cowlitz Bay, the only real public building is the local post office. There's no retail, as the last store on the island closed in 1942, though there are a few farm stands selling eggs and local produce. There are three commercial farms on the island, and some of their produce makes it to the stores, farmer's market, and restaurants on San Juan Island. A couple miles into our bike ride, we took in a few of the main points of interest when it comes to human constructions on Waldron, like the airport:


It even has an international gate, though we weren't able to find the first two:


One of the main community centers of activity on Waldron is the school, which serves grades K through 8 and has had as many as 29 students in a year.


Children growing up on Waldron experience a sense of safety that is rare in today's world. They are free to romp around in the woods, climb trees, explore the beach, and bike from house to house without the parents having the worries they do elsewhere. Their kids know everyone, too, and are able to stop it at any residence if they need a drink of water or some air pumped into their bike tires. It must be quite the way to be raised, though some residents encourage the kids to go off-island for high school, perhaps to learn some "street smarts".

The school itself is a beautiful building, complete with library, playground, soccer field, and even a basketball court. Like many structures on Waldron, including many of the homes and lots of the furniture, the basketball hoops are built out of salvaged wood. It looks like the court needs a little bit of work, though:


We didn't get too much further before one of our bikes got a flat tire - apparently a pretty common occurrence on Waldron, and also a common initiation as one of other people we met on Waldron said the same thing happened to him on his first visit. We stashed the bikes along the side of the road, as there's little worry of anything being stolen (unless, we were told, it's beer you leave lying about) and continued on foot.


Aside from the commercial farms, it can be a struggle to figure out how to make a living on Waldron. Telecommuting has opened up new opportunities for some, though as with all technologies, the addition of the internet to Waldron was carefully considered by the community. The island is off the grid when it comes to electricity, with everything being solar or generator powered, meaning neighbors often compare how many watts this or that is when it comes to their conveniences at home. There's no centralized water supply, either. Nowadays, there is internet and cell phones on the island, but in many ways the residents there went from the 19th to the 21st century, skipping a lot of what was in between like land line telephones. Common concerns are about technology are how they might drive the community apart, but it seems phone and internet have been accepted in moderation quite well. The five-page Waldron phone book doesn't keep neighbors from going and visiting each other, but rather facilities easier social arrangements and helps residents reach each other quicker in times of need. The "internet cafe" set up at the school had the interesting side effect of adults waiting to use the internet playing at recess with the kids at school. Televisions, however, don't seem to be too popular.


We continued on foot up "the mountain", the 600 foot tall hill at Point Disney which is part of a preserve currently owned by the San Juan Preservation Trust. It actually turned out to be quite a hike, and while the road map was simple, there were a lot of forks in the road that I'm sure are easy to navigate if you know where everyone on the island but lives but proved a bit difficult to navigate to these newbies. We ended up not even making it to the best view point on top of the sandstone cliffs at Point Disney, but we found a pretty nice spot to stop and eat lunch anyway:


Despite some pretty incredible (for this area) thunderstorms the night before, it was a warm day on Waldron Saturday that ended with a beautiful sunset as seen here from North Beach:


While we had access to a studio cabin, the weather was so nice that we took our hosts up on the offer of pitching a tent by the pond on their property. It turned out to be a great place to sleep. Not only did we not need sleeping pads because of the comfort of sleeping on recently mowed grass, but I was able to identify about 10 different bird species by call before getting up and we also were greeted in the morning by a pair of river otters:


The geology of Waldron is as different from the rest of the San Juans as the culture. It seems to be mostly made up of sandstone, and as a result the beaches are a bit more accessible and less rocky than elsewhere in the San Juans. Sunday morning we went for a long walk on the beach, heading first to Fishery Point.


It was a cooler, cloudier day, but except for a little drizzle the rain stayed mostly away while we explored the beach. In addition to harbor seals in the bay, we saw more river otters everywhere, including all these tracks on the beach:


We turned around and headed the other way towards Sandy Point, passing some shorebirds along the way, including several pairs of killdeer and three spotted sandpipers, an uncommon species in the San Juans.

Many of the properties on Waldron are still in the hands of the initial homesteading family, or have only changed hands once or twice. We passed a few more of the residences, some of them built practically right on the beach, clearly before there were any rules about such things:


At Sandy Point, I was happy to come across a mixed flock of gulls including California and Heermann's gulls among the expected glaucous-winged. Both species were new to my county year list.


All too soon it was time to start heading towards the county dock to catch our water taxi back to Friday Harbor. Along the way I bought some raspberries at a farm stand to snack on for our walk to the dock. 


As we pulled out of Cowlitz Bay, we got a better view of Point Disney, probably one of the most geologically interesting spots in the San Juan Islands:


I read another blogger say Waldron is to the San Juan Islands like the San Juan Islands are to the mainland: that much more remote and away from it all. I found this to be really true. After just two days away, it was amazing how big and crowded little Friday Harbor felt! There were so many cars! So many people! I was thankful to have had the chance to visit Waldron, where they live a different kind of life. With the exception of a few modern conveniences, it felt almost like stepping back in time: getting a glimpse of what it might have felt like to live in the San Juans decades or even a century ago. 

Thank you, Winnie and Bob, for giving us the chance to come and experience this amazing place!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Photos From the Last Two Weeks

Sunset from the marina

Raccoon foraging at low tide
Raccoon eating a crab
A new visitor to the bird feeders: red crossbill
The underside of an unknown intertidal creature - anyone have any ideas? Dave?
Smoke hanging in the air during Friday Harbor's 4th of July fireworks
Lopez Island fireworks and the (almost) full moon, as seen looking over Pear Point

Turkey vulture at Land Bank

Sailboat in Haro Strait
Mama hairy woodpecker feeding her fledgling chick at the suet feeder on a foggy morning
West side summer sunset from Land Bank

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Two Worlds Apart


When I crest Hannah Heights, I get my first view of the water on the west side of the island, and I instictively look left along the southern part of the shoreline to see if I can spot any whale-watching boats. I see a cluster of boats right off of False Bay, all facing the same direction. That split-second look is enough to tell me that the whales are in a tight group heading north, right towards where I plan to be.
 
I'm the only car in the north pullout at Land Bank's Westside Preserve. I know that will change as soon as the whales come into view, but for now I seem to be the only one anticipating what's to come. I grab my backpack which doubles as a camera bag, my handheld VHF radio, and my hat out of the trunk before walking down the sloping hill with yellowing grass towards one of my favorite perches on the rocks about twenty feet above the water. It's officially a few weeks into summer, but this is one of the first days it's warm enough to be out by the water without a sweatshirt or a jacket. The rest of the country has been experiencing record high temperatures for weeks, but here it's finally reached 70 degrees and to me, it feels plenty warm.

It doesn't take long for the boats to start coming into view as they make their way around the point to the south. I'm a strong believer in eco-tourism and a full supporter of whale-watching, but I must admit that the sight doesn't please me. There are more than twenty commercial whale-watching boats from both the US and Canada clustered around this group of whales, each trying to edge in right to the agreed-upon quarter-mile buffer they give the whales along the shoreline on this part of the island. The fact that so many people want to see whales in the wild is a good thing, especially considering the education that's provided by naturalists on nearly every boat in the fleet, but it looks a lot like celebrities being mobbed by their paparazzi. I see the boats a good fifteen minutes before I see the first sign of any whale.

"The Fleet" rounds the corner

By the time the first whale is approaching my spot on the shoreline, other people have figured out that a whale encounter is imminent. I turn around and am surprised to see that thirty or forty people crowd the shoreline above me.

Shore-based whale watchers

Many are eagerly pointing or taking pictures as the whale passes us by. She surfaces right in front of me about 200 yards offshore, and the half-moon shaped notch in her dorsal fin tells me its J2 Granny, often in the lead when J-Pod travels through Haro Strait.

J2 Granny leads the way

I described the whales as being in a tight group, which in this case meant they were all within about half a mile of each other, though still somewhat spread out. Some animals were further offshore, too far away to ID in the harsh afternoon sunlight, but after Granny another group swims in closer to the kelp. I'm not surprised to see its J8 Spieden, J19 Shachi, and J41 Eclipse, three whales who often travel close together and never roam too far from Granny. Like Granny, the trio is moving north at a good clip, by they have a little bit of a more playful attitude. Shachi tail slaps, and her daughter Eclipse rolls onto her side at the surface, swimming sideways with her pec fin in the air for a moment. 

A pec slap from Eclipse

I'm always overjoyed to get a good look at “my girl” Eclipse, a whale who is special to me since I saw her shortly after she was born in early July 2005. She's just turned seven, and has grown so much that soon it will be more difficult to tell her apart from her mom who she still swims beside. I notice Eclipse's dorsal fin has started to take on the same curve along the top as Shachi's.

J19 Shachi and J41 Eclipse

There are 30 whales present – all 25 members of J-Pod and five L-Pod whales that have taken to traveling with them. This is about a third of the total Southern Resident Community of killer whales, probably the most heavily-watched group of whales in the world. I take a moment to watch and listen to all the people watching the whales.

“Are these orcas?” Somebody above me on the rocks asks.
“Yes, but I didn't think this was the right time of year to see them here.”
“I think they're migrating north right now,” a third person responds.
“I wonder if Ruffles is here?”
“Look, that group of whales is turning around. I bet they're turning around because there are so many boats here.”

The onlookers clearly don't have their facts all straight, but in the moment, that doesn't seem to matter. I look out to the boats to survey the scene on the water. I know from experience it always looks worse from shore than from the water, and that the whales don't obviously change their behavior regardless of how many boats are present, but today it does look bad. I count 37 motorized boats around the whales – more than one boat per whale – and on top of that are more than a dozen kayakers in shore. One group of whales has indeed turned around, and as the whales spread out, the boats do too and the marine radio at my side flickers to life. The jargon of the whale watch captains takes a little bit of deciphering to understand.

“They've stalled out at the Light,” reports one captain, meaning one group of whales near the lighthouse has stopped traveling north.
“I've go the leaders at 14, still northbound,” responds another, using the numeric code the whale watch companies have agreed upon to indicate his location.
“There's a nursery group back here off the point just milling. The big guy offshore is doing some fishing.”
“Good, it's shaping up to be one of those nights. I've got a turn-and-burn at 6 o'clock. How're the seas at the waterfront?”
“Threes, the occasional four, nothing bad. It's flat between here and there.”
“Has anyone seen Blackberry?”
“We've got him up here with Onyx, about 350 off my starboard bow.”

Over the course of the next hour, the whale watch boats peel off one by one and head back to their home ports: Friday Harbor, Orcas Island, Port Townsend, Victoria, Cowichan Bay, Vancouver. The people clustered on the shoreline begin to head back to head back to their cars, too. There are still whales in front of us, but the boats have reached the end of their trip times and the shore-based whale watchers, having seen the whales, are ready to move on. I recall a passage in a children's book I read recently that described a field biologist as someone who spends hours of their days and years of their lives watching animals. I realize by definition I fall into that category. Experience tells me not to leave – for whatever reason, it seems 9 times out of 10 the best moment of a whale encounter comes when almost everyone else has tired of watching and leaves.

The vision of the fleet of whale-watching boats clustered around J-Pod is still in my mind, but it hasn't taken long for the scene to totally change. Some anti-whale-watching agencies paint pictures of the whales constantly mobbed by boats, unable to feed or travel or play away from their adoring public and the loud engines that accompany them on the water. The actual impact of large numbers of whale-watching boats on whales is still being studied and is debatable, but in more than 10 years of observation I haven't seen anything drastic to indicate that boats are the reason this population of whales isn't increasing. The facts also show that for half the year, there are no boats with the whales, and even now, during the peak season, the large quantities of boats are condensed over just a few hours of the day. It's late afternoon on a Friday in July, and we've gone from more than 50 boats on the water with the whales to just two boats in an hour's time. Some of the whales I see surfacing out in the middle of Haro Strait don't have a boat within a mile of them. Gone, too, are the tourists on the shore who flocked to see them. A mom and calf surface with nothing but the Olympic Mountains behind them. I turn around to look above me, and the only other observers are three women sitting on the guard rail by the road, binoculars in hand.

Just a whale and the Olympic Mountains

 A moment later a loud “kawoof!” breaks me out of my reverie. I'm surprised to see a whale in Deadman Bay swimming back south towards me. I turn around to see if the women are going to come down closer to the water to get a better view, but they're gone. Amazingly, I'm the only one who is going to see this. “Where did you come from?” I ask out loud.

It's J34 Doublestuf, one of the first whales that passed heading north. I figured he would be heading back this way at some point, because his mom and younger brother never went all the way north, and if the pod split, he wouldn't go north without them. He surfaces again, right in the sun track across the water, and I can only look in his direction because I'm wearing my polarized sunglasses. Somehow, completely silhouetted, it's easier for me to appreciate the size of his dorsal fin. He's only 14, but he's well on his way to having the tall dorsal fin of a fully adult male. As he glides by underwater, he's close enough that I can make out his gray saddle patch through the gray-green water and follow his movements from above the surface.

A few more whales pass back by, all going south. Two whale watching boats bob near the tide rip about a quarter-mile offshore. I see whales all around them, but one pipes up on the radio, “I think they've pulled a disppearing act on us.”
“I think they're just going on super long dives,” the other responds. “I think I see a male about 800 yards off my 3 o'clock – I'm going to head out there.” Both boats slowly motor a little further offshore, somehow oblivious to the three or four whales quietly foraging not far from where they were just idling.

More than three hours have passed since I got out here, and I'm starting to think about heading home. I think most of the whales have ended up heading back south, and I figure the small group way offshore to the north of me probably accounts for the rest of them. I put my camera and bincoulars away, but take one last look close to the shoreline to the north before I get up. My timing is perfect: I see a large splash. There are a couple whales porpoising back south. One of them is Granny. She's come back to rejoin the rest of her pod, but as is often the case, she's traveling with a purpose. Other whales have been lollygagging about, not really traveling anywhere in particular. In the meantime, she's been several miles further north and come straight back, perhaps surveying a little further for salmon.

Two whales break off from Granny and slow down. They head towards the cliff where I'm sitting. It's L72 Racer and L105 Fluke. Racer swims under Fluke and pushes him partway out of the water, and he's upside down looking up at the sky. I wonder what he thinks of the view. It's a tender bonding moment between mother and son.


 After they pass by, I walk back up to my car where there is only one other vehicle parked in the pullout. An older couple is standing there, having spotted the whales and pulled over. They also just saw Fluke and Racer swim by together. The woman stands there, smiling as the whales continue south. “What a special thing,” she says to me. I try to think of something to say, but nothing comes to me. She's described the moment perfectly. I just smile back.