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

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What's wrong with a dock?

Almost a year ago I posted a blog saying a fond farewell to Mar Vista, a special property on the westside of San Juan Island that for many decades was a rustic resort. Despite the wishes of many that hoped to see it become another of the island's beautiful preserves, it was sold to private owners. Through the grapevine I heard that they were a couple who had recently won the lottery, and it sounded like they would be good environmental stewards of the land. Unfortunately, that image was quickly shattered.

At the end of 2013 the local media brought attention to the fact that a portion of the shoreline on the Mar Vista property had been illegally clearcut. You can see some photos of the result in a San Juan Islander article here. Outraged, many of us hoped officials would come down hard on the violations. Even more outrageous than the act was the result: a paltry $1000 fine to the property owners and $2000 for the company that did the work. (See the San Juan Journal article here.) For someone who just won a nine figure lottery jackpot, that's chump change.

This week, Mar Vista has resurfaced in the news again, this time because the owners have applied for a permit to build a 271' dock capable of mooring up to six 30' vessels in a pocket beach adjacent to both their property and the University of Washington Reserve that makes up the majority of False Bay. I don't like the idea myself, and have submitted comments to the county expressing why (you can do the same between now and June 4 - e-mail But as this issue is being discussed on the island, some people are asking: who cares? It's just a dock. What's wrong with a dock?

It's true, it's just one dock, in the grand scheme of things. But here are a few additional salient facts:
  • There aren't any other docks on the exposed west side of San Juan Island. In addition to this leaving the shoreline visually appealing and largely undeveloped, there's a good reason for this: this side of the island gets hit pretty hard by winter storms. How long would a dock last? And if this one gets approved, how many others will try to follow suit? 
  • There's ample moorage available at other local marinas. This site is what just a couple years ago was proposed as a no-go zone for vessels during the summer months due to it being such critical foraging habitat for the Southern Residents. And think of how far they'll have to go just to fuel up. 
  • People have claimed, rightly so, that the owners are following the appropriate protocol for building a dock, so what's the problem? They were also following appropriate protocol for developing their property until they showed blatant disregard for the rules and clearcut part of it, so I'm not really sold on their environmental integrity.
  • Pocket beaches are a critical shoreline habitat for many species. I know this cove, and in my brief visits have seen it used by river otters, harlequin ducks, harbor seals, bald eagles, and black oystercatchers, just to name a few species - and that's only what I can see above the surface. According to recent studies conducted on forage fish in the county, pocket beaches are one of the prime habitats locally in which juvenile Chinook salmon hang out during the summer months. (Read my May 9 blog post for an idea of just how important those guys are.) It's also close to a confirmed sand lance spawning site and is certainly providing important habitat to other fish and intertidal species as well.
  • Amazingly (to me) the county has decided at this point that no environmental impact assessment for this permit is necessary. I think in the very least it deserves that.
  • Shoreline development is a major issue in Washington State right now. Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are beautiful places, but not healthy ones. Habitat preservation and restoration are absolutely critical if we're going to protect any species, or give ourselves a healthy place to live. There are some amazing restoration efforts going on in Washington, but due to new and continuing development projects, the net result is we are still losing habitat. Yes, this is just one site. But they all add up.
  • Shoreline development is also a major issue in San Juan County right now. There is a major divide locally between those that want to preserve the rights of property owners and those that want to preserve the environment. San Juan County has recently undergone a mandatory process to update its Critical Areas Ordinance, which dictates how development activities intersect with environmental regulations. The new ordinance was appealed by both sides: FRIENDS of the San Juans, a local conservation organization, claims the regulations aren't adequate based on current science to protect habitat. The Common Sense Alliance, a grassroots organization that claims they stand for "the complete disregard" of property owners, believes the ordinance is mandating harsh solutions to undefined problems that have no scientific basis. The two sides have clashed in sometimes ugly debates in the local media, but it truly seems that our islands are at a crossroads. Which path will we take? Will we put the land before ourselves, aiming towards a more sustainable environmental future, or will we maintain the status quo, where you can do whatever you want on your own land, especially if you have the money to back it up?
So, regardless of your opinion on the issue, I hope you can see by now....this about a lot more than just one dock.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

High Drama at the Hummingbird Feeder

I've added a couple more year birds to the list in the last couple of days - Swainson's thrush (169) and olive-sided flycatcher (170), but the highlights have been the cast of characters visiting our hummingbird feeder. There's been at least seven or eight of them, and quite the social drama plays out among them as to who is allowed to feed with whom and at what time. The pictures really say it better than I ever could:

Friday, May 16, 2014

Mr. T

First, a note, since I've been terrible at posting updates about my year list here! These are the species I've added since our Yellow Island trip a month ago, the last time I reported my total on the blog: Cassin's vireo, Townsend's warbler, house wren, American goldfinch, band-tailed pigeon, black-capped chickadee (can you believe this one slipped all the way to #160?! I can't - it was in the first ten species I saw every year until this one!), Wilson's warbler, sora, northern rough-winged swallow, Pacific-slope flycatcher, Bonaparte's gull, Eurasian collared-dove, brown-headed cowbird, and black-throated gray warbler. That puts me at 168 for the moment, and I'll do better about posting updates from now on!

Now, last weekend we had some friends in town and we went out whale-watching with Jim Maya. On our way there we stopped at the local alpaca farm, and I just had to share a couple photos of these guys first:

As we left the dock in Snug Harbor, we had a report of a single whale way up north! It was a long trip, but the water conditions couldn't have been better - it was beautiful!

It's fairly unusual to see just one orca, even a transient - the only time this generally happens is if its a lone bull. I guess this guy qualifies - he is 22 years old, though his fin is fairly short and looks more like that of a teenager. He also hasn't been seen on his own very often that I know of. When we got on scene in southern Georgia Strait, there he was: T124C.

He seems to be kind of an odd whale all around, not just size-wise. The last time I saw him was in May 2010, and he was traveling with CA058 - a California transient never before seen this far north! Here's a throwback image from that encounter - has he grown since then? I guess a little!

T124C in Haro Strait in May 2010.

Amazingly, we were the only boat on scene with him this time. One boat, one whale, and these amazing glassy calm waters that provided stunning reflections with every surfacing.

The scenery was amazing in every direction, too:

We ended up following T124C far enough north that when it was time to head home, we came back through Active Pass. I had only been through the pass a couple of times before, and now twice already this year! It's such a beautiful spot, especially in the late afternoon lighting as we went from east to west. Here's a shot of the Active Pass Lighthouse on Georgina Point on Mayne Island:

The colors in the pass were just amazing!

It's been interesting to see how transient sightings have continued with regularity while our Southern Residents have been conspicuous only by their absence. See my last blog post for a little more info on that - it turns out J-Pod came in for just about 24 hours before leaving again!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Southern Residents: Data Behind the Impressions

It's that time of year again, when us whale folks start anxiously anticipating the arrival of the Southern Residents in inland waters. Sure, it's light past 8 PM again, the swallows are patrolling the island's fields, and I can take a walk without a jacket, but it won't feel like the season has really started until hearing these three words: "Many whales inbound".

This year, like last year, we're waiting longer than we used to. The days slipped off the calendar from April into May, and other than a surprise brief visit from K-Pod, there's no sign of the Southern Residents in the Salish Sea.

I recently participated in two workshops about orcas and salmon: The Whale Museum's naturalist gear-up here on San Juan Island and a joint effort by several regional organizations of an orca and salmon recovery workshop in Seattle. Finally, thankfully, it seems like some discussion about the real issues facing these whales is starting to happen. There was a lot of public attention given to potential vessel impacts on the whales as NOAA went through the process of instituting new regulations for boating around the whales. General consensus is that the real issue facing these whales is not boats, not toxins, but salmon. No fish, no blackfish. It's that simple.

Hopes were raised that real action would be taken a couple years ago when NOAA and Canada's DFO held a series of three joint workshops to discuss the potential impacts of fisheries on food availability for Southern Residents. Scientists from both sides of the border got together and presented a wealth of information about salmon, whales, and the interaction between the two. It was an impressive transboundary collaboration, but the result was a disappointing one. The scientific panel concluded at the end of the workshops that there's no evidence fisheries management will affect the number of salmon available for the Southern Residents. [Note: Many whale advocates were outraged at this conclusion, but in the panel's defense, they were asked to look at what was ultimately a very narrow question. The truth is, fisheries have been and are heavily managed, and current take from any given salmon run is a fairly small percentage of the whole, certainly a much smaller proportion of the number of fish available than used to be taking via fishing. Ceasing fishing altogether won't necessarily make the difference required to save the Southern Residents. The real issue is a broader one - there's not enough fish for anybody. Habitat restoration, at all levels of the salmon's life cycle, is what needs to happen. Still, we all hoped something positive for the whales would come out of NOAA's series of workshops, but in reality, not much has happened as a result.]

There are a couple of major conclusions I made as a result of attending and participating in the recent two orca-salmon workshops. One is that, amazingly, people just don't seem to talk to each other. The lack of communication - between salmon and whale biologists, between the US and Canada, etc. - is astounding. One would think - or at least hope - that the people doing salmon recovery and the people doing whale recovery would be working closely together. The truth is, they may not even know each other. A major comment from the salmon folks at the Seattle workshop was surprise at all the new faces in attendance. They've just never talked to the whale people before. As Jim Lichatowich, an author and retired salmon biologist, shared with us at the Friday Harbor workshop, it's worse even than that: the hatchery fish people and the wild fish people don't even communicate. It really seems like everyone is focused on their own slice of the pie and there's not much collaboration to look at the bigger picture.

A second truth that I was shocked to learn is that hatcheries are still seen by many as a major solution to our salmon problem. There's a wealth of evidence to the contrary, which I won't go into detail here, but I highly recommend Jim's book Salmon, People, Place as a good read to learn more about this and other relevant salmon issues. It really hit home when a WDFW biologist at the workshop in Seattle said, "That the jury is still out on whether or not fish farms [in Canada] have any effect on wild salmon populations." For those of you that don't gasp in outrage at this statement, I highly suggest you watch the documentary Salmon Confidential (viewable in its entirety at this link) and/or tune in to a special episode of 60 Minutes focusing on salmon farms that's airing this Sunday on CBS at 7 PM PST.

The final realization I made at the workshops is that those of us who have been around the whales for many years have many impressions of what has been changing in their behavior. The trends we've witnessed are universal across observers, but for the most part they're very anecdotal: the whales aren't here as much in the spring, there aren't as many superpods anymore, and so on. I think us naturalists are correct in our observations, the problem is, it's hard to demonstrate the truth behind these impressions without some sort of quantitative data. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided I wanted to try and put some numbers to some of these impressions. I've done some data mining in the last couple weeks, and I have the results to share with you here.

My friend and mentor Rich Osborne has always stressed to me the importance of long term data sets, and never have I agreed with that more than now. You may not realize what impact that data your collecting will have in the long term, but often the questions will come after the answers. If you have the data set, the information you can parse out of it as questions arise later is pretty amazing. The data presented here come from three such long-term data sets. The first is Bob Otis' data from Lime Kiln Lighthouse. For more than 20 years, Bob and a team of interns have collected data on whale passbys from May 20 to August 10 between the hours of 9 and 5 in a defined study area in front of the lighthouse. This collection of data, including a lot of behavioral data, is an amazing slice of what the whales were doing in one particular place over time. The second data set is The Whale Museum's Orca Master archive of whale sightings, in which they've compiled reports from many different sources into a single compendium of orca sightings in inland waters. Finally, I've also referenced the technical reports of the Pacific Salmon Commission, which date back to the 1970s. It's also worth mentioning that I know there are caveats, statistical and otherwise, to all the graphs I've made here, but I still wanted to share my first stab at quantifying these impressions of what we've seen the whales doing lately.

First of all, I wrote a blog last summer entitled "Where are the whales?" which focused on what an anomalous year last summer was for whale sightings. I summarized how much less the whales had been around to that point in the season, but I wanted to add a more complete graph here that shows how the numbers ended up for the time period of Bob's study at Lime Kiln. Clearly, the whales just weren't around last summer as much as they usually are. [For all these graphs, you can click to see a larger view.]

Number of "whale days" at Lime Kiln Lighthouse. A whale day is defined as whales being in Bob Otis' defined study area between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM. Data were collected each year from May 20 - August 10. The red line indicates the average. Last year, with just 18 whale days, was less than half of the average.

This summarizes the summer months nicely, but what about the spring? When I used to be just a seasonal resident on San Juan Island, I remember a friend of mine telling me I just had to find a way to get up here in April, because that's what she was having some of her best whale encounters of the year. "J-Pod is on the west side almost every day!" she exclaimed. By the time I did move here full time, things had changed. I've never seen the Residents much in April. This same trend has been expressed by many - that the whales used to be here routinely in the spring, but now are spending less and less time here in April and May. To try and quantify this, I looked at how many days in the month of April residents were seen in inland waters. Curious as to whether or not this has anything to do with fish, I also looked at spring runs of Chinook salmon on the Fraser River, and graphed these numbers on the same chart.

The blue line indicates the number of days Southern Residents were seen in inland waters in the month of April, with data from The Whale Museum's Orca Master data set. The red line indicates the total escapement (the number of fish that actually return to the freshwater spawning grounds) of Fraser River spring Chinook of both the age-1.3 and age-1.2 runs combined. These abundance of each of the two stocks was estimated off graphs in the Pacific Salmon Commission technical reports. Circled in green is where I think things changed - in 2007. The whales were here a lot, but salmon numbers were at their nadir. Perhaps this is when the whales decided it wasn't worth their time to visit the Salish Sea in April anymore - after that, their visits declined sharply, and spring salmon numbers remained depressed.

Another common impression is that the whales have been more spread out than they used to be. Again, I turned to Bob's data to try and put some numbers to this. In Bob's study area is an imaginary line that extends out from the lighthouse across Haro Strait. A note is made whenever a whale crosses this imaginary line. The time that passes between the first whale and the last whale to cross is noted as the spread out time. If all the whales are in one group and cross the line together, the spread out time is zero. If J2 Granny is way up ahead of everyone else, and the rest of the pod slowly follows her north in their matrilines, the spread out time might be an hour or more. To correct for the number of whales present (because it makes sense the spread out time would be a higher for a superpod of 80 whales than when it's just the L12 sub-group present), I looked at spread out time divided by the number of whales present. I came up with an average spread out time per whale across all the passbys Bob and his interns collected data for in a year, and that average is what's graphed here.
Average spread out time per whale for passbys in front of Lime Kiln Lighthouse during Bob's study period each year. A yellow trendline has been added to the graph, showing an upward trend in spread out time over the years. A change from an average of .5 to 2.0 might not seem like much, but think of it this way: In 2003 the whales were on average half a minute apart from each other. In 2012 this average was more like two minutes per whale. That means for a group of 10 whales to pass by, the average time it took changed from 5 minutes to 20 minutes, or a 4 fold increase.

Finally, people have also been saying that the whales seem to spend more time foraging and less time socializing in the Salish Sea in recent summers. There seem to be fewer superpods, and when they do happen, they seem to be shorter in duration. This is a harder one to quantify, because even when people do define whale behavior into categories such as foraging, traveling, resting, or socializing, it's a subjective definition and also may not apply to all the whales present - e.g. most whales might be resting while one juvenile is breaching repeatedly in apparent play, or all the whales might be traveling steadily in one direction when one animal breaks off and mills in one location in apparent pursuit of prey.

When I think of superpods or other groups of highly social whales, I think of lots of surface active behaviors: breaches, tail slaps, pec fin slaps, etc. All these behaviors are defined as surface percussive behaviors in Bob's study. I calculated an average number of percussive behaviors per whale for each passby in Bob's study, and then averaged this number across all the passbys in a season to get a single number for each year.

Average number of percussive behaviors per whale across all the passbys in a season. A yellow trendline has been added to the graph, indicating a slight downward trend in the number of surface percussive behaviors over the study period. According to this trendline, twenty years ago in an average passby of 20 whales you may have expected to see about 12 surface percussive behaviors. Last year, with a passby of 20 whales, on average you would have only expected to see 4 such behaviors.

I'm excited that discussions about the changing behavior of our Southern Residents has been happening, and I hope I've been able to contribute further to those discussions here. What do you think, do these data support your own observations? What other trends have you noticed over the years in watching the Southern Residents?

Literally as I was writing this I got word that some Residents were found near Active Pass. Here's hoping that this is the beginning of a summer season with a little more "whale time" than last year!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The T65As in Georgia Strait

Yesterday was my first time getting out on the water for the 2014 season, as I hopped aboard with my former employer Western Prince Whale and Wildlife Tours out of Friday Harbor. We left the dock without any whale reports, but I had a good vibe about the day, and it wasn't too far up San Juan Channel before we came across a group of obliging harbor porpoise that gave us all some good looks.

Shortly after this, we go the word we had all been hoping for, that the group of transient orcas seen the day before had been relocated. They were way north in the Canadian Gulf Islands, just at the edge of our range - in fact, after going through Active Pass, we turned north a bit further, taking me further than I had ever been on the Western Prince when I worked there! It was well worth the journey, as soon became apparent when we got on scene with the five whales.

The family group was the T65As, made up of mama T65A and her four surviving offspring, including little T65A5 that was first seen in March of this year.

T65A5, only a couple months old, pokes its head up
The whales had apparently made a kill a while before we got there, so these mammal-eating whales were out of stealth mode and into party mode. The whole group of them, particularly the juveniles, seemed to be in a frisky, playful mood.

Three year-old T65A4 lunges

We heard one of the whales vocalize at the surface, which encouraged the captain to drop the hydrophone into the water. We heard a few more eerie vocals over the boat's speakers.

From left to right: T65A2, T65A4, T65A5

The setting was beautiful, too, in the south Strait of Georgia - the whales even passed in front of our distant view of Mt. Baker:

Calf T65A5 with Mt. Baker in the background

It was pretty special getting to spend some time with this family! We started heading back to our home port and took a different route back, by East Point. Here we stopped to enjoy the abundant wildlife that seems to always hang out here in the spring of recent years, including hundreds of Bonaparte's gulls in their black-headed summer plumage. I love these gulls! They're smaller than our regular gulls and look so buoyant in flight.

One black oystercatcher in with this flock of Bonaparte's gulls - do you see him?

 We also got some quick looks at about twenty long-tailed ducks:

And on the nearby haulouts were lots of Steller sea lions and harbor seals:

Steller sea lions at East Point off Saturna Island, BC
We saw such a variety of wildlife, it was all I could have hoped for during my first afternoon getting out on the water this season!