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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Where Are The Whales?

It's a question we island residents patiently put up with from May through September, the best time of year to see whales in local waters. Second only to, "What time do the whales come by?" the question "Where are the whales?" is a common one from not just tourists, but also among researchers, boat captains, naturalists, and all members of the whale-watch community. Often, the answer to the question in the summer months is something like "On the west side of San Juan Island" or "Swimming past Victoria" or "Near the mouth of the Fraser River by Vancouver, BC". The eighty-plus members of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales can travel up to a hundred miles a day, and without any of the animals being tagged it's visual spotting that finds them on a day-to-day basis. Despite a fleet of dozens of whale-watching vessels looking for whales during about 12 hours of every summer day, every morning it's sort of a whole new ballgame as to where they will show up after a nighttime's worth of traveling. More often than not in the summer months, they're somewhere within the Salish Sea, just taking occasional forays out the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the open ocean.

This year, however, the question, "Where are the whales?" has taken on a different meaning among the whale watch community. It's not just a curious question among hopeful whale watchers trying to track the movements of J-, K-, and L-Pods. It's a sadder, more anxious question this year because, quite simply, the whales aren't here.

It's true we've seen all members of all three pods in inland waters this season, but among those of us that watch these whales year after year, the consensus is something different is going on this year. They came back later than usual. They've been spending less time here. For a couple of bizarre weeks, the only whales here were the three members of the L22 matriline, something that has never happened before. But a hunch or anecdotal evidence isn't enough to prove something different is going on. Where's the data?

April and May used to be considered good whale-watching months here in the Salish Sea. According to The Whale Museum's Orca Master data set, from 1978 to 2008, members of at least one of the three pods of Southern Residents were documented in inland waters in every single month of every single year. Often, this may have just been for one day, but some years J-Pod was around nearly every day in the spring. In 2009, for the first time on record, there were no sightings in the month of April. J-Pod returned on May 4th of that year. This year, again, there were no resident killer whales in the month of April and beyond until Js returned on May 15th. It was definitely a late return, but what's been going on since then?

Dr. Bob Otis, now a retired professor from Ripon College, has been collecting killer whale data at Lime Kiln Lighthouse for 23 years. Every year, from May 20th to August 10th, between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM, he and his team of interns records data on every group of killer whales that passes within half of a mile of the lighthouse in any direction. While his data of course doesn't fully document every time the whales are in inland waters, it's a valuable long-term data set collected in the heart of the summer range of the Southern Residents, and its consistent collection provides a reliable benchmark. Bob generously provided me with his data, from which I extracted the following information showing the number of "whale days" between May 20 and July 27th (today) for each of the last 23 years. (A "whale day" is defined as any day when killer whales passed by Lime Kiln between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM.) Click the chart to see a larger version.

The 17 whale days so far this year are by far the lowest since Bob started collecting data in 1990. In fact, it's less than half of the 20+ year average of 40 whale days (red line) in this time period and 12 days lower than any year on record.

So why haven't you been hearing about this? I've been asking myself the same question. The truth is, the whale-watching industry hasn't really suffered *too* much as a result of the lack of Southern Residents. The transient, marine mammal eating killer whales that are distant cousins of the fish-eating Southern Residents have been thriving, perhaps benefiting from a boon of the local harbor seal and Steller sea lion populations. I remember when I first started watching whales here, transients seemed like elusive creatures to me. It took years before I saw my first one. Now, I see them several times a year just from shore on San Juan Island, and the whale watch boats see them almost daily during certain times of year. Transients have been getting a lot of good press lately, including being on the cover of a recent edition of the Seattle Times after wowing viewers right off the docks of Liberty Bay deep in Puget Sound, not far from downtown Seattle. The article mentions the Southern Residents, but says nothing about their scarcity this summer.

The sporadic transient orcas are still not a sure bet, but in addition there have been more humpback whales than usual, an abundance of lunge-feeding minke whales, lots of harbor seals with brand new pups, and fledgling bald eagles to help keep the tour companies occupied. I've heard it been suggested that local press may be staying away from the issue of the "missing" resident whales out of fear of driving away the tourists who flock here to see them. But there's no doubt in my mind: this is an issue that needs to be talked about.

More importantly than why it hasn't received more press is the underlying question of why the whales aren't here in the first place. The answer is most likely an obvious one: there's no fish here for them to eat.

Killer whales were formally thought of as generalist feeders as the species as a whole has been documented feeding on over 50 prey species. We now know that the Orcinus orca species is really a species complex made up of various ecotytpes of killer whales, each population specializing on a smaller subset of prey species. The Southern Residents have long been known to be fish eaters with a preference for salmon. In particular, they like Chinook salmon. Recent prey studies, like those conducted by Brad Hanson of NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, have shown just how strong this dietary specialization is. From genetic evidence from prey samples taken in the San Juan Islands, Brad's research team has found that not only do the Southern Residents preferentially feed on Chinook (despite being most likely to encounter pink, sockeye, and chum salmon), but they specifically feed heavily on Fraser River Chinook in June through August. The Fraser River, the longest river in British Columbia, enters the Salish Sea not far from the city of Vancouver and is one of the largest salmon-producing rivers in the region. Brad and other researchers have also conducted genetic analysis of fecal samples from the whales to help determine diet - in these studies, which look at percent composition of different prey species in the samples as opposed to frequency of occurrence with which the prey item is taken, Fraser Chinook dominate the diet by an even stronger ratio.

If you talk to a local salmon fisherman, they'll probably tell you the fishing has been great so far this year. The salmon are abundant right now, it's true - but they're pink salmon, the smallest of the local salmonid species. The residents probably preferentially feed on Chinook because they get the most bang for their buck: Chinook are the largest, fattiest salmon species. In the fall the whales switch to chum, the next largest species, but from genetic analysis of fecal samples, it doesn't look like the whales eat sockeye or pink salmon at all.

So how are those all-important Fraser River Chinook salmon runs doing this year? It's not a pretty picture. Here's the data from the Albion test fishery near Fort Langley on the lower Fraser, which is able to monitor fish stocks returning to different regions of the river. This first chart shows the catch data (CPUE = catch per unit effort) through July 22 compared to the yearly average from 1981-2012:

The picture is even more striking when you look at the cumulative catch per unit effort from this year compared to the average over the same time period (taking note that unlike most years data was not taken this year from April 1-20 - but that seems to be a small contributor to the cumulative total):

So, with the salmon clearly not here, it's perhaps not such a surprise the whales are not here either. The question still stands, however: where are they?

There have been a few reports over the last few months of the Southern Residents off Tofino on the central west coast of Vancouver Island. Since the whales haven't looked particularly emaciated (to me) when they have been here, we can only assume (hope?) that they're finding an abundance of Chinook wherever they are hanging out, somewhere out in the open ocean. It sucks that we aren't able to see them more, but really what's most important is that they're finding enough to eat. As an admittedly potentially unrelated side note, we have yet to see any new calves born to any whale in any pod in 2013.

A fair question, too, is why the residents don't switch to eating pink salmon or other species when the Chinook are not abundant. The answer is a complicated one, but my best guess is that these highly social animals are extremely culturally rigid. Despite the stresses this population has been under from events like the live capture era (which resulted in maybe a third of the population being removed) they don't stretch their social associations to include transients, or offshores, or even Northern Residents. It seems no matter what happens, they will only associate with their own kind. There is also some kind of treaty, if you can call it that, in place that divides up the food sources, giving the two co-existing populations different shares of the food web: marine mammals for transients and fish for residents. They don't seem likely to break this treaty, even when it's a matter of survival, and it seems the rules are even more severe than we first thought, as not only will they not eat mammals but they won't even settle for less than Chinook salmon. One can only hope we don't find out what happens when we, as humans, push the Southern Residents to their cultural limits. They shouldn't have to choose (they may not be able to choose) between tradition and survival.

In the meantime, all I can do is witness what I see before me: that the whales are not here like they usually are this time of year. Witness, and pass on my observations to you, which hopefully you will then share with others. It's easy to gloss over this storyline because it's true, it's not a happy one. But that doesn't make it any less important to talk about.

Monday, July 22, 2013


I'm still here! We just purchased our first home (on San Juan Island) and last weekend I did my first art fair featuring my photography, so I've been very busy the last couple of weeks and haven't had much time to blog. I hope to return to regularly posting soon, but in the meantime I wanted to share the trailer for what I hear is a stunning documentary called Blackfish. Check out the official trailer:

As many of you know, there's far more to SeaWorld than meets the eye, and the story of killer whales in captivity is a tragic one. On the official website for the movie you can find lots more info including the screening dates across the US, Canada, Ireland, and the UK. I also highly recommend the book Death at SeaWorld, which came out last year.

Also, in case you missed it when I posted it before, here's a movie I made contrasting the lives of wild and captive orcas:

I'll be back soon!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

First Superpod of the Year!

On the afternoon of July 8th we got the news we had long been waiting for: superpod inbound! For those not familiar with the lingo, this means all three pods (J, K, and L) were coming in from the ocean through the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards San Juan Island. The last four weeks have been pretty sparse when it comes to sightings of our Southern Resident Killer Whales. After an amazing stretch of J-Pod encounters in early June, they took off and had been gone for almost a month, which is almost unheard of this time of year. K-Pod hadn't been seen in inland waters at all yet in 2013. L-Pod had made a few brief appearances, but recently the only whales around were the three members of the L22 matriline, which was in itself odd since they usually travel with the rest of the L12 sub-pod. So where are the whales when they're not here? The short answer is that we don't know, other than that they're somewhere on the outer coast in the open ocean where sighting reports are few and far between.

After weeks of hoping and waiting it felt like the summer could finally begin! I was lucky to be able to leave work a little early to go out to the west side of the island, where I arrived at Land Bank's Westside Preserve just as the first few whales did. I proceeded to watch them for the next three hours as they slowly made their way north. Needless to say, they were super super spread out over 10-15 miles or more! They were all pretty far offshore, but it was still a treat to be able to see so many whales, and in the calm waters they were easy to see and also hear. Not all the whales went north, but my estimate is about 60 did, including members of all three pods.

A big lunge from L89 Solstice

Not to be outdone, seconds later J27 Blackberry also lunged

For the last hour or so a group of L-Pod whales was just lazing around in the current, facing south but not really going anywhere against the strong flood tide.

Ahhh....peaceful summer whale-watching

I must admit, it's been a bit hard to watch the entire whale-watching fleet on the three L22s over the previous week. With all the whales back, the boats were spread out with different groups of whales, and for most of the time I was watching, there weren't any boats at all with the whales passing by.

It's thrilling to see the whales up close, there's no doubt about that. But there's something really fulfilling, too, about encounters like this, where they are far away but everything is so peaceful. Some animals were foraging, but others were playful, breaching and tail slapping, simply enjoying each other's company or perhaps just happy to be back in their summer home.

L41 Mega with a freighter and Hurricane Ridge of the Olympic Mountains in the background
Now let's just hope there's enough fish here for the whales to stick around for a while!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Fond Farewell to Mar Vista

Lime Kiln Point State Park is one very special place in my heart. It's where my best orca encounters have happened, where I've met so many amazing people, and where I continue to spend a lot of time every summer. But if you asked me where I fell in love with the San Juan Islands, I would tell you it was at Mar Vista Resort.

The sign at the entrance to Mar Vista

The 40-acre resort just south of False Bay opened about 75 years ago. In addition to two homes near the top of the property, it contains eight rustic cabins spaced out over the grassy meadows that gently slope down towards the water. The small cabins are clean and simply outfitted. This is a place you go to get away from it all: no internet, no TV, no phones or cell service.

One of the two-person cabins at Mar Vista

I believe I first stayed at Mar Vista in 2001 when my mom and I came to spend two weeks on San Juan Island after coming here for a family vacation the year before. We booked the cabin at the very end, closest to the water: Number 8, named the Gillnetter. We liked the location because we knew it would give us a chance to see whales from our lodging. It was something I was so excited about I couldn't quite believe it was true. When we pulled up and started unloading the car, I remember my mom looking out to the water and saying, almost casually, "There's a whale".

"No way!!" was the response from my 16 year-old self. I dropped whatever I was carrying and scrambled for my binoculars, running to the point to watch as a couple of whales made their way slowly north. By the time they had passed and I came back, my mom had finished unloading and was starting dinner. When the time came to eat, we sat at the tiny table in front of the kitchen window eating our hot dogs and baked beans. Our meal was interrupted by the whales passing again, this time heading south.

A panorama of the view from the bench at the point at Mar Vista - click to see a larger view
Less than a day into our stay, my mom and I agreed that no matter what, we would spend at least a week at Mar Vista every summer together. ("Could you ever imagine," we mused during that first visit, "living on San Juan Island?" Little did I know what my future held! I'm living proof that if there's a will there's a way.) For the next few years, we always made sure our first dinner on the island was the same: hot dogs and baked beans were lucky, and brought the whales.

It wasn't just the resort's prime location on the west side of the island where the whales pass by that made it such a special place - far from it, actually. Even when the whales aren't around, the wildlife is abundant. Deer, eagles, otters, raccoons, harbor seals, great blue herons, and many other bird species frequent the property. I remember my mom waking me one morning to peek through the shades out the window where a mama deer had tucked her twin fawns into some grass just feet away from where we stood. The two babies gazed up at us with open, trusting brown eyes, as curious about us as we were about them.

A yearling deer at Mar Vista

 From the cabins, north of the point overlooking Haro Strait, you can walk through a tunnel of foliage down to the water's edge where there's a small, private cove. It's here where the families of otters and harlequin ducks frolic, and it's one of the best little beach-combing beaches on the island.

The cove at Mar Vista

At the end of the summer of 2003, when it became apparent I would be spending more and more time on San Juan Island in the coming years, my family bought a houseboat in Friday Harbor. We still visited Mar Vista every year, however, and after I started living on the island full time in 2007, Mar Vista became the place my parents would stay every time they came to visit during April-October, the season the cabins were available for rent.

One spring, we watched numerous bald eagles engage in courtship behavior right at sunset:

Courting bald eagles at sunset at Mar Vista

All of the west side of San Juan Island is stunning for watching sunsets, but some of the best I've ever seen have happened at Mar Vista:

Mar Vista sunset - September 2008
Mar Vista sunset - October 2010
Mar Vista sunset - June 2013
This is pretty much how I always felt when I was at Mar Vista:

Monika enjoying another Mar Vista Sunset - September 2009

Over the year's I've gotten to share Mar Vista with so many family and friends. Here's my niece making her first exploration of San Juan Island, holding the hand of her dad and my brother in 2008:


In early 2008 came the sad news that Lee Bave, who had owned Mar Vista since 1957, had passed away. Her children decided to sell the property, and it was listed for something like 14 million dollars. Mar Vista never did much advertising, but word of mouth kept the bookings coming in and many people returned for a visit every year as my family did. All of the regulars were devastated, wondering if this visit to Mar Vista would be their last.

The Mar Vista property is so beautiful and relatively undeveloped, I thought it would make a great acquisition for either the San Juan Preservation Trust or the San Juan County Land Bank. Could you just imagine, I thought, if this place became public land?! Positioned partway between Lime Kiln and American Camp, the other west side shoreline public accesses, it would also fill in a gap for shore-based whale watchers. I started a petition that quickly gathered nearly 500 signatures, asking local organizations to help save Mar Vista. It soon became apparent that the necessary funds just wouldn't be available, however. Meanwhile, the real estate market took a turn for the worst, and no one made an offer on the property. For five years, things continued more or less as they had, with the same family of caretakers running the resort every summer and the same devoted visitors making the pilgrimage every year to come visit this special, restorative place.

My favorite cabin at Mar Vista: Number 8, the Gilnetter

This year came the news that we all knew was inevitable: the property was selling. So many of us, my family included, have been saying for years that if we won the lottery the first thing we would do is buy Mar Vista. Ironically, a couple from the east coast that won the lottery are the buyers, though they've never actually stayed at Mar Vista before. It sounds like they are good people and will appreciate the beauty of the place, but sadly this means that as of July 8, 2013, Mar Vista will be closed.

My parents came up to spend one last long weekend at this amazing place. They invited me and Keith out to have dinner there and watch one last sunset. Appropriately, just like my first dinner at Mar Vista, my last one was also interrupted by whales. Preparation had to be halted when Keith saw the splash from a tail slap out the window, and we all ran out to the point. The whales are never as close to shore at Mar Vista as they sometimes are further north along Land Bank and Lime Kiln, but on this night they were about as close as I have ever seen them. It was L-Pod, and they were in a lazy, playful mood. I don't think I've ever seen so many tail waves!

L-Pod whales off Mar Vista - June 29, 2013

A whale spyhops off the rocks at Mar Vista - June 29, 2013
After a while, the whales turned and meandered back south, and we headed back inside for one last delicious dinner cooked in the cabin's not quite fully equipped kitchen. After dinner, before Keith and I left to head back home, we all stood outside in the darkness of the warm summer evening looking up the stars. That's another thing we've done a lot of at Mar Vista - star-gazing. My dad, an astronomy major, pointed out some of the summer constellations. My mom spotted a satellite passing by overhead. It was a perfect last evening at Mar Vista, but it was bittersweet. It's a place I will definitely miss.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The San Juan Islands: A Complex History of Place Names

Last weekend, in a used bookstore here in Friday Harbor appropriately called Serendipity, my mom serendipitously found a copy of a book that I've long wanted to own: Who the Hell Was San Juan ? Published in 1982, this booklet by Doug Cardle examines the history of place names in the San Juan Islands and also provides a nice summary of the convoluted history of European exploration of these islands which has contributed to the vast array of geographical names. The book, which has long been out of print, is available via the above link on Amazon, but here's my understanding of the history:

The Coast Salish people were the original inhabitants of the region, with the Samish tribe in particular making extensive use of the San Juan Islands and its natural resources. Somewhat surprisingly considering the rest of the region, only a very few names reflect this Native American history. Lummi Island refers to one of the other regional tribes, Indian Cove on Shaw Island is a known historic fishing ground, and Smallpox Bay on San Juan Island refers to the disease that wiped out such a large portion of the native population.

Indian Cove on Shaw Island, one of the few local place names that references the Native Americans who called this area home for thousands of years before Europeans arrived

In 1592, Apostolos Valerianos of Cephalonia (a Greek better known by his Spanish moniker of Juan de Fuca) sailed the west coast of North American in search of the Northwest Passage. He marked a strait in the rough vicinity of the closest oceanic access to our inland sea, and when such a waterway was found in a similar latitude almost two hundred years later by a British expedition, it was marked on the map as Juan de Fuca's Strait, and that name has persisted.

The infamous Strait of Juan de Fuca

In 1790, of course with complete disregard for the people already here, ownership of lands in the Pacific Northwest was being disputed among the Spanish, English, and Russians. Spain, under the leadership of (take a deep breath before saying this name) Don Juan Vincente de Guemes Pacheco de Padilla Horcasitees y Aguayo, Conde de Revilla Gigedo (abbreviated by some to San Juan - though he was not in fact a saint), decided to attempt to take control of this situation by sending an expedition to figure out where the Strait of Juan de Fuca actually led. After entering the strait, they made the fateful decision to turn left rather than right, making them the first Europeans to thoroughly explore what would become known as the San Juan Islands. The verbose name of San Juan was not only the inspiration for the name of San Juan Island and of the archipelago as a whole, but provided several other place names: Padilla Bay, Guemes Island, and Orcas Island. Orcas Island - isn't that named after our local black and white marine mammals? This is what many think, but bizarrely Orcas is taken from the name "Horcasitees".

Orcas Island - NOT named for Orcinus orca

While Spain agreed to abandon their claims to any lands north of California in 1795, their earlier presence remains evident in many local place names: Lopez Island, Rosario Strait, Sucia Island, Patos Island, and many others come from the names of Spanish dignitaries or Spanish words.

Patos Island - quite literally where the Spanish saw some ducks

Two years after the Spanish "San Juan" expedition, in 1792, the famed British sailor Captain George Vancouver also made his way into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Like Juan de Fuca two centuries before him, he was also interested in finding the mythical connection between the Pacific and Atlantic known as the Northwest Passage. Instead of turning left like the Spanish, however, Vancouver turned right after entering the strait, and thus is credited with "discovering" Puget Sound. He was more interested in the major waterways than any of the islands, but some of the names listed on his charts for this region have nonetheless survived: he penned the name Cypress Island (though the trees were actually junipers) and also paid tribute to his king via the Gulf of Georgia (now known a little further north than he marked it as the Strait of Georgia).

Finally, in 1841, the US made their mark on the region via the Wilkes Expedition. One of the United States greatest but largely forgotten exploring expeditions, the Wilkes Expedition spent four years surveying Antarctica, the Pacific Islands, and the west coast of North America, including the San Juan Islands. (Another great book is Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 which details the Wilkes Expedition). Lead by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who was somewhat obsessed with the War of 1812, he christened these islands part of the Navy Archipelago and proceeded to name all geographic features either after members of his crew (Waldron Island, Stuart Island, Spieden Island) or after major ships and figureheads involved in the War of 1812. Some examples of the latter that have survived the test of time are Mount Constitution, the Wasp Islands, and Decatur Island.

Waldron Island, named after Thomas and/or Russell Waldron, the purser and Captain's clerk on the Wilkes expedition

 In response in part of the increased US presence in the region shown by the Wilkes Expedition, the British redoubled their efforts to survey the area we now know as the Salish Sea in the 1840s when the Hudson Bay Company moved their headquarters to Victoria. Names that came from members of the Company include Mount Finlayson, Mitchell Bay, Kellett Bluff, and Reid Rock. In 1846 the border between the US and Canada was set as the 49th parallel, but the wording left the ownership of the islands unclear, and the British presence remained the dominant one. In 1847, Captain Henry Kellett revised many of the existing charts, and in the process erased a lot of what Wilkes had done, relieving us of such names as Rodgers Island for San Juan Island, Macedonian Crescent for Lopez Sound, and Penguin Harbor for part of Bellingham Channel. Around 1860 another British surveyor, Captain George Richards, put in a lot of time detailing the local geography, naming many of the smaller islands and land features. As you'll see, he was a real creative type, but more than 100 of his place names have stuck. Some examples include Yellow Island, Cliff Island, Dot Rock, Eagle Cove, Flat Point, Steep Point, and Harbor Rock - and I don't even have to provide any explanation for how he came up with these names, because they're self-explanatory. The British also named several places after the natural resources that led them here in the first place, and so we have Cattle Point, Deer Harbor, Fisherman Bay, and the like.

Yellow Island, named by the creative Captain George Richards of the Hudson Bay Company

After a short gold rush in the nearby Fraser Valley in 1858, more Americans drifted to the San Juan Islands after failing to find their fortune. This set the stage for the San Juan Island's 15 minutes of fame when it comes to US history. Tensions were already running high between the British and Americans in 1859 when American Lyman Cutler shot a trespassing pig that belonged to British magistrate John Griffin. This was the straw that broke the camel's back and the start of the Pig War, in which both countries established encampments here on the island (hence our American Camp, English Camp, and Garrison Bay). The joint occupation continued for 13 years with the only casualty of the war being the pig. Then, for some reason that has never been made clear to me, the German Emperor of all people ruled in 1872 that the US-Canada border would be in Haro Strait instead of Rosario Strait, placing the San Juan Islands in the United States as the last land acquired by the country in the Lower 48.

View from the redoubt at American Camp, which was occupied from 1859-1872
So, that wasn't quite as concise of a history as I had intended, but I hope you found it as enlightening as I did. At the very least, it sheds some light on why we have place names both English and Spanish, some of which make total sense, and others which reference people and ships and battles that took place far from here. While I know the British in particular did some chart revisions over time, it's still interesting to me that a few names from every exploring expedition have survived. Why wouldn't the British have gotten rid of all the Spanish names entirely, for instance, or were they using their charts? It's a fascinating question to ponder, but we may never have the answers. In the meantime, I now understand a little bit more about this amazing place I call home.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Yellow Island Trip ~ 2013

Last weekend, as part of my parents' visit to the island, we took an excursion over to Yellow Island, the 10-acre Nature Conservancy property north of Friday Harbor in San Juan Channel. While it is known for the amazing wildflower blooms that usually peak in April and May, it's a beautiful place to visit any time of year. In addition to some lounging harbor seals, we saw a nice variety of bird life including a pair of olive-sided flycatchers, numerous rufous hummingbirds, and lots of singing white-crowned sparrows:

It's an idyllic place, with beautiful scenes no matter which way you look:

As you can see in the above photo, just because the peak wildflower season is over doesn't mean there aren't still wildflowers to be found. The fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) in particular was both abundant and beautiful. One stretch of the trail involved walking through a fireweed jungle, with the densely growing flower stalks tall enough to be towering overhead. I had to spend some extra time there....

There was still evidence of some of the flower species the island is better known for - they've just all gone to seed. Here are the bulky seed pods of the chocolate lily (Fritillaria biflora):

A few of the other species I saw were gumweed (Grindelia sp.):

...and nodding onion (Allium cernuum):

....and harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria):

As always, it was another great visit to Yellow Island! My friend Phil is the caretaker there and always provides lots of great information and hospitality - thank you to him too!

A few other recent sightings...on June 29th I heard a willow flycatcher (164) at Land Bank's Westside Preserve, the same place I added to the year list last summer. Also, while birding with my dad at Cattle Point on the 30th, we found 15 Heermnan's gulls (165), a species that arrives this far north after it concludes its breeding season down in Mexico.

Last night, on July 1st, Keith and I went for an after dinner walk at American Camp. I'm inspired to get out there more around dusk after my last spectacular sunset visit! As expected, the wildlife was again active, like this rather tame (and probably human fed) fox in the parking lot:

We saw other more skittish foxes out on the prairies, as well as these interesting insects, which I believe are ten-lined june beetles (Polyphylla decemlineata):

A woman we saw who seemed scared of the foxes thought they were hunting gulls - unlikely. More likely is they were hunting these beetles, which I've seen them eating before and are large enough to provide at least a little bite-sized protein.

I've already got some other great blog posts lined up, so there will be more posts following in the near future!