For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Wolf Hollow Harbor Seal Release

This morning I was lucky enough to be invited to watch a harbor seal release. Wolf Hollow Wildlife  Rehabilitation Center here on San Juan Island cares for orphaned and injured wildlife found throughout the San Juan Islands and Skagit County, and harbor seal pups are one of the main animals they care for during the summer months. Some years, the rehabilitate twenty or more seals, but this year only resulted in five seals to release. The final two seals, nicknamed Leto and Phanes, were set free today from a beach on San Juan Island.

Wolf Hollow volunteers carry the two harbor seals down to the beach
The crates are opened simultaneously (with a camera set up in front to capture their first moments of freedom)
Leto, the darker of the two seals, was found alone on a beach in Ferndale. He came to Wolf Hollow in early August dehydrated and lethargic, weighing just 15 pounds. He now weighs over 50 pounds and is tagged with both a flipper tag and a hat tag marked C5. He was the bolder of the two seals, poking his nose out almost immediately to survey his new surroundings.

He spent a little bit of time exploring the beach before diving into the shallows.

Phanes, on the otherhand, did not seem interesting in leaving his carrier. After several minutes he was given a little encouragement by having his cage tilted, but he climbed right back in. Finally, he had to be somewhat unceremoniously dumped out onto the beach:

Phanes was the lighter seal tagged with the H2 hat tag. He was found near Poulsbo at the end of July. At about seven days old, he was also around 15 pounds, and in addition to being thin had numerous puncture wounds all over his body. He's been the more timid of the two seals all throughout his rehab, but eventually he too found the courage to enter the water.

After doing a little exploring on their own, the two pups met up out in the bay. Previous tracking experiments have shown they might stay together for a day or so, but will probably split up after that.

"Do you know where we are?" "No, do you?"

After the seals were off on their own, a few of us who watched the release went to get a tour of the Wolf Hollow facility. While they are never open to the public, they're busiest during the summer months with lots of baby animals, and do offer some special tours during the off-season when there are fewer animals to be disturbed. Here's a list of the animals currently in their care, not including a red-breasted sapsucker that was a recent arrival, and with the two harbor seals we saw released not yet subtracted:

The first part of tour covered the harbor seal facility where Leto and Phanes had just come from. These are the tubs under heat lamps where new animals are kept isolated from one another when they're first brought in:

Later, they're transferred to a series of outdoor pools as their rehabilitation progresses:

We saw special enclosures designed for otters, waterfowl, and deer, though their actual usage can vary a lot depending on what kinds of animals are in care. The largest enclosure is the eagle flight cage, which currently houses two young female bald eagles that will be released in a few months:

There are also numerous songbird aviaries, like the one pictured below. They're heavily meshed both to keep out racoons and minks and to protect the birds from injuring their wings or feathers on the cages. Pretty much all the enclosures are also surrounded by natural vegetation to keep the animals in the most "wild" setting possible and as much away from human activity as they can be.

In addition to being a wildlife rehab center, Wolf Hollow also provides outreach and education about local wildlife. As part of these programs, they have a few educational birds who were too injured to be returned to the wild but were suitable for lives in captivity. One of them was Mardona, a red-tailed hawk, who came into the facility at just a few months old and is now over 15 years of age:

Another of the permanent residents is Aspen, a rough-legged hawk who many years ago flew into some power lines on Lopez Island:

The third bird was an educational bird in training, a northern saw-whet owl who was still quite shy. We just got a glimpse of this small owl, but they're so amazing to see up close.

It was cool to see our local wildlife rehab center in action today. I've been familiar with their work for years but hadn't ever had the opportunity to see a release or visit their facility before. If you want to learn more about them, check out their website, follow them on Facebook (you'll see some cute animals pictures!), or see if you can help out by donating anything from their Amazon wish list.

Friday, September 27, 2013

September Whale Update

After July and August were dismal in terms of Southern Resident Killer Whale sightings around San Juan Island, it didn't take long into September for things to change. On September 3rd, all three pods returned and Southern Residents were seen in inland waters for the next twelve days straight. From September 16th they were gone for a few days, but returned before long and made their first foray into Puget Sound for the fall on September 21st. Since then, the only day without Residents was the 24th.

L92 Crewser in Haro Strait - September 23rd
For a few weeks, things in the whale world have started to feel a little more normal again. The Residents are making regular trips up to the Fraser River, sometimes staying up there for a day or two foraging, and are utilizing their regular traveling routes like Boundary Pass and Rosario Strait on a more frequent basis - they're not just staying off the south end of San Juan Island like they often did when they were here earlier this summer.

Whale-watching in September often looks like this: lots of open space and no boats
Checking back in with the Albion Chinook test catch fishery on the lower Fraser River, it's no surprise the whales have been here more: there's also been more fish.

Daily catch numbers (red line) from the Albion test fishery through late September compared to the historical average from 1961-2012
Cumulative catch numbers (purple line) for 2013 compared to the historical average from 1961-2012
September 23rd was the first time I've seen K13 Skagit all summer. The K13 matriline is one of the family groups I know the best because I've seen them so much over the years, and they've been here off and on this year, but this was amazingly the first time I've crossed paths with them.

K13 Skagit - September 23, 2013 in Haro Strait

On September 25th, we had what was perhaps our last summer-like day of the year. The skies were blue, the sunshine was warm, the waters were flat calm. I spent four hours in the afternoon on the west side of San Juan Island with foraging whales in sight (mostly distant blows) the entire time. Over the course of an hour, J2 Granny, J8 Speiden, L87 Onyx, and the J14 matriline made their way slowly north of Lime Kiln Lighthouse.

J2 Granny heading north on September 25, 2013

Even though the whales weren't super close, it was so peaceful to just sit (in a T-shirt! In September!) and listen to their blows while they did their thing without a boat in sight.

L87 Onyx - September 25, 2013
It will be interesting to see what the next few weeks bring. Will there continue to be a late season salmon surge, keeping the whales around later into the fall than some years? Will they start going down into Puget Sound more regularly? Or will they take off again to waters unknown? Only time will tell, but I'll be watching!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Taking in the Smaller Things: Birds and Reptiles

It's been a while since I've blogged about some of the smaller local wildlife, but that doesn't mean I haven't been paying attention. Just the other day after work I hiked the nearest public trail to our new house, one that I didn't used to frequent very often. In an open field I came across over 60 American pipits (169), the most I've ever seen at one time and a year bird to boot.

Speaking of the new house, I of course have started a new yard list - in fact, I added the first 12 species to the list during our home inspection! First, let me summarize the "yard" list I'm leaving behind at the houseboat and the marina....

In the eight summers and five full years of birding there, I tallied a remarkable 64 species. The first two species on the list, glaucous-winged gull and belted kingfisher, are probably also among the most commonly sighted being regular year-round visitors. Some other memorable and unexpected highlights include a brown creeper foraging on the siding of the marina building and barred owl sitting on the roof of the houseboat! The most recent addition to the list, a Caspian tern, was added just six week before we moved.

There are a lot of marine species there that more likely than not won't be added to the new yard list. Among the 64 species were at least 20 I would classify as "water birds". Without living there, I probably never would have had such a close up look at diving mergansers, grebes, and cormorants.

That said, the new yard list, spanning the six weeks we've lived here plus the one mid-summer visit for the home inspection, already tallies 25 species. I've never yet had again the variety I did during that first June afternoon here, where among the dozen species seen and heard were singing black-headed grosbeaks, house wrens, and Townsend's warblers. We have had a barred owl visit twice so far, and the woodpeckers are also abundant compared to in town. It will be a lot easier to add pileated woodpecker to the year list next year, as we see our hear them almost daily! The most recent addition was just added this morning when I heard a varied thrush, which I take as yet another sign that fall is coming.

Finally, we had another unexpected addition the yard list just last week - a northern alligator lizard!

This is the only confirmed lizard species in the San Juan Islands, and as I had never seen one in all my years here I had almost given them up as being mythical. That said, now I find out several friends see them at their houses regularly! But this was quite a surprise for me, and a welcome one. This guy was quite a bit larger than the western fence lizards that are the reptilian species I've most often encountered along the west coast. They can obviously thrive in colder, damper climates than some other lizard species, and apparently they eat the likes of snails and spiders. I hope he becomes a regular visitor!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Vendovi Island

Last Saturday we took a San Juan Preservation Trust trip to Vendovi Island. This 217 acre island, which is part of the San Juan Archipelago but is actually in Skagit county, was acquired by the trust in 2010 and was in private ownership before that. Only two acres of it are developed and there are no deer there, so it's an amazingly intact habitat. To get there, we took a ferry to Anacortes, then got on a water taxi for a 40 minute ride to Vendovi. They dropped us off in North Cove:

Looking towards Lummi Island from North Cove

The island is open for public visitation during the summer months and a couple of lucky caretakers get to live in the house at North Cove during the season. There are a few other buildings here too, but as we started our one-mile hike towards Paintbrush Point, we quickly left any sign of habitation behind and entered the lush forest.

Vendovi is one of the island names that survives from the work of the Wilkes Expedition; the captain named this island after a Fijian chief he had taken prisoner, but who the crew grew fond of during the rest of their travels. Early in the last century the island was briefly both a religious retreat and a fox farm, but from the 1950s onwards it was in possession of the Fluke family (of Fluke Coroproation fame) until 2010.

We stopped for lunch at Paintbrush Point, where apparently the spring wildflower show rivals that of Yellow Island. There weren't any flowers on this day, but we were thankful for the warm sunshine after the day had dawned rainy and foggy.

Looking south towards Guemes Island from Paintbrush Point

After learning about the local history during lunch, we had some time to explore the island's beaches on our own before our return trip to Anacortes. We headed over to Sunset Beach where I was keen to check out the shell midden that is evidence of usage of this island of Coast Salish - notice all the white shells on the beach:

Here we found a few flowers - I think this is one of our species of searocket (Cakile sp.) still in bloom:

We didn't see much in the way of wildlife, but I did spot the largest land mammal of the island: a Douglas squirrel. We don't have tree squirrels on San Juan Island so it was a bit of a surprise!

I had been keen to check out this island ever since the Preservation Trust acquired it, so I was glad to get out there and especially happy the weather was so nice for our visit!

Monday, September 9, 2013

September 6: Superpod

I love September. I always say it's my favorite month in the San Juan Islands and the first week has more than reminded me why. I've had so many amazing wildlife encounters already and have been so busy looking for whales and enjoying our late summer weather that I've gotten behind on things to blog about! I've gotta start with the most spectacular, which occurred last Friday when I went out with Western Prince. All three Southern Resident pods returned on September 3rd, and given how scarce they've been this summer and the fact that the season is winding down, I was eager to see them.

We headed north up to Boundary Pass. It was a foggy morning and we passed through some patches of fog on our way up there, but when we neared the whales things cleared up beautifully.

Just like they have been, the pink salmon were jumping like crazy. In this picture you can see why they're nicknamed "humpies" or humpback salmon:

We met up with the whales in the middle of the Pass, and the 80+ of them were so spread out that you could see dorsal fins in any direction you looked. The first whale we came across was L72 Racer, who passed between us and the Odyssey (notice the two other whales in the background):

With the low, wispy clouds covering part of the islands in the background, it was an amazing time and place to be watching whales:

Racer was traveling with K22 Sekiu, and their two nine year-old boys L105 Fluke and K37 Rainshadow were really enjoying playing around together.

From left to right: K22 Sekiu, L72 Racer, K37 Rainshadow

As they traveled on ahead, we turned to view off the north side of the boat where a large group of whales was moving up the shoreline of Saturna Island. It would be pretty special to have a home on the south side of Saturna, where the whales often pass by!

I just missed the breach from a calf, but I caught the amazed expressions on the faces of these two women who were sitting on the Saturna shoreline (click to see a larger view):

Here's another shot that shows what they were treated to - this is L53 Lulu passing by in front of them:

The whales closest to us were  a group of playful youngsters; we had a trio of them on each side of the boat. It's amazingly hard to ID the juveniles when there aren't any adults around to give a clue as to who might be there! The whales grow so fast that their dorsal fin shape may not look like their ID photo, and with all their playing they're getting new nicks and scratches all the time. On one side of the boat we had J46 Star and J44 Moby with one other whale, and on the other side of the boat was L109 Takoda, K44 Ripple, and one other whale.

They were having a grand old time, and so were we, watching them!

Here's a couple shots of J44 Moby:

And L105 Takoda off the other side (I was standing on the bow of the boat so I could easily switch from viewing off one side to the other):

As we rounded East Point with the whales, they turned to the north to head for the Fraser River. There seemed to be a little rearranging of the different groups, and we found ourselves with J27 Blackberry for a bit. I love getting photos of orcas with different bird species - I have shots of whales with common murres, rhino auklets, and black oystercatchers, for instance - but this was the first time I photographed a whale with red-necked phalaropes!

J27 Blackberry with a trio of red-necked phalaropes

As often happens during superpods, a group of adult males was hanging out together. Near Blackberry were K21 Cappuccino and L95 Nigel.

K21 Cappuccino
The whales seemed excited or eager to head towards the Fraser, because all of a sudden whole groups of them started swimming at high speed, or porpoising. Even though we were farther away at this point, it was an impressive sight to see groups of whales launching themselves out of the water like that. The L4s were traveling with the J17s.

From left to right: J17 Princess Angeline, J28 Polaris, J46 Star
L27 Ophelia

We were with the whales for a memorable hour and a half, but the time passed so fast that it was hard to believe it was time to leave already. We left them continuing north up the Strait of Georgia.

From left to right: L27 Ophelia, L53 Lulu, L86 Surprise
As beautiful as it was when we arrived in Boundary Pass, the skies may have been even more stunning on the way home!

I can only hope that the rest of September has more of this kinda day in store!