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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

American Camp Summer Sunset

When I used to just spend a few weeks up here every summer, being out every evening until after sunset was an almost nightly occurrence. Whether at American Camp or on the westside, or maybe up Mt. Young, I was always out enjoying the golden hour. Now that I live here, I still get out and about and enjoy the island all the time, but for some reason it seems I don't go for as many summer sunset hikes as when I was a visitor. This past weekend, after the disappointment of a shortened camping trip and after having slept the better part of the sunny afternoon away, Saturday evening seemed like the perfect time to go for a walk at American Camp.

I walked down to the point south of Granny's Cove, passing only one couple on the trail. As I sat down on the rocks, there was not another person in sight. The photo above was my view to the south. As I turned to the north, I saw a boat just begin to edge its way around the corner. I watched a few more moments, and sure enough, saw the distinct blow of an orca lit up from behind by the setting sun. I knew the L12s had been around, but again my timing was seemingly perfect. I saw for half an hour as part of the L12s (all but the L22s, I believe) made their way slowly south. They were all a good ways offshore, but in the glassy flat waters they were visible from far away, and the sound of their blows also carried loudly through the stillness.

L85 Mystery, pictured above, was the closest whale to shore at about 3/4 of a miles out. 

While watching the whales, a bald eagle made a short flight out and back, passing right overhead int he process.

There were about 50 glaucous-winged gulls spread out on the water much closer to shore than the whales, taking advantage when possible of the 20 or so foraging rhinoceros auklets. When this one popped up right in front of me, I snapped this somewhat blurry picture that I just had to share to show how many bait fish he or she is holding in their beak. These guys stock up a mouthful to carry back to their nest burrows right before sunset. This one has at least 4 or 5 fish in its mouth, making it look like it's got a long, silvery mustache.

Oh yeah, the sunset wasn't too shabby either....

In addition to the whales, eagles, and other birds, I also saw a fox, a couple of deer, and a quick glimpse of what I think had to have been a mink. Why don't I do this more often again?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Shaw Island

We've gotten in the habit of going on a weekend camping trip near Keith's birthday, and this year the plan was to visit nearby Shaw Island. Amazingly, despite spending at least parts of every summer in the San Juans for the last 13 years and despite the fact that it's served by the Washington State Ferry, it's an island I've never been to. It was time to remedy that! Unfortunately, our plans got cut short due to Keith coming down with a bad cough and we had to bail early, but we still had time to enjoy the island a little bit.

Sign at the Shaw Island ferry terminal. Shaw became the 10th island I've set foot on in the San Juan Islands.
The campground, part of a county park and the only public lands on Shaw, is perched on a wooded cliff above the beach. Indian Beach is a rare sandy beach - most of our shorelines are rocky.

As we walked the beach, I saw something I've never seen before: a hummingbird taking a bath in a tiny waterfall!

Afterwards, it stuck its tongue out at me, perhaps for photographing such a private moment:

There were actually three hummingbirds flying about, as well as a recently fledged group of house wrens, olive-sided and Pacific-slope flycatchers, orange-crowned warblers, white-crowned sparrows, and spotted towhees.

It was amazing to see dozens and dozens of tent caterpillars crawling around on the driftwood. This year has seen an explosion of tent caterpillars, and many local gardeners are happy that their season is coming to an end. We actually found some cocoons that I've assuming are from the tent caterpillars.

We had a peek-a-boo view of the water from our campsite, where we could watch the ferries going by:

In the morning we knew we were going to pack up and catch a ferry back home, but we still had a couple hours to explore the island a little bit. We walked to Reef Net Point, where I heard a Hutton's vireo (163) to add to my year list. (I erroneously stated in an earlier blog post that I had added Hutton's vireo, but it was a typo on my part, as it was Cassin's vireo I added at that point!) In the campground I also heard a Steller's jay to add to my county list - not a species I'm likely to see or hear while on San Juan Island.

There were lots of foxglove in bloom everywhere:

Driving around the island, it really reminded me of Waldron Island, but with paved roads. The population on Shaw is about double that of Waldron (165 to 80 or so), but they both have limited public facilities (no lodging or restaurants - though Shaw does have a general store and public campground). Both islands have small schools, post offices, and grassy airstrips.

I also don't remember seeing a fire station on Waldron, but it doesn't look like this one on Shaw sees too much activity:

At least the weather was beautiful for our ferry ride back to Friday Harbor. We had a stop at Orcas Island and I took this photo that I love of the Orcas ferry landing:

Here's the scene as we pulled back into Friday Harbor:

After a fairly sleepless night, we both has to spend part of the sunny afternoon taking a nap, but I wasn't about to let the entire day go to waste. After dinner I headed down to American Camp, where I was amazed at how much I saw in one hour before sunset - the next post will feature photos of that excursion!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

L-Pod Flyby

On June 17th, ALL of L-Pod made their way into inland waters, which is a relatively rare occurrence. Several of the L-Pod matrilines (the L2s, L5s, and L54s) don't spend that much time here - last year they were only seen in inland waters three times! What made it even more unusual is that it was just L-Pod, with no Js or Ks along with them. It shouldn't have been too surprising, then, that their travel patterns weren't the same either. Instead of coming across Haro Strait and heading north up San Juan Island which is what the residents do about 99 times out of 100, they went south and headed north up Rosario Strait instead!

On June 18th, keen to see some whales I don't see all that often, I ducked out of work for an early lunch when I heard Ls were heading back south towards the west side of San Juan Island. I don't believe all of L-Pod was present - they must have split up at some point, and I believe some animals went back south down the Rosario Strait route. The whales that were there were spread all the way across the strait, and the ones closest to shore that I could ID were from the L4 and L47 matrilines.

L86 Surprise (22 year-old female)

L47 Marina (39 year-old female)

Once I figured out who I was looking at, I took an especially close look at the youngsters in the group. Someone who follows my Orca Watcher Photography page on Facebook had recently adopted L118 Jade and asked if I had any recent pictures of her whale. I didn't have any photos of Jade from this year until this day, when the two year-old calf of an as yet unknown gender was traveling with big sister L103 Lapis:

L103 Lapis and L118 Jade
L118 Jade and L103 Lapis
I was especially glad I went out to see these whales, because not unexpectedly for L-Pod, they made their way back out west again later that night and we would again go several days until resident orcas returned.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The T65As and T75Bs

For several days there's been a group of seven transient (Bigg's) killer whales roaming the area; on Friday they went right into downtown Vancouver and were seen off Stanley Park! Sunday morning I was excited to hear that they were seen right outside of Friday Harbor. They made their way south down San Juan Channel, and we headed down to Cattle Point to try and see them. As we reached the south end of the island, I was surprised to see whale-watching boats very deep in Griffin Bay, practically along the shoreline! Instead of waiting at Cattle Point we went to Third Lagoon, where we saw the whales from shore - never thought I'd see killer whales from there!

The group of whales was made up of the T65As (female T65A and her three living offspring) as well as T75B, her offspring T75B1, and her sibling T75C. Originally called transients because they roamed more widely, there's an effort under way to get them commonly referenced as Bigg's killer whales after pioneering killer whale researcher Mike Bigg. They're marine mammal eating whales as opposed to J, K, and L Pods who eat exclusively fish. Below is the family tree of the seven whales (T75 and T75A were not present) taken from the 2012 Bigg's killer whale ID guide available for download here.
After the whales rounded Cape San Juan, we headed back to Cattle Point, hoping they would stay close to shore. Instead, they veered out to go around Goose Island, but it's always pretty special to be able to see transients from shore. They also often do different sorts of behaviors than resident killer whales - I've seen them swimming backwards, for instance, and this one did the slowest cartwheel I've ever seen. That black line that looks like a log to the bottom left of the whale was actually a seal, hoping the whales moved on before the tide got too much higher:

There were a lot of seals in Cattle Pass, but the whales didn't seem to interested. Word was they had made a kill, maybe a harbor porpoise, shortly before we saw them. Here was another seal more concerned with looking at us than looking at the seal-eating whales out beyond him:

As the whales headed out the pass into the choppy waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we turned our attention to all the birds that were around feeding along the shoreline and in the water. It's not the best picture, but look at this black oystercatcher whose beak curves to his right:

We got a few closer looks when the oystercatchers took flight, coming right by where we stood on the rocks:

Also, we see harlequin ducks all the time, but I usually don't get too close to them. This is probably the best picture I've ever been able to get of them when they, too, passed right by where we were:

While walking back to the car, I saw a huge orange moth. When it landed it quickly hid under some leaves, but I'm pretty sure it's a banded woollybear (Pyrrharctia isabella), which we see much more commonly as the black and orange caterpillars in the spring and fall.

Today, after a week without resident killer whale sightings, word was that L-Pod returned, so hopefully I'll get to see them sometime later this week. I will of course report back here :)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Week Without Whales (But With Moths, Birds, Flowers....)

The Resident orcas headed back out to the open ocean last Sunday night, and there haven't been reports of them since then. While the boats in the area have had chances to see transient orcas (there were Ts right off Stanley Park in downtown Vancouver yesterday!), humpback whales, and minke whales, those of us on shore have turned our sights to other creatures. It's been another beautiful late spring week and there's been a lot to see!

Monday while picking up my lunch near the Friday Harbor Airport I was thrilled to see my first chipping sparrow (162) of the year. I had gone out to several places I've seen them in years past looking for this species, but without luck. Then, later the same afternoon, I saw one from the office at work. Amazingly, I think, my bird list for species seen at work in 2013 is approaching 40 species.

Also at work that day I found another cool moth. We had the ceanothus silk moth a few weeks ago, but this time it was an eyed sphinx moth (Smerinthus cerisyi). It took me a while to ID it because in most of the field guide images it has its hind wings extended showing the "eyes" it flashes to scare predators. I guess I wasn't scary enough.

Wednesday I went down to Fourth of July Beach and did a COASST survey. As per usual, no stranded sea birds, but I did turn up a respectable 28 living species in the hour I was there. Northern rough-winged swallows, cedar waxwings, a gadwall, American goldfinches, and a few surf scoters were on the list, but the most cooperative when it came to taking pictures was a pair of killdeer. I've never seen a killdeer jump before, but that's just what this one was doing as it went from log to log:

Thursday night after work we headed out to Lime Kiln for another sunset. The colors were a bit more subdued than some other recent ones but it was still a beauty:

For some reason we've gotten in the habit of seeing how many of these four species we can find on every trip to the west side: killer whale, harbor seal, bald eagle, black oystercatcher. Only once this year have we gotten all four! On Thursday evening we only got one - bald eagle - but that was okay because it flew right past the crescent moon, giving it bonus points:

On Friday afternoon we went for a walk at Third Lagoon at the south end of the island and saw and heard another 23 bird species. Some highlights for me were a pair of hairy woodpeckers that looked like recent fledgling and also a pair of band-tailed pigeons, not a species I see too often here on the island. At the edge of the lagoon a line of colorful kayaks were laid out on the gravel:

On the drive back to town I had to stop at the pull out above South Beach to take some photos of the California poppies that have just exploded into bloom all over the hillside there:

I wonder what sights this weekend will bring?

Monday, June 10, 2013

6/9/13 ~ J16 Slick and J42 Echo

On Sunday, June 9th, after a leisurely breakfast, we again headed out to Land Bank on the west side to look for whales. Yet again, our timing was impeccable; we had been planning to read and wait for whales, but we never had a chance to pull out our books because we could already see blows in the distance. The J16 family group was in the lead, with adult male J26 Mike first of all. They slowly, slowly meandered their way north in the beginning of what would prove to be three hours of J-Pod going back and forth between Land Bank and Lime Kiln.

At one point, it looked like a repeat of the day before, with the whales angling in towards Lime Kiln after passing us at Land Bank. So for the second day in a row, it was pack up and run in a good old fashioned "whale chase". The whales were indeed closer at Lime Kiln, but while I took some pictures, they were still pretty far away and mostly silhouetted. All the different groups of whales started angling further offshore, making me think they might head west and leave (which they did end up doing overnight), but in the meantime I saw two whales turn in and head straight for the lighthouse. The lighting was just right that I could see it was mama J16 Slick with her youngest, six year-old female J42 Echo.

I couldn't believe it: two days in a row sitting on the same rock facing the lighthouse, and two days in a row with the chance to photograph whales, lighthouse, and whale-watchers all at once. If possible, I think I like this one even better than the lighthouse/whale shot from the day before - the sun is out, there are two whales in it, and one of them is tailslapping!

There's no better feeling than watching whales head straight towards you like this! We were sharing the experience on the same rocks with a nice couple from Montana. Everything was perfect for me to get a shot of them with J16 Slick as she surfaced right between them. I gave them my e-mail address and can't wait to share this picture with them when they get back from their trip!

J42 Echo was even closer to us, and you could see her underwater. I LOVE being able to see the whales underwater, and while the photos sometimes turn out, other times it just looks like this - there IS a whale under there:

I was still excited by this shot where with a trained eye you can tell she's on her side just below the surface. I've indicated with arrows what the different white patches are you're able to see - the white near the tail is part of the underside of her tail. She was close enough we could actually see her pumping her flukes as she swam!

And one more shot of J16 Slick - again, close enough my camera was only zoomed in to 135mm in this uncropped photo:

J-Pod would eventually head north, but then come back south in the middle of the night to head west out towards the open ocean, perhaps to go pick up K-Pod who we haven't seen in inland waters yet this season? So my amazing whale-watching streak comes to a close for now, after six straight days of phenomenal shore-based encounters (seven of the last eight days, in fact!). I'm sure they'll be back before too long, but in the meantime, there's always something else to look at. Next up: another year bird and another interesting find at the office!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

6/8/13 ~ A Close J-Pod Encounter

On Saturday, June 8th I headed back out to the west side of San Juan Island because, well, why not? Yet again I arrived at Land Bank and immediately saw a whale beyond the point to the south of me. My timing wasn't quite spot-on this time, however, as the whale and all the others behind it turned south and then headed offshore for a while before coming back. About two hours later, it seemed like the whales must be just around the corner based on where all the boats were, but I and the other whale watchers that had arrived had to wait...and wait....and wait....until finally they appeared! All of J-Pod in one big group.

Island Explorer III looks at J27 Blackberry

A couple of Prince of Whales boats and the Western Prince look at J27 Blackberry

The whales were more than a few hundred yards offshore, but it looked like they were angling in towards Lime Kiln. Usually, I don't try to run from one place to the next, because years of experience have told me it's really hard to run up the hill, drive, park, and run back down to the water before the whales get there. Something today, however, told me to GO! My instinct was definitely right, as right when I arrived on the shoreline the first whale surfaced in front of me just a few yards off the rocks. I don't often post pictures that have the shoreline in the picture, but this one shows you why Lime Kiln is known as the best place in the world to see killer whales from shore:

All the others weren't far behind...

People who didn't know what was going on must have thought me crazy! When I ran through the parking lot I told those who were standing around they probably wanted to head right to the shoreline because there were whales coming. All I remember as I zipped by was the befuddled face on one woman! I flew down to the rocks with camera in hand, via a route I wouldn't even attempt if I had more time, but somehow I made it safely and just in time.

Fifteen year-old male J34 Doublestuf
My "bread and butter" lens is my 18-300mm zoom, and since I zoom and then crop most of the photos I post here, it may be hard sometimes to tell just how close I am to the whales. It's often close, but usually not THIS close. To give you an idea, none of the rest of these photos were taken with my lens zoomed fully in. Most of them were in the 100-200mm range:

Nine year-old female J40 Suttles

Four year-old female J46 Star

Three year-old male J47 Notch

Eight year-old female J41 Eclipse
These following two pictures are also UNCROPPED:

Twenty-three year-old male J27 Blackberry
Twelve year-old female J37 Hy'Shqa
People often underestimate distances over water, but I like to think after years of experience my guesses are fairly accurate. I'm not kidding when I say Hy'Shqa was less than 15 feet from me! I get pretty darn close a lot, but that's the closest I've been to a whale in a long time.

Surely I wouldn't end up with better pictures than this on Sunday's whale encounter, right? Right?