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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mushroom Mania

Despite being one of the driest Octobers on record, we've had an amazing abundance and variety of mushrooms this year. I heard one local mushroom expert comment that it was a bumper crop kind of year. Last weekend I took advantage of our crisp, clear autumn weather to get out there and see how many different kinds of fungi I could find. Turns out mushroom photography is a great way for a nature photographer to get a workout! I probably did about 100 deep knee bends over the course of two days and was definitely feeling it afterwards. I haven't had time to look at the field guides yet, but here are some of the results:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

End of Season Superpod

I really felt like I was going to have one more great Southern Resident encounter before the season was over. When I went out with Jim Maya on October 5th, I thought that might be the day, and while we had an amazing experience with humpbacks and transient orcas, there wasn't a resident whale in sight. Turns out Sunday, October 20th was to be the resident orca day!

In the morning I heard whales had been detected on the hydrophones, and thanks to an update from a friend learned there were a lot of dorsal fins on the west side of San Juan Island. Skipping breakfast, I grabbed my gear and thankfully an extra coat (it was COLD out there) and headed out to Land Bank's Westside Preserve. Right when I got there the lead group was passing heading north, and among them were J2 Granny, J19 Shachi, and L27 Ophelia. It was clear the whales were moving very slowly and were very spread out, doing lots of stopping to forage. After the lead whales passed, L53 Lulu hung out in front of me for a while, cruising back and forth and even taking a moment to play in the kelp by herself.

L53 Lulu in the kelp
After Lulu moved north, the next group of whales to hang out were males L92 Crewser and K21 Cappuccino who were quite enamored with J14 Samish.

L92 Crewser and K21 Cappuccino, probably with J14 Samish underwater between them
There were quite a few whale folks out to see the orcas, and with long gaps between groups of whales, people were coming and going as the cold settled in. With blows always visible just past the point to the south, however, I just couldn't bring myself to leave. The first "pay off" for waiting was a nice pass from a group of L-Pod whales including L72 Racer, L105 Fluke, L106 Pooka, and L116 Finn.

L72 Racer and L116 Finn
Okay, the cold was REALLY starting to settle in now about two hours into being out there, but just LOOK at all those blows to the south! And they're facing this way, even if they're not making much progress! Thankfully Keith decided to come out and brought with him the relief of hand warmers which made the wait that much more tolerable, but it would have been worth it in any case. Look at all those dorsal fins - you don't see it like this very often (click to see a larger view):

A dozen or more whales at the surface around the Center for Whale Research boat

Lots of dorsal fins out there!
As the whales passed Land Bank, they started veering in towards shore a little bit more. This is always a conundrum: they may pass closer to shore at Lime Kiln, but it's hard to make it from one place to the other before the whales do.

J26 Mike, J16 Slick, and J42 Echo across the back with J38 Cookie up front
After a moment's hesitation, the decision is clear: GO! Run up the hill at Land Bank, drive (carefully obeying all posted speed limits, of course) to Lime Kiln, run down the hill to the rocks, and, if it works out like it did on Sunday, get there just in time to see L85 Mystery coming up right off the rocks:

L85 Mystery

L85 Mystery - next shot in the sequence

With him were two ten year-old males J39 Mako and J38 Cookie. I saw these two playing together as calves, so it was neat to see them still spending time together a decade (!) later.

J39 Mako
J38 Cookie
We walked down to the lighthouse to see the whales disappearing to the north. By this point, over three hours after getting out there, the whole superpod had passed, and it was definitely time to warm up and get something to eat. Later in day, after dark, they came back south, and the vocals on the Lime Kiln hydrophones were amazing. So many people were tuning in I couldn't even get on to listen, but luckily some of the folks that were tuned in were recording. Click here to listen to a half hour recording posted by Marcie Callewaert, a photographer from Victoria. These are about the best vocals you will ever here: a talkative superpod with no boat noise to drown them out. I've been listening to it while I wrote this post!

By Monday morning, the whales had moved on, and there weren't any reports as to there whereabouts. It just makes that one day visit all the more special. This time of year, it could very well be my last sighting of them for the season!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sunrise Season

Of course, the sun rises all year round, but this is one time of year when it coincides with my commute to work. I've got some different looks this year now that we've moved - here are some highlights from the last week, as I've had to stop several times to take some photos:

Early morning at Reuben Tarte

Sunrise over Egg Lake October 11th

Sunrise over Egg Lake October 14th
I also think of this time of year as mushroom season. This has been one of the driest Octobers on record (I am NOT complaining!), but I have still noticed them popping up all over the place. All along San Juan Drive there have been groups of shaggy manes:

I think I've pretty much exhausted my likely year bird possibilities for here on the island, but that of course doesn't mean I've stopped birding. I've been checking out Jackson Beach on a few lunch breaks and have seen a nice variety of gulls there, including my first-ever ring-billed gulls on San Juan Island. There have also been a quartet of killdeer hanging out on the spit, and the horned grebe numbers in the bay seem to increase with every visit.

Great blue heron at Reuben Tarte

One afternoon I went down to Cattle Point where an hour turned up 23 species, including some Pacific loons, a red-necked grebe, and lots of foraging surf scoters. The most interesting sighting wasn't avian, however, but was this stink bug (Family Pentatomidae) eating this banded woollybear (Pyrrhartica isabella):

I've seen several different varieties of stinkbug on the island, but never this one, which doesn't seem to have an exact match in my field guide. I didn't know until now that while some stinkbugs are plan eaters, other are predatory.

At home, after a month of zero activity, one brave nuthatch led the discovery of our feeders. We've seen a nice variety of species since then, including the occasional hairy woodpecker visiting our suet:

On the whale front, J-Pod made a brief visit into inland waters on the afternoon of the 16th, and I saw J2 Granny and L87 Onyx off Land Bank's Westside Preserve before they turned south and joined the rest of the pod further out in Haro Strait. While September was a bit more normal of a whale month, in October they have become scarce again. That's not too unusual for us on San Juan Island, but usually we'd expect at least J-Pod to start making trips into Puget Sound for the fall chum salmon runs. As has been the case most of the year, we're left wondering where they are and hoping that wherever it is, they're finding plenty to eat.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Whales Everywhere! In October!

On Saturday I hopped out on Jim Maya's boat the Peregrine for an afternoon trip. We weren't even five minutes off the dock when we met up with a group of six transients: the T36As and part of the T124s. This group didn't have any adult males, but was two adult females, each with their two offspring.

T36A (left) and T36A1
T124D with one year-old T36A2
T124D, a 17 year-old female
This is probably my favorite orca shot of the day:

From left to right: T36A, T124D, and T124
We followed the whales across Open Bay and along Henry Island, where they started surfacing all in a tight group:

Last month I added a whale with red-necked phalaropes to my unofficial bird-with-orcas photo collection, and I got another new one on this day: an orca with a great blue heron! Can you see it?

We left the whales sooner than we might have otherwise because there were so many other cetacean sightings in northern Haro Strait. It was amusing as we turned to head west across the strait to see other whale-watching boats zig-zagging in all different directions as they headed from one group of marine mammals to another. Not all days are like that, but it sure is special when it is! Our target was a humpback whale, which we spotted just south of D'Arcy Island. On the way there I saw a few close pigeon guillemots, already in winter plumage:

After watching the one humpback whale (there were boats visible to the south watching two more transient orcas, T20 and T21), we headed up towards Turn Point where we heard another boat had a group of playful Dall's porpoise. When we got up there, we couldn't find a single porpoise, but one of our passengers spotted a blow: it was another humpback whale! In fact, it was two of them traveling together, a pair that had been seen earlier in the day but had been lost. (Obviously they weren't lost - the whale watch boats just lost them.)

Here's another shot a moment later in the same sequence, with the rear whale fluking and the front whale arching its back for a dive:

I didn't post any pictures of the first humpback whale because they were all way surpassed by the photos I took of these two. One of these whales was CS280, an animal identified from the Clayquot Sound ID guide (on the west side of Vancouver Island). Humpback whales are identified by the black and white markings on the underside of their tail flukes, so you can tell this is CS280 from this photo:

Humpback whale CS280
The other whale was BCY0324 (after writing this blog post, whale names like "J2" seem so much more manageable!). "BC" whales have been identified in British Columbia, and are given an X, Y, or Z depending on the amount of white on their flukes. This whale, however, is known locally as Big Mama. In the late 1800s and early 1900s humpback whales were hunted in the Salish Sea, but it didn't take long to exterminate the local population. For decades, humpback whales weren't seen in inland waters. All that started to change in 1999, when Big Mama was the first humpback whale to be regularly seen in the area. Humpback whale sightings started to become common in about 2005, and they're becoming more and more numerous every year. This is the best humpback whale year yet, with animals around all spring, summer, and fall. It was cool to meet the first whale that came back to the Salish Sea - maybe she's the one that spread the word about returning to these straits!

BCY0324 "Big Mama"
These whales sure didn't seem to mind our presence. Whenever they would go down for a longer dive we would remain parked, and they'd pop up again right near the boat. At one point, they surfaced about 15 yards off the starboard side!

 I took a short video when they were this close that I'll post at another time, too. Look how broad these guys look head-on (or in this case, behind-on):

When you see them at this range, it's obvious they're more than twice as big as an orca! They look huge! And those tails that they lift on a dive are just so photogenic:

I always love the more abstract shots, like this one, which is one of my personal favorites from the day. Big Mama is diving, and after arching her tail at the end of her last surfacing, she's bringing her tail back in the other direction here, the tips of her flukes still just visible before she paddles her tail to thrust herself forwards:

It doesn't look anything like the span between those two fluke tips is 10-15 feet in the above shot, but it is! 

By this time, the six transients we were with earlier had crossed to the west side of Haro Strait too, and we could see their blows in the distance behind this pair of humpbacks. Unfortunately the timing was never quite right to get both species in one shot! But wow, the lighting sure got beautiful.

All too soon, it was time to leave, and we watched as the pair of humpbacks continued on their way together:

One of my last views was of Big Mama fluking with the Olympic Mountains in the background - what a place I live!!!