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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Spring at East Point

As the month has gone on, the long awaited spring migrants have started to arrive and as the weather has improved I've been out more and adding to the year list. On the 9th I saw some greater yellowlegs (120) at Jackson's Beach. On the 15th I added black-bellied plover (121) and purple finch (122) at Fourth of July Beach along with dunlin and sanderling. Two days later I saw my first turkey vulture (123) of the year at Mt. Young. False Bay Creek turned up a nice mixed flock of violet-green (124) and tree swallows, along with a savannah sparrow, Wilson's snipe, and several singing marsh wrens.

Yesterday at lunch I saw an album posted by my friend Traci (of Traci Walter Photography) of an amazing boat trip she took up near East Point on Saturna Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands. She saw thousands of gulls and sea birds. I sent a message to my friend Phil, another bird-watcher who like me doesn't work on a whale-watching boat and doesn't get the chance to visit some of these places all that often. He got his own boat a little over a year ago and we had talked about the potential of splitting costs to go check out some of these great sightings when they pop up. "When we going, Phil?" I asked. He responded two minutes later - "How about right now?" With the afternoon off of work that sounded perfect to me. Half an hour later we were on our way up San Juan Channel, navigating through some of the unseasonable spring fog that still remained and hoping for clear weather at East Point.

Luckily, despite even denser fog in President's Channel where we were still able to spot a few harbor porpoise, the fog did clear as we headed into the glassy calm waters of Boundary Pass. We had to get into Canadian waters before we could see the gulls, but soon they were evidence both on the water and in flight - thousands and thousands of Bonaparte's (125) and mew gulls:

Most of the birds seemed to be northeast of the point, so before we headed up there we cruised by the Boiling Reef rocks to see the harbor seals and Steller sea lions hauled out there.

It was pretty awesome to see (and hear and smell) so many sea lions:

Right before we were ready to move on I spotted a small flock of birds along the shoreline right among the sea lions. They turned out to be half a dozen surfbirds (126). Check out this shot of them just to the left of this huge sea lion!

Lucky for us, by this time the birds had moved a bit closer. I've been lucky enough one other time to see such huge congregations of birds at East Point, but at that time the thousands of Bonaparte's gulls were actively feeding and flying all over the place. Most of them were sitting on the water today, meaning every direction you looked it looked kind of like this:

It was interesting to me that the Bonaparte's and mew gulls seemed to segregate into different flocks that didn't intermix much. We'd find ourselves among one species, then the other, then the first again. Most of the Bonaparte's gulls were in transitional plumage, with some still in winter and some in full, black-hooded summer plumage. Still learning the new camera and getting the action settings right, I struggled a little bit with the in-flight shots, but got these couple of take-off shots I like:

At first it seemed like mostly just these two gull species, but if you looked closer there were other seabirds in there as well. We didn't see the thousands (!) of long-tailed ducks Traci reported, but we did see several hundred - far more than I've ever seen in one place. They seemed to be really skittish, though, and mostly we saw several dozen at a time flying in the distance. There were a few exceptions:

We came across one active bait ball that was made up mostly of glaucous-winged gulls. Unlike the long-tailed ducks, they didn't seem to mind our presence whatsoever. They had more important things to tend to. Notice the gull on the right in the first shot with some bait fish in its beak:

The bait ball was surrounded with rhinoceros auklets who we assumed were herding the fish underwater, but oddly enough we didn't see any rhinos with fish in their beaks. We ended up seeing hundreds of auklets, too, all decked out in their breeding plumage now too. Many of them were striking kind of an awkward posture with their head's raised high, maybe some kind of courting behavior?

In much smaller numbers we saw several other species, too: red-breasted mergansers, harlequin ducks, black oystercatchers, common murres, and one bald eagle.

On our way back to Friday Harbor, Phil had to make a stop at Yellow Island where he is the steward, and I was more than happy to take a quick walk around the island to check out the early spring wildflowers. Yellow Island is always several weeks ahead of San Juan Island in terms of blooms - fawn lilies were out in abundance, and I also saw some harsh paintbrush and shooting stars. Here's a pair of fawn lilies in the sunlight:

As an added bonus, I also saw my first of the year rufous hummingbird (127) while we were there!

It was a spur of the moment trip, but often those end up being the best kind. It was a beautiful afternoon on the water with some amazing wildlife. Just what I needed! Thanks Traci for the head's up, and thanks Phil for driving!


Vera said...

I love Phil's attitude and also your amazing photos. Thanks for a very interesting post!

Linda said...

Wonderful photos!

The K said...

Great photos of the long-tailed ducks. Wish I could've been there.

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Saw a long tailed duck this morning - not quite that close though.
Crackin sealion pics too.
Just two Bonapart's gulls in the country at the mo - neither anywhere near me :-(