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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Superpod Sunday

All the Chinook salmon reports for the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia have not been good this year, which is not good news for our resident killer whales. All three Southern Resident pods have been traveling together lately, and for most of this month they've only been make brief appearances near San Juan Island, usually for less than a day, before heading back out the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Hopefully they're finding fish somewhere - when we have seen them, they've looked pretty fat and happy as far as I can tell - but that means resident orca sightings in August have been pretty low here in the Salish Sea.

Last night, I heard the whales were all heading east through the Strait, but when I thought of heading out to the west side early this morning, I guessed the whales were probably going to be heading west again. I guessed wrong! Luckily, my friend Katie gave me a head's up this morning, and I think I made it out the door in record time.

When I got to Land Bank, most of the superpod had already gone north, but I got to see the last big group of whales pass through. The first whale I saw was J26 Mike, the adult male in the photo below, and some other J-Pod whales including J16 Slick and J27 Mike. This looks like a black and white photo, but it isn't!


On the next surfacing I saw some L-Pod whales, which made it apparent the groups were all mixed up. It's always fun in these situations to see who is traveling with whom.

From left to right: L92 Crewser, L95 Nigel, L105 Fluke, L72 Racer
In addition to the whales in the photos above, also present in this trailing group were the rest of the L26s (L26 and L90) and the L47s (L47, L83, L91, L110, and L115).

L92 Crewser and his mom L26 Baba

Figuring there were lots of whales up ahead of these guys, I went up to San Juan County Park where indeed large groups of active whales were heading north well offshore. It's hard to capture in a photo the sight of so many whales surfacing one right after the other, but here are a few shots that try to give a sense of what it was like:




It was nice to see the whales early enough that there were no whale-watching boats around them, but Haro Strait is a busy place any time of day or night. These big freighters are always passing through, and I can only imagine what it's like for the whales to have to listen to them as much as they do. Kind of hard to see the whale in this small version, so you can click for a larger view:


It looked like the whales were going to continue north, so I headed back to town, but about an hour later I heard the whales had flipped and were coming back south. I was hoping they would stick around long enough to make a trip up the Fraser River, but I guess they decided there weren't enough salmon to go check it out. So it was back to the west side in a rush for the second time this morning, this time to Lime Kiln Point State Park.

Keith decided to come with me this time, and when we arrived, there were whale watch boats visible in the distance to the north. We settled down for what turned out to be a pretty breezy, chilly wait, but there were interesting things to look at in the meantime like this pair of immature oystercatchers (notice the black on the ends of their otherwise red bills - again click for a larger view):


The first three whales to pass by were K21 Cappuccino, K16 Opus, and K36 Sonata. Noticeably absent was Cappuccino's sister K40 Raggedy. The two are normally inseparable, so I don't have a good feeling about her whereabouts. At least Cappuccino seems to have another little family group to travel with, so he's not completely alone.

K21 Cappuccino (right)
For a moment it looked like these would be the only whales to head south, where apparently the L12 sub-group was slowly heading north to meet them. (The L12s were apparently the only whales not to go north this morning. It sounded like all the other whales were there, with the exception of maybe the L2s and L54s who I didn't hear anything about.) All the whales to the north were milling about in indecision, but then the rest of K-Pod decided to follow Cappuccino and the others. It was a nice little who's-who of K-Pod, with all the whales passing by in their family groups, giving me a chance to ID every whale in the pod as they went by without needing photos - something I haven't done in quite a while! Of course I still took photos though....

K12 Sequim
K22 Sekiu and her son K33 Tika, now a sprouter male at age 11
Sequim's youngest two offspring: K37 Rainshadow (right) and K43 Saturna (age 2- center)
After the K12s came the K14s, and then the K13s followed up a little behind that.

K20 Spock and K38 Comet
 It was nice to get a good look at the youngest member of K-Pod, calf K44, who will get his name next month now that he's survived a full year.


K25 Scoter, a 21 year-old male, has long been thought of as a bit of a runt as far as adult males go, since his dorsal fin has remained so short. It seems like he may just be a late bloomer, however, as it sure looked to me like his fin had started to grow a little bit. It's hard to tell here with no other whales to compare him to, though:


As Ks continued south, there was another huge group of whales visible offshore to the north, presumably the rest of L-Pod and all of J-Pod. It didn't look good for them sticking around for long, as they were several miles offshore and heading southwest, looking a lot like they were going to go right past Discovery Island and back out the Strait. I guess we'll have to wait and see! Wherever they go, I hope they're finding enough to eat!

California gull
To end with, a quick note about the year list which has reactivated after almost two months of no new species added. On a boat ride through San Juan Channel last weekend I saw my first few Bonaparte's gulls (211) of the year, and then yesterday at Fourth of July Beach I saw my first western sandpipers (212) of the year. I have no idea how western sandpiper fell all the way to #212, other than that I'm sure some of the unidentifiable peeps I've seen this year were probably westerns, but that wasn't good enough to count them until now, when I got a good look for sure. Hard to believe, now that we've finally been getting a nice stretch of summery weather, that the fall migration is well underway, but I also saw my first huge flocks of scoters and horned grebes yesterday! Autumn is right around the corner, but here's to hoping for some more good whale sightings before the season is done.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

August Adventures: Outer Islands, Pond Sleuthing, Sunrises, and More

As much as we complain about our summer weather (or lack thereof) here in the San Juan Islands, we've really had a pretty summery August with lots of sunshine and warm days - at times even bordering on hot. In the last post I updated on a great extended weekend of orca sightings, but here are some of the other things I've been looking at this month...

On August 4th, my work sponsored a party aboard a local barge, complete with live music, catered food, and sand on the ground of the boat. We made a stop at Stuart Island, one of the outer islands I've long wanted to visit. While some people swam in the harbor, others of us took advantage of the short time at anchor to hike out to the Turn Point Light Station at the northwest end of the island. We had to hoof it to make it there and back, but it was worth it to visit a spot I've long seen from the water but never set foot on from the land side.


Here's a view of it from the water - taken today actually!


I imagine it would be a great spot to view the whales from shore; living up to its name, the whales often make a sharp turn there to go from Haro Strait to Boundary Pass, passing close to shore. There weren't any whales when we there, which was probably a good thing because I would have missed the boat back to watch them, but I'll definitely have to go back sometime to spend some more time there and try to see whales. It was still a pretty spectacular view that late afternoon, though.


I've been spending some early mornings on the west side of the island hoping to get one of those quiet, glassy water whale passbys. That hasn't happened yet, but I've seen some other cool stuff. One morning, this fledgling bald eagle chick flew up and landed - right in the top of a little madrone tree. It was kind of an awkward perch for an eagle, but he tested his wings a bit before taking flight again:


Yesterday morning when I was getting ready to head out, I paused to take in the sunrise from right here at our marina. It was pretty spectacular to see it coming up right over the side of Mt. Baker:


The activity at the bird feeders here on the houseboat seems to have really slowed down, though I did see my first chestnut-backed chickadees at the feeders in what seems like months. This wasn't a feeder visitor, but one afternoon a great blue heron perched right on the walkway railing just off our front porch:


On a warm Sunday afternoon I spent some time walking around a pond on a friend's property. Lots of insects were enjoying the sunny day, including these dragonflies:

Eight-spotted skimmer (Libellula forensis)

Cardinal meadowhawk (Sympetrum illotum)

There were also lots of damselflies, and this single butterfly was a beauty:

Hoary comma (Polygonia gracilis)
The the abundance of bullfrogs were interesting to look at, but unfortunately are having what I'm sure is a pretty negative effect on some of the other local wildlife. Native to the eastern US, they are an invasive species here in the west, where they eat anything smaller than themselves including the tadpoles of most native frog species.



Today, despite a lack of orca reports, we went out on the Western Prince, the boat I used to work on. We didn't see any cetaceans, but there were tons of bald eagles all over the place. We easily saw more than 20 throughout the course of the morning. 


The most interesting was an adult feeding on what looked like a dead harbor seal pup on the north side of Spieden Island. Right above it on the rocks were one of the several small herds of Mouflon sheep we saw right along the beach. I know the sheep like to lick the salt of the intertidal level, but several were actually trailing pieces of seaweed from their mouths while they were walking! The eagle's kidn of hard to see, but it's in the middle of the bottom of the picture - you can just make out the gray lump its sitting on:


We saw some of the other Spieden Island "native" wildlife, including these male European fallow deer:


We saw tons of harbor seals hauled out everywhere, too, since it was a pretty low tide. There wasn't a lot in the way of sea birds, though I did spot two kinds of gulls, a pair of marbled murrelets, black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, rhinoceros auklets, and pelagic cormorants. It was neat to see the cormorants had returned to a former nesting site of theirs right by Turn Point on Stuart Island. Those little ledges sure don't look like they offer much in the way of nesting space to me, but to each his own!


As you can see here, they don't form huge nesting colonies like some other sea birds, but do aggregate in small groups. They roam around from year to year, too, which perhaps explains why this site has been empty for several years prior to this one.

There - I think that catches me up a bit on sharing pictures from this month! There are more adventures in store, and I'm hoping more whales and nice weather too, so I'll try to get back to posting in a more timely manner.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

August Orcas

After a relatively dry spell in terms of orca sightings for yours truly throughout the month of July, things seemed to have turned around for me after meeting J49 on August 7th. I've now seen whales for four days in a row! Here are some photo highlights.

August 10: J-Pod heading south at Lime Kiln in the afternoon


After seeing the whales in the late afternoon, I had planned to see the sunset that night, too, but strangely fog moved in really quickly after the whales went by. Usually this time of year fog forms overnight or in the early morning, but this was a new one! It didn't turn out to be much of a sunset, but it was still kinda cool looking about an hour before the official sunset time.....


August 11: J-Pod north and south from Land Bank in the morning

I had a good feeling early Saturday morning so headed out to Land Bank's Westside Preserve. It was funny to pull up and see four other whale lovers at the very same pullout, all hoping for the same thing: one of those early morning passbys where the lighting is just magical. It wasn't quite to be, because whales didn't show up until about 10:30 and they were quite a ways offshore. Only half of J-Pod passed by before turning around and coming back south, slightly closer this time.


The whale that passed closest to shore was J2 Granny, who spent some time foraging in a tide rip:


I also got to check in with now five day-old J49. Its little dorsal fin is just visible against mom's gray saddle patch here:


It's amazing to me how tiny a six-foot, 400 pound animal can look!

August 12: Js and Ks from Lime Kiln at sunset

Saturday night reports came in that early in the morning K and L Pods had been seen heading down Johnstone Strait, coming south through the Inside Passage towards the San Juan Islands. K-Pod made amazing time, meeting up with half of J-Pod in Boundary Pass at 5 PM on Sunday. The report was Ls were there, but when they all made it to Lime Kiln just at sunset, it was only Js and Ks. It was nice to see some whales I haven't seen much of this year, like K21 Cappuccino:


While the sun was going down, a male surfaced right in the "sun track" on the water, leading to this spectacular moment:


Some kayakers who enjoyed the experience stayed on the water for quite a while after sunset, giving them a beautiful (if chilly) paddle back to the county park after the whales continued south:


August 13: Southbound Superpod at Lime Kiln

L-Pod surprised everyone by being with Js and Ks Monday morning, perhaps having come down behind Ks after all. When I got word at lunch that a very active superpod had turned back south and was heading for the westside, I played hooky for a few hours from work to go see them. By the time they reached Lime Kiln, they had spread out over many miles both north/south and east/west, spanning across most of Haro Strait. Luckily some whales were pretty close to the San Juan shoreline. They were battling a strong flood tide, so those that really wanted to head south took to porpoising:





I caught sight of another group rounding the point to the north super close to shore. One of them breached a couple times. It turned out to be the L47s, another matriline I haven't seen much of this year. L91 Muncher, a 17 year-old female, veered right to the edge of the kelp as she passed. Because I cropped the other fully-zoomed photos, it's hard to tell how much closer she is here in this shot that wasn't fully zoomed in (180mm versus 300mm), but she was only about 20 yards offshore directly in front of me. The sound of her breath at that distance was so forceful! I love that sound.


Today, Tuesday, it sounds like the superpod may have headed back out to the ocean, or at least they haven't been found yet today. Hopefully it won't be too long before there's more whale encounters!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New Calf J49: In With A Bang

After eight days with no Southern Residents, J-Pod showed up on the west side of San Juan Island on Monday morning. Everybody was there, but by the end of the day, there was an extra whale in there! Somewhere over the course of the afternoon, J37 Hy'shqa gave birth to her first calf, designated J49. At just 11.5 years old, she's the youngest documented mother among the Southern Residents. She makes her mom, J14 Samish, a first-time grandmother, and J2 Granny a great--great-grandmother. The Center for Whale Research got an amazing photo of the little one showing its dorsal fin still flopped over (which makes birth easier - it stands up shortly after birth).

I was anxious to meet the newest member of the Southern Residents, and on Tuesday around lunch time I headed out to the west side of San Juan Island. It wasn't to be just yet; the J11s and J22s were off the south end, and the rest of J-Pod was way up north. The good news: they were heading slowly south.

Around 6:30, I headed back out to Lime Kiln, and as I drove to the west side, the thunder and lightning began. It was still pleasantly warm out despite the wind, so I settled in to wait at the lighthouse with word that the whole pod had reunited several miles to the north. While I waited, there was spectacular cloud watching to do - check out these crepuscular rays!




Just as the whales started coming into view far to the north, a huge cloud burst overhead, drenching me in huge, warm rain drops. The whales, perhaps energized by the electrical storm, were doing lots of breaching and spyhopping against the spectacular backdrop of lightning striking Haro Strait behind them. It was an epic moment.

As J-Pod approached, the rain stopped, and I began scanning for the newborn with my binoculars. I knew J49 would be hard to see among the waves, and perhaps between the other whales.


The clouds started to glow as the sun continued to set, making for unique lighting. It was still rather dark for photos, so the whales were actually a bit closer than they appear in pictures since I wasn't zooming in very far - they were probably almost all between 100 and 200 yards offshore.



Then, through binoculars I spotted one of the tiniest whales I've ever seen break the surface in a split-second breath of air. J49 was up and down so quick, I just constantly clicked the camera after mom surfaced, hoping to catch baby popping up beside her. Here's the tiny dorsal fin of J49 flanked on the left by mom Hy'shqa and on the right by young auntie J40 Suttles.


Unfortunately the one picture I got that shows a bit more of the baby was really blurry! But hopefully mom and calf will remain healthy and there will be more photo ops in the near future. Meanwhile, with aunt Suttles and uncle J45 Se-yi-chn seemingly enamored with the infant, the rest of the pod wasn't too far away, either. Here's J27 Blackberry:


And J34 Doublestuf:


The whales were moving slowly enough it was possible to run down the shoreline and see them pass again from the south end of the park. As they continued swimming slowly down Haro Strait, the sunset really took off, with the clouds absolutely glowing pink.


It was a stunning end to a spectacular evening!