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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Recovering From the Shock

With a long weekend last weekend we made plans with some friends to head down to Portland for a few days. We left on Friday afternoon and on the ferry to Anacortes, I saw a small group of western grebes (112), a year bird and also one of the species in San Juan County that has experienced the greatest declines in recent years, so it was a nice find for several reasons. We had decided from Anacortes to drive down Whidbey Island and take the ferry to Port Townsend where we spent the night. On the way we stopped at the Deception Pass Bridge to enjoy this sunset:

Saturday morning we continued down the Olympic Peninsula, making a couple of stops to look for birds and take in the surprising sunshine. Here at Potlatch State Park, we saw both common and Barrow's goldeneye (113) as well as wigeon, surf scoters, and common mergansers:

We got into Portland just in time to go to the hockey game we had tickets for and parked in our usual spot. Unfortunately, while we were there, my car got broken into, and a whole bunch of stuff got stolen, including my binoculars, camera gear, laptop, and new scope. We're still fighting the insurance battle, as they right now don't want to cover any of it, and in the meantime still recovering from the shock of losing so much coming to terms with the fact that people do that kind of thing to one another. Thankfully, pretty much everything that was taken was replaceable. For example, all but my last week's worth of photos were backed up at home, and nothing too personal was lost. It was a stark reminder of what's really important in life: it was, after all, just stuff.

Our weekend turned into a quite different one than we had expected, and we decided to take advantage of being in Portland to replace some of the things it would be hard to get on the island. It's taken a while to get back up and running which is why there's been such a gap in the blog postings. Obviously, I wasn't going to be happy for very long without a computer, camera, or binoculars, so we went about replacing those. We went to the Portland Audubon Society to replace the binoculars, and while there walked one of their trails where we ran into this lovely lady. I'm still looking for a wild great horned owl to add to the year list, but it was pretty cool to see her up close. She's unable to live in the wild and is kept there as an educational bird:

On the way back out to St. Helens we stopped at the Crown-Zellerbach Trail to do some more birding. It was the best part of the weekend. We saw nearly 40 species including a couple American bitterns (114) and a merlin (115).

On the plus side, if there is one at all, I got a slight upgrade to my camera and lenses. Here is the first picture I took with my new D7000. It's a similar camera body to the D90 I had but features some nice upgrades such as faster focusing and rapid-fire shooting, a weather proof body, and dual SD card ports:

Here's one of the next pictures I took while testing things out in my parents' yard:

While out and about playing with the new camera, I also saw a single band-tailed pigeon (116). It was an active morning in the yard with evening grosbeaks, chestnut-backed chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, Pacific wrens, and song sparrows out and about, too.

We headed back to San Juan Island a day later than planned and again had sunny weather for the trip back up. It was a bit dream-like to return to the small island community. While we do have crime here occasionally, it's a much more relaxed and trusting atmosphere. Here's a shot from the Anacortes ferry landing looking over towards Mt. Baker near sunset:

This weekend I got a chance to get out a little bit, and though the weather was fairly clear on Saturday, it was pretty windy, and as a result there wasn't much bird activity on the south end of the island. I did a bird survey at Fourth of July Beach, where as usual I didn't find any stranded sea birds, but I did see some remnants of the stranded pinniped I found there during my last survey:

Next up, there's nothing to do but move forward. The plan is to learn the ins and outs of the new camera and post some more test shots here soon!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Winter Whales

I was going to blog this weekend about a nice walk I took at the Friday Harbor Labs where I heard lots of Pacific wrens (111), photographed some mushrooms, and searched for owls, but then THIS happened:
All Saturday plans quickly went out the window with an early morning head's up from my friend Katie that J-Pod was seen heading towards San Juan Island. I quickly got my gear together and headed out to the westside of San Juan Island where I met up with Katie and some other hopeful whale watchers at Land Bank's Westside Preserve. We spent well over an hour scanning the flat calm waters for whales with no luck. I was getting cold and was just about ready to pack it in when the Center for Whale Research boat came into view. We heard they didn't know exactly where the whales had ended up after being spotted more than two hours ago, but they were out to look. I decided to hang around and see if they would find them. A little while later, I saw them slowly motoring towards us from across the Strait and lifted my bincoulars. Next to them appeared one, then two, then three dorsal fins. They had found them! Staying was the right decision.

It turned out to be Group B of J-Pod (J11s, J17s, and J22s) and they very slowly made their way towards San Juan Island. The question is always which way they'll go when they hit shore (north or south), and luckily they chose north, towards us. The whales were all taking very long dives so there were long stretches of not seeing anything, but then they would pop again, very slightly closer to us than they were before. J17 Princess Angeline was in the lead, with her offspring and grand-offpsring behind her. The action started to pick up when a freighter came by, and the whales decided to briefly surf in the freighter wake. So cool!

The J17s continued north and were hanging out just offshore of Lime Kiln and we waited for the next small group of whales to approach us. In the meantime, there were plenty of other things to point the camera at, like this immature bald eagle, and the following pair of black oystercatchers:

J34 Doublestuf was the next whale to approach, and he spent a long time foraging right offshore from where we were standing. He never made it too close to shore, but I wanted to document how much his fin has grown over the winter:

By now I had been outside for about four hours and needed to warm up and get something to eat. I headed back into town with the heat blasting in the car when I got a message from another friend and fellow naturalist JB that since the whales had finally made it north of the lighthouse he was going to take his boat out for a little bit and did I want to go with them? I hadn't even made it home yet, but the answer was definitely yes! I raced out to Snug Harbor to hop aboard Wavewalker with JB and two other whale lovers, all of us with cameras in hand.

I got even colder and hungrier for the hour and 45 minutes we were on the water, but I am SO glad I went. What followed was a very peaceful and playful whale encounter, where for most of the time we were the only boat with the whales. The group we were with was made up of all the J17s, plus J31 Tsuchi, J22 Oreo, J32 Rhapsody, and possibly J38 Cookie. All "the boys" were apparently elsewhere - J27 Blackberry, J34 Doublestuf, and J39 Mako.

The first whale we saw was J17, who was still off by herself ahead of the other whales. We headed towards the bigger group a little ways behind her. They were still very slowly moving north and going on some long dives, but in between times underwater they were hanging at the surface in a very roly-poly tight group. We had a lot of time like this one, with lots of animals hanging at the surface and a head or two poking out of the water. That's Lime Kiln Lighthouse in the distance:

The other thing we heard a lot of was above water vocalizations. Orcas emit sounds through their melons (foreheads), and when they're hanging at the surface like this if they're vocalizing it can be heard in the air. Occasionally you'll hear one or two calls or a whale blowing a "raspberry", but on this day it was happening all over the place! We had heard it from shore in the morning and even more on the water in the afternoon. It was amazing to even be able to ID the call types they were using: S1, S2, S33... 

(The most amazing above water vocalization incident I've ever witnessed, back in 2004, is documented here.)

The J17 family group is made up of: matriarch J17 Princess Angeline, her adult daughters J28 Polaris and J35 Talequah, her young son J44 Moby, and the first calf of Polaris (J46 Star) and Talequah (J47 Notch). So there's three adult females and three calves under the age of four, and it was fun to just hang out with this family group. As mentioned above, J31 Tsuchi, J22 Oreo, and J32 Rhapsody, all other adult females, were hanging out with them. It seemed like the whales were enjoying some quality time with each other, pushing each other around and playing with the kids. Tsuchi and Rhapsody are also of calf-bearing age but have not ever been seen with a calf. They spend a lot of time with these moms and youngsters, perhaps learning how to be a good mom!

From left to right: J47 Notch, J35 Talequah, J28 Polaris, and J46 Star
From left to right: J47 Notch, J35 Talequah, J28 Polaris, and J46 Star

Young J47 Notch is distinct not only for the notch in his fin that is his namesake, but he has a pretty cool saddle patch too. Here's a cropped close up of him from the above photo:

J35 Talequah

J47 Notch

After seemingly spending the day mostly by herself (maybe she needed some "me" time away from the boisterous kids), J17 Princess Angeline came back over to rejoin her family group, and her son J44 Moby immediately returned to her side after spending the day playing with his niece and nephew (who are about the same age as him).

From left to right: one whale diving, then J17 Princess Angeline, J44 Moby, and J28 Polaris

When the whales were at the surface, we saw bouts of different surface behavior, including spyhops, pec slaps, tail slaps, and a few tail waves or headstands:

J31 Tsuchi with one of the kids

You're not getting tired of so many photos in this blog post, are you? I hope not! I wasn't getting tired of taking them:

J46 Star is a special whale to me because I was there the first time she was ever seen in November of 2011. You can see some photos of her as a newborn here. Now she's three years and three months old, but still traveling right next to mama:

J35 Talequah, J28 Polaris, and J46 Star
From left to right: J31 Tsuchi, J32 Rhapsody, J28 Polaris, J46 Star

J17 Princess Angeline and J44 Moby

Luckily the whales were taking us back towards Snug Harbor, so we got to maximize our time with them. JB had to be back in at a certain time, but we kept begging him for just a few more minutes. It wasn't hard to convince him - how you can leave with this going on all around you?

We got our last look as the sun was just peeking out below the cloud cover, making for some neat lighting to end the day:

This was my last shot of the day - and if I can anthropomorphize for a bit, it was like the whales were waving goodbye. Until when? This time of year, we never know!

I ended up being outside for seven hours, and while I didn't feel it while I was with the whales (you never do) I was frozen to my core and very hungry! I also hadn't gotten anything done I was supposed to during the day. Was it worth it? Hands down, you bet! Not only was a great pick-me-up to hang out with the whales all day, it was great to catch up with all the local whale watchers, too. Everyone seemed to come out of the woodwork to enjoy this special winter visit from the Southern Residents. So nice of them to come see us on a Saturday!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Slow Start To February

Seems the bird activity has really quieted down over the last week, and a few short walks to start out the month of February haven't turned up too many species. The best photo op of the week was of the pine siskins at the feeder:

There was some good waterfowl activity at Jackson Beach, with green-winged teal, mallards, gadwall, hooded and red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead, and common goldeneye. Here in the neighborhood there have been a pair of bald eagles regularly flying over Brown Island just across the way. I've also gotten a few brief glimpses of some other more uncommon species including a sharp-shinned hawk chasing a flicker, a hardy Anna's hummingbird who is spending the winter here, and a single varied thrush.

I've also gone out owling a couple of times where friends of mine have reported seeing and hearing owls, but no such luck there. It seems I'm rarely successful when I go out specifically looking for owls, at least at night - I just have to wait patiently for them to come to me!

Yesterday the sun was out for a bit and there was word whales had been seen on the west side of San Juan Island, so we went out for a late afternoon walk. Unfortunately the sun disappeared behind the clouds as we headed out there, and the chilly breeze picked up a little bit. It was very quiet out there - no whales, and very few birds - but it was still a pleasant walk. It turned into a subtle, but pretty, sunset:

I'm keen to have my first whale sighting of 2013, but in the meantime I've been following with interest the track of K25 Scoter who was satellite tagged in Puget Sound in late December. The tag is still transmitting, and he (along with the rest of K-Pod, presumably) has gone all the way to central California and back, and is now going up and down along the Washington and Oregon Coasts. You can see the series of tracking maps and get some more information about the tagging project here.