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

Friday, November 29, 2013

Granny Comes For Thanksgiving

Yesterday was "American Thanksgiving" as its known in these parts (as opposed to Canadian Thanksgiving across the border), and while we were enjoying a lazy morning at home before starting our cooking I saw an exciting status update from a friend on Facebook. All it said was "Orcas!!!" but that was enough to get me out the door two minutes later and on my way to the west side. My guess was it was probably transients and that we likely wouldn't see them, but since it was surprisingly a sunny day it seemed like a good day to get out anyway.

When we arrived at Lime Kiln, the waters were quiet, so we continued south to Land Bank. I saw a boat parked past the point to the south - an encouraging sign. Then a fellow islander pulled up and confirmed that whales were heading our way. J-Pod was the rumor he heard. As the blows and dorsal fins started coming into view, it became apparent there were more whales than that - in fact, it ended up being a superpod!!

A surprising sight on Thanksgiving Day: orcas!

Once it looked like the whales were committed to going north, we dashed up to Lime Kiln, where they often pass closer to shore. It was definitely the right decision! As the first group approached us, they started getting active, and this pair of whales did not one but two sets of synchronized breaches, giving me a chance to capture the second one in a picture. Needless to say, this stunning sight doesn't even compare to what the captive whales do at SeaWorld - these two were breaching just because they can, possibly just for the joy of it.

Better than SeaWorld: two whales breach in synchrony, just because they can

The first group of whales was maybe 150 yard offshore, but right before they passed the lighthouse, they turned and angled in even closer. Usually I zoom in all the way, but this time I decided to try and capture the feeling of having a big group of whales pass so close, so this wide-angle shot shows some of the whales and the rocks we were standing on at the bottom of the frame:

Even though I love how these shots turned out, I couldn't take it too long and had to zoom in to get some nice ID shots. It was a nice mix of J- and K-Pod whales in this first group.

J38 Cookie

K21 Cappuccino
The lighting was perfect to capture these surface behaviors right after they passed:

K21 tail slap

A huge cartwheel by K16 Opus

It was also great to see the K13s, a matriline I didn't see as much of this past summer as I usually do.

K20 Spock with nephew K44 Ripple

K25 Scoter is a member of the K13s who was tagged last winter, yielding interesting and important data about the winter movements of the Southern Residents. (Read about where K25 traveled last winter here.) Unfortunately, the tag didn't dislodge as it was supposed to, so he still has remnants from the darts in his fin, which were visible yesterday.

K25 surfaces

A close-up of the barbs in K25's fin

There was just a short gap before the next large group of whales came by. It was mostly K- and L-Pod whales, with a group of young males hanging out together and all the playful youngsters in the L4 matriline.

More whales approaching!

I've actually photographed several double breaches before, but this was the first time I captured a double spyhop. (Earlier this year I saw a TRIPLE spyhop, but I missed it!)

The only boats on the water with the whales were two research vessels - here's one of them in the background of these photos:

The whales just kept coming!

The final group included some familiar "faces" from J-Pod - whales it's always especially a joy to see.

J16 Slick and J42 Echo

Tail slap from J26 Mike
The last close whale was J2 Granny, still seemingly going strong after the loss a couple months ago of her companion J8 Spieden. This was our first Thanksgiving in our new house, and also for the first time we hosted my parents. I wasn't expecting Granny to show up too, but she was more than welcome!

J2 Granny
The exuberant whales continued on their way north, and one of my last pictures was this incredible shot of a cartwheeling whale almost vertical in the air:

So, it pretty much turned out to be the best Thanksgiving ever with a surprise superpod - it looked like everyone but the L12s were present. Oh yeah, the food ended up being pretty good, too.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

November Transient Orcas

Yesterday I had just gotten home from work when I heard that a group of marine mammal eating transient orcas was in Spieden Channel, just down the road from where I live. I hurried down there and got there just in time to see the seven whales heading east in front of a Washington State Ferry.

This photo got a lot of views yesterday; I posted it after getting home, and King5 news in Seattle posted it on their Facebook page. In a couple hours it had 1800 likes and a couple hundred shares - wow! It was also the "photo of the day" in the Orca Network whale report for yesterday.

Perhaps not coincidentally, there were sea lions right in front of me swimming by, about as far away from the whales as they could get. Steller sea lions regularly haul out on Green Point at the east end of Spieden Island, but I was surprised to see a pair of California sea lions, too.

Stellar sea lion (front) and a pair of California sea lions (back) in Spieden Channel
I heard today the whales were T35, the T38s, and T75B and T75C, but they were too far away for me to get any IDs myself. One of these whales has a cool white mark on his dorsal fin, but it's on the other side so I didn't get to see that. But, it's pretty awesome anytime you see whales, especially in the "off" season.

I watched them for about 15 minutes until they were past Spieden Island and had turned to the north, heading apparently for Boundary Pass.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Coastal and Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins

On Saturday, November 9th we headed south to Long Beach where we took an afternoon sea life cruise with Harbor Breeze Cruises. With traffic always the big unknown, we got there a bit early, and had an hour or so to bird around the harbor. There were hundreds of western grebes, but I couldn't find a Clark's grebe among them. Other highlights were the brown pelicans, surf scoters, eared grebes, royal terns, and a black phoebe.

As we headed out of Rainbow Harbor aboard the 85' catamaran Triumphant, we passed the Queen Mary and the Queen Mary Dome where the Spruce Goose used to be housed.

Not far out, we passed the buoy where a pair of masked boobies had been regularly seen. Unfortunately, they hadn't seen them in about a week when we were there. I like the California sea lion that found his way to the second level, though:

The sea conditions in the open Pacific where amazingly calm. We ended up going 12 miles offshore, and the whole way it looked like this:

We didn't have to go that far, however, to encounter our first bottlenose dolphins of the day. Just like we have two different kinds of orcas that frequent the Salish Sea, there are two different populations of bottlenose off the California coast: the coastal and the offshore populations. Despite living in such close proximity to one another, they're genetically distinct. Not much is known about them, but we had a naturalist on board who was taking photo ID shots to help a researcher who is trying to estimate the population size of the local dolphins.

Look at all those scars! Click to see a larger version

We encountered four or five different groups of bottlenose throughout the day, including members of both populations. They were all very interested in bow-riding, give us nice close looks, at times from straight above.

It was amazing to see all the scarring not only on the bodies, but the damage to the dorsal fins, which is the main way they ID different individuals. The shapes varied wildly, too, but check out the injuries some of these dorsal fins have sustained:

Distinct notches

Missing the top of the fin

What was really striking seeing the dolphins bow-riding was how big they are: about 10-12 feet long! Way bigger than the Dall's porpoises that bow ride in the San Juan Islands. Of course there's not much to compare them to size-wise in these photos, but I love the way these shots turned out:


We saw several calves throughout the day, too. They were quick and hard to catch on camera! This is the only decent shot I got:


It's such a special thing to watch cetaceans underwater, in their element. They are such graceful beings, swimming so effortlessly!

In addition to the dolphins, I was hoping to see some pelagic birds out there, but it was surprisingly quiet bird-wise. The most bird activity was when the dolphins were around, and I'm afraid the dolphins took precedence. I did see a single sooty shearwater (190):

Just before our turnaround point we saw some more splashing in the distance. Hoping for Risso's or common dolphins, two species they regularly see in addition to bottlenose, we headed out that way. It turned out just to be more bottlenose dolphins! I was really hoping to see one of the other species, which I haven't ever seen before, but this last group of bottlenose were the most playful of the bunch, and a real treat to see. It was also the biggest group, with maybe about 30 animals.

On our way back, I was keeping an even sharper eye out for birds, and spotted about half a dozen black-vented shearwaters (191, NA life bird 352). It's an even worse picture than of the sooty shearwater, but hey, when it's the first time you've ever seen a bird, you take what you can get!

So concluded our wildlife sightings for our four days in California, as it was time to head back north the next morning. I had to get the camera out on the plane again as we approached Seattle, as the Cascade Mountains were impressive out the east side of the plane:

I think this is Mt. Jefferson? Not sure what that dark line was from.
Mt. Rainier from about 10,000 feet, right before we descended into the clouds above Seattle

Friday, November 15, 2013

Malibu Lagoon State Beach and Zuma Beach

After our warm hike at Temescal Canyon on November 8th, we headed a little further north along the coast to Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Doing some research via eBird ahead of time, I had circled this beach on the map as one of the most prolific birding sites in the area in terms of the variety of birds seen. It did not disappoint!

Malibu Lagoon - nestled between Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean
When we arrived, I immediately took my shoes off and enjoyed the warm sand between my toes. Among the first birds I saw were a trio of western grebes, four different gull species, and a flyby from an osprey. I didn't have to walk far to see my first year bird at the site - a single spotted sandpiper (182). While looking at several snowy and great egrets, Keith's sharp eyesight found my second year bird across the lagoon. It was a juvenile green heron (183).

My most hoped for species at this site was a snowy plover, a species I have only seen once before, 12 years ago, also along the California coast. The thing I remembered most about them was that I practically stepped on one before seeing one, and the exact same thing happened this time (184). These sparrow-sized shorebirds blend into the sand almost entirely when they aren't moving, and they don't flush until you're pretty close to them.

Snowy plover close-up
I would see one plover, and then while kneeling to take a photo of it, five others I didn't see would scurry out of the way. In total, there were probably about 30 of them there. Snowy plovers are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. One major threat occurs during the breeding the season. They lay eggs on sandy beaches, where they are easily trampled by humans.

Snowy plover: officially the cutest bird I saw on my trip
I spotted one plover with bands on its legs. I sent some photos and info to a researcher at the Point Reyes  Bird Observatory that's part of a snowy plover banding project and learned and this bird a chick from this year that was banded at Oceano Dunes 150 miles north of Malibu Lagoon. The same bird was spotted at Malibu Lagoon a month ago, so it will probably spend the whole winter here.

A banded snowy plover at Malibu Lagoon - two green bands on its left leg and a blue and red band on its right

 While looking at the plovers, a great-tailed grackle (185) made himself known while rummaging through the wrack. I didn't look at him long, because a mixed flock of shorebirds a little further along caught my attention. In addition to the snowy plovers and spotted sandpiper from before, I also identified some least sandpipers, willets, a black turnstone, godwits, a couple of whimbrel (186), a killdeer, and a whole slew of black-bellied plovers. Nine shorebird species in one little stretch of beach!

From left to right: whimbrel, black turnstone, black-bellied plovers
In fact, it was pretty much the case that no matter where you looked, you were seeing multiple bird species right together. It was a real birder's paradise that way!

Great egret with a whimbrel

Brown pelicans with double-crested cormorants and black-bellied plovers
An hour there turned up about 30 species, with the cherry on top being a Say's phoebe (187) just as we were leaving. I probably could have stayed there the rest of the day, but the boys were ready to hit Zuma Beach and take a dip in the ocean. While they swam, I waded up to my knees in the cool Pacific, camera in hand. Again, the numbers of shorebirds in crowded SoCal was impressive.

Some of the hundreds of sanderlings at Zuma Beach, paying no mind to the surfers, birders, or sun bathers
I spotted two distant long-billed curlews (188) here at Zuma, but was more taken with the large flock of very photogenic marbled godwits. Just like our first day in California, the late afternoon lighting was perfect for shooting shorebirds.

Marbled godwit at Zuma Beach

Marbled godwits at Zuma Beach
Finally, as we drove back towards Venice, we saw a pair of red-shouldered hawks (189) perched along Highway 1. With one more full day ahead of us, I was hoping to pass 190 species on the year list before heading home, but birds weren't going to be my main target the next day when we headed out onto the water....