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Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Year List in Review - UPDATED

DEC. 31 NOTE: For the second year in a row, blogging the review a day early got me in trouble, as there's still plenty of birding to be done on the last day of the year! This year, Dave tied me on the waning days, and despite my efforts, I couldn't regain the lead on December 31st. I did, however, add one more species - the eared grebe - to my county ear list. 

There's one day left in 2013, which means one more day to add bird species to my year list. I've stalled out at 192, well short of my goal of 200 species, but still a single species ahead of exactly tied with my competitor Dave in England, who added the tying species on December 31st!. My dad, with his trip to eastern Canada, will finish well ahead at 219. Here's how the numbers break down this year:

Total # Bird Species
Dave's Total
191 192
Dad's Total

219 222
# States/
# Life Birds
# SJ County Species
148 149
# Species by Month

*World total/Europe total

Last year the world traveler Dave was nice and granted me the win compared to his Europe total, but if I can hang on one more day this really feels like the first time I've beat him! (Nope, it's a tie!) I find it interesting how close we've been every year, and the fact that we're both in the low 190s this year after being above 200 in all the previous years.

The monthly numbers are interesting, but to make a comparison you also have to take into account when I've traveled outside of the northwest. Last year, it was a California trip in February. This year, it was a California trip in November!

The birding highlight of 2013 was undoubtedly my trip to California, which is also where I added my three life birds of the year, finally pushing my North American life list to over 350 species. My favorite hour of birding happened at Malibu Lagoon State Beach, where the year birds came fast and furious and the species diversity - so different form what I see in Washington - was really apparent.

So, what are the plans for 2014? I'm keeping my goal at 200 species, and hope to make it as well as add a few life birds on a trip south in February. It will likely be a slower start to the year list as for the first time I'll be starting it on San Juan Island instead of in Portland, where there's a better chance for a wider variety of species. I like to try and reach 100 species before the end of January, but I think that will be a tough one this year, even with a trip or two off island! I'll still give it a shot, so we shall see!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Whale Waiters

While going through pictures from years past, in many cases for photos to post on my Orca Watcher Photography Facebook page, I inevitably see the pictures I took while waiting for whales. People who haven't been to San Juan Island perhaps have the impression you can just go to Lime Kiln on the west side and see whales at just about anytime, but this is far from the case. It's known as Whale Watch Park, but a lot of us joke it should more accurately be called Whale Wait Park. So, what do you do while you wait for whales? Well, it's always a good time to catch up on your reading....

And believe it or not, the rocks are GREAT for napping. You just have find the comfortable ones:

And it's such a beautiful place, you may just be inspired to draw, or paint:

Of course, someone's got to keep a look out at all times:

In all directions:

Because even if it's getting late, the whales might still show up:

But whatever you do, you had better do it in style:

And you've gotta protect yourself from the elements, whether it be the sun:

Rain (protect those electronics with whatever is on hand!): 

Or wind, 'cause it gets cold down there by the water!

At this point, you might be wondering why all these crazy people spend so many hours waiting for the whales out there. Is it really worth all that time? Oh yes, it is. The payoff is the experience of a lifetime:

Definitely one to share with the family if you can:

But it's just as awesome when it's just you and the whales:

So if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend coming out to Lime Kiln, the best place in the world to wait for whales. Not only do you get time to nap, read, and contemplate the beautiful world around you, but you'll probably meet some very cool people - most of the people in these photos have been friends of mine now for years! And you never know, you might even see a whale.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Baby It's Cold Outside....

We've had beautiful sunny weather here over the last week or so, but man has it been cold! Temperatures in the mid-20s plus breezy conditions that makes the wind chill factor in the teens. Not the type of cold we're used to dealing with here!

Most of the wildlife-watching has occurred from the car as a result, or at least after a drive and then a brief hopping out of the car. Over the long holiday weekend last week, before it got THIS cold, my dad and I did a COASST survey at Fourth of July Beach (no finds) and then birded the redoubt road, hoping for some early season short-eared owls. We didn't find any owls, but did see a northern shrike (192), my first of the year. The lighting wasn't right to photograph it, but on the other side of the road, a quartet of deer were perfectly illuminated in the late afternoon sunlight.

The sunrises have also been stunning. On this morning I just missed the amazing pink clouds on my way down to Reuben Tarte; as the sun became visible the clouds immediately darkened, but it was still worth a picture:

Yesterday on my way to town to do some Christmas shopping, I stopped at Dream Lake where this time of year trumpeter swans are usually hanging out. There were also American wigeon, ring-necked ducks, and bufflehead on the part of the lake that wasn't frozen, and northern flickers, golden-crowned kinglets, song sparrows, and golden-crowned sparrows foraging along the edges.

Trumpeter swans on the frozen edge of Dream Lake

Trumpeter swan with a female bufflehead

Trumpeter swan with wigeon and a ring-necked duck taking off in the background
Next up, unless I find something unexpected, I've been going through a bunch of older photographs for a few different projects, and in the process I've been picking out some pictures for a different sort of blog...

Friday, November 29, 2013

Granny Comes For Thanksgiving

Yesterday was "American Thanksgiving" as its known in these parts (as opposed to Canadian Thanksgiving across the border), and while we were enjoying a lazy morning at home before starting our cooking I saw an exciting status update from a friend on Facebook. All it said was "Orcas!!!" but that was enough to get me out the door two minutes later and on my way to the west side. My guess was it was probably transients and that we likely wouldn't see them, but since it was surprisingly a sunny day it seemed like a good day to get out anyway.

When we arrived at Lime Kiln, the waters were quiet, so we continued south to Land Bank. I saw a boat parked past the point to the south - an encouraging sign. Then a fellow islander pulled up and confirmed that whales were heading our way. J-Pod was the rumor he heard. As the blows and dorsal fins started coming into view, it became apparent there were more whales than that - in fact, it ended up being a superpod!!

A surprising sight on Thanksgiving Day: orcas!

Once it looked like the whales were committed to going north, we dashed up to Lime Kiln, where they often pass closer to shore. It was definitely the right decision! As the first group approached us, they started getting active, and this pair of whales did not one but two sets of synchronized breaches, giving me a chance to capture the second one in a picture. Needless to say, this stunning sight doesn't even compare to what the captive whales do at SeaWorld - these two were breaching just because they can, possibly just for the joy of it.

Better than SeaWorld: two whales breach in synchrony, just because they can

The first group of whales was maybe 150 yard offshore, but right before they passed the lighthouse, they turned and angled in even closer. Usually I zoom in all the way, but this time I decided to try and capture the feeling of having a big group of whales pass so close, so this wide-angle shot shows some of the whales and the rocks we were standing on at the bottom of the frame:

Even though I love how these shots turned out, I couldn't take it too long and had to zoom in to get some nice ID shots. It was a nice mix of J- and K-Pod whales in this first group.

J38 Cookie

K21 Cappuccino
The lighting was perfect to capture these surface behaviors right after they passed:

K21 tail slap

A huge cartwheel by K16 Opus

It was also great to see the K13s, a matriline I didn't see as much of this past summer as I usually do.

K20 Spock with nephew K44 Ripple

K25 Scoter is a member of the K13s who was tagged last winter, yielding interesting and important data about the winter movements of the Southern Residents. (Read about where K25 traveled last winter here.) Unfortunately, the tag didn't dislodge as it was supposed to, so he still has remnants from the darts in his fin, which were visible yesterday.

K25 surfaces

A close-up of the barbs in K25's fin

There was just a short gap before the next large group of whales came by. It was mostly K- and L-Pod whales, with a group of young males hanging out together and all the playful youngsters in the L4 matriline.

More whales approaching!

I've actually photographed several double breaches before, but this was the first time I captured a double spyhop. (Earlier this year I saw a TRIPLE spyhop, but I missed it!)

The only boats on the water with the whales were two research vessels - here's one of them in the background of these photos:

The whales just kept coming!

The final group included some familiar "faces" from J-Pod - whales it's always especially a joy to see.

J16 Slick and J42 Echo

Tail slap from J26 Mike
The last close whale was J2 Granny, still seemingly going strong after the loss a couple months ago of her companion J8 Spieden. This was our first Thanksgiving in our new house, and also for the first time we hosted my parents. I wasn't expecting Granny to show up too, but she was more than welcome!

J2 Granny
The exuberant whales continued on their way north, and one of my last pictures was this incredible shot of a cartwheeling whale almost vertical in the air:

So, it pretty much turned out to be the best Thanksgiving ever with a surprise superpod - it looked like everyone but the L12s were present. Oh yeah, the food ended up being pretty good, too.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

November Transient Orcas

Yesterday I had just gotten home from work when I heard that a group of marine mammal eating transient orcas was in Spieden Channel, just down the road from where I live. I hurried down there and got there just in time to see the seven whales heading east in front of a Washington State Ferry.

This photo got a lot of views yesterday; I posted it after getting home, and King5 news in Seattle posted it on their Facebook page. In a couple hours it had 1800 likes and a couple hundred shares - wow! It was also the "photo of the day" in the Orca Network whale report for yesterday.

Perhaps not coincidentally, there were sea lions right in front of me swimming by, about as far away from the whales as they could get. Steller sea lions regularly haul out on Green Point at the east end of Spieden Island, but I was surprised to see a pair of California sea lions, too.

Stellar sea lion (front) and a pair of California sea lions (back) in Spieden Channel
I heard today the whales were T35, the T38s, and T75B and T75C, but they were too far away for me to get any IDs myself. One of these whales has a cool white mark on his dorsal fin, but it's on the other side so I didn't get to see that. But, it's pretty awesome anytime you see whales, especially in the "off" season.

I watched them for about 15 minutes until they were past Spieden Island and had turned to the north, heading apparently for Boundary Pass.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Coastal and Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins

On Saturday, November 9th we headed south to Long Beach where we took an afternoon sea life cruise with Harbor Breeze Cruises. With traffic always the big unknown, we got there a bit early, and had an hour or so to bird around the harbor. There were hundreds of western grebes, but I couldn't find a Clark's grebe among them. Other highlights were the brown pelicans, surf scoters, eared grebes, royal terns, and a black phoebe.

As we headed out of Rainbow Harbor aboard the 85' catamaran Triumphant, we passed the Queen Mary and the Queen Mary Dome where the Spruce Goose used to be housed.

Not far out, we passed the buoy where a pair of masked boobies had been regularly seen. Unfortunately, they hadn't seen them in about a week when we were there. I like the California sea lion that found his way to the second level, though:

The sea conditions in the open Pacific where amazingly calm. We ended up going 12 miles offshore, and the whole way it looked like this:

We didn't have to go that far, however, to encounter our first bottlenose dolphins of the day. Just like we have two different kinds of orcas that frequent the Salish Sea, there are two different populations of bottlenose off the California coast: the coastal and the offshore populations. Despite living in such close proximity to one another, they're genetically distinct. Not much is known about them, but we had a naturalist on board who was taking photo ID shots to help a researcher who is trying to estimate the population size of the local dolphins.

Look at all those scars! Click to see a larger version

We encountered four or five different groups of bottlenose throughout the day, including members of both populations. They were all very interested in bow-riding, give us nice close looks, at times from straight above.

It was amazing to see all the scarring not only on the bodies, but the damage to the dorsal fins, which is the main way they ID different individuals. The shapes varied wildly, too, but check out the injuries some of these dorsal fins have sustained:

Distinct notches

Missing the top of the fin

What was really striking seeing the dolphins bow-riding was how big they are: about 10-12 feet long! Way bigger than the Dall's porpoises that bow ride in the San Juan Islands. Of course there's not much to compare them to size-wise in these photos, but I love the way these shots turned out:


We saw several calves throughout the day, too. They were quick and hard to catch on camera! This is the only decent shot I got:


It's such a special thing to watch cetaceans underwater, in their element. They are such graceful beings, swimming so effortlessly!

In addition to the dolphins, I was hoping to see some pelagic birds out there, but it was surprisingly quiet bird-wise. The most bird activity was when the dolphins were around, and I'm afraid the dolphins took precedence. I did see a single sooty shearwater (190):

Just before our turnaround point we saw some more splashing in the distance. Hoping for Risso's or common dolphins, two species they regularly see in addition to bottlenose, we headed out that way. It turned out just to be more bottlenose dolphins! I was really hoping to see one of the other species, which I haven't ever seen before, but this last group of bottlenose were the most playful of the bunch, and a real treat to see. It was also the biggest group, with maybe about 30 animals.

On our way back, I was keeping an even sharper eye out for birds, and spotted about half a dozen black-vented shearwaters (191, NA life bird 352). It's an even worse picture than of the sooty shearwater, but hey, when it's the first time you've ever seen a bird, you take what you can get!

So concluded our wildlife sightings for our four days in California, as it was time to head back north the next morning. I had to get the camera out on the plane again as we approached Seattle, as the Cascade Mountains were impressive out the east side of the plane:

I think this is Mt. Jefferson? Not sure what that dark line was from.
Mt. Rainier from about 10,000 feet, right before we descended into the clouds above Seattle