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Sunday, November 30, 2014

The New Adventure: A Boat!

The idea of buying a boat has been in the back of my mind for a while, because after all, I do live on an island! All of a sudden, the right circumstances aligned, and we purchased a 17' Alumaweld Talon with some friends:

You wouldn't think November would be the best time of year to buy a boat - I sure didn't - and it probably isn't the best, but I've been surprised by how many nice days there have been to get out on the water. Don't get me wrong, it's been cold out there! But the water has been pleasant.

I've been telling people the San Juan Island suddenly got a whole lot bigger, because I'll now have a way to explore some of the smaller outer islands. But of course, one of the main goals is to have another platform for wildlife viewing! The birding this time of year is fantastic, as we get a lot of over-wintering sea birds in the Salish Sea.

Pelagic cormorants with a loon fly-by in the background

In fact, it didn't take too long to get my first year bird from the boat - an ancient murrelet (201)!

Ancient murrelet

Surf scoter

A pair of marbled murrelets

I've also gotten to take several trips up towards Spieden Island and it's exotic wildlife, feral populations that have survived from an exotic game ranch that was briefly there several decades ago. There have been literally hundreds of deer and sheep on the southern slopes of Spieden when we've gone by!

A herd of Mouflon sheep and a flock of starlings
Some resting fallow deer, including a couple males with impressive racks
A young male Mouflon sheep
There have been Steller sea lions in the water up by Spieden, too, and on one afternoon there were about 15 of them hauled out at Green Point:

Depending on which way the wind is blowing, we get calmer waters by going either north or south. On one day, we got to head down past Lime Kiln Lighthouse - it's always fun to see my favorite shore-based whale-watching spot from the water!

This time of year, I reasonably thought I might have to wait a few months until I got a chance to see whales from the new boat. Amazingly, it only took about 10 days from when we acquired the boat! With word of a superpod milling in northern Haro Strait on a beautiful sunny morning, I just had to play hooky from work for a few hours and spend a short time with the whales.

It was pretty darn exciting to pull out of the harbor and spot blows on the horizon. Who would be the first whale I'd see from our own boat? Turns out it was L72 Racer:

L72 Racer
Nearby was her son L105 Fluke, adult male K21 Cappuccino, and another young male L84 Nyssa. They were doing long dives and actively foraging, so they were zig-zagging all over the place. Nyssa is part of the group of L-Pod whales that don't make many visits to inland waters, so these are probably the best photos I've ever gotten of him!

L84 Nyssa

L84 Nyssa with Lime Kiln the background

Right before it was time to head back, we stopped the boat to watch the whales slowly mill their way south as they headed away from us. Out of no where, we were surprised by J2 Granny who suddenly popped up right next to us! This, more than anything else, made it feel like our boat had been properly christened!

J2 Granny says hello to Serenity

Sunday, November 16, 2014

October 30th ~ The Sheep Rock Unit

On October 30th (my 30th birthday!) we were greeted as we departed Mitchell by the seemingly resident group of wild turkeys.

Our first stop was at an overlook near Dayville looking at the Picture Gorge basalts:

The peak in the above photo is Sheep Rock, namesake of the third of the John Day Fossil Bed units. This single feature showcases about 10 different geologic formations. Here are the ones I could pick out:

Right across from Sheep Rock is the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which features a lot of the fossils found in the region. It's really impressive stuff!

Next we were off to hike the Blue Basin, where we didn't get too far along the rim trail before flushing a flock of chukars (195)!


Again, it was pretty quiet bird-wise, but I did manage to find a single mountain chickadee (196), too.

As is the case throughout the region, the landscapes stole the show:

These incredible formations are the result of volcanic ash turned into claystone, and the color is from mineralization over time (so it wasn't this color originally).

And of course, there were more of these guys around:

As our last full day in the John Day Fossil Beds area came to a close, we were preparing to head up to Portland to visit with family for a couple days. The birding wasn't done, though, as along the Crown-Zellerbach Trail in Scappoose I reached my birding year list goal for the year with the following species: sandhill crane (197), cackling goose (198), Lincoln's sparrow (199), and cinnamon teal (200)!

Often November is a pretty quiet time wildlife and photography wise back at home, but not this year! There's plenty of excitement to share in my next few posts.

October 29 ~ The Painted Hills

Mitchell, Oregon would be our home base for a couple of days as we explored the other regions of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. I couldn't believe it when we woke up on the morning of the 29th to sunshine! The forecast before our trip was for lots of rain, and even a chance of a frozen mix - so this was a very pleasant surprise! It was a perfect day for exploring the Painted Hills unit, because the sunshine made the colors that much more impressive.

The incredible geology of the region results from an amazingly complex history. From former ocean floor to former tropical forests, with volcanic ash falls and lava flows, and millions of years of erosion, I honestly couldn't keep all the rock layers straight. I know the amazing reds and yellows of the painted hills are from an era where the climate was much warmer, about 35 million years ago, when exotic creatures like camels, rhinoceroses, and small prehistoric horses roamed the area.

It wasn't a very birdy area, with the exception of lots of robins and a few Townsend's solitaires (193) feeding on the abundance of juniper berries. Bordering the Painted Hills unit is a large proposed wilderness area, too, and we explored a few miles of those dirt roads, and found a single immature golden eagle (194).

There were also lots of Columbia black-tailed deer around. These deer, a sub-species of the mule deer, are supposedly the same species we have in the San Juan Islands, but there must be multiple sub-species, because these guys were much larger than our deer on the island! Their ears were also much larger, more characteristic of what I think of as mule deer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

October 28th ~ From Goldendale, WA to Mitchell, OR

The Yakima River side trip was such a success the day before, that I wanted to do another one. After leaving Goldendale, we again went off the highway and followed the 10+ miles of gravel Dalles Mountain Road towards the Columbia River Gorge. Again, it was an awesome side trip! Before we got to the gravel road, we passed through the small town of Centerville. It's amazing how many small towns there are like this all over the region, many of them almost ghost towns.

As we left Centerville, the birding really picked up for the first time on the trip. Lots of western meadowlarks and American pipits joined all the blackbirds in the farm fields. I also spotted the first of two prairie falcons (188)!

American pipit

One of the reasons we wanted to take this road is because as it goes over the ridge, you get amazing views of the Columbia River as you wind your way down towards Highway 14.

The Columbia River

The sun even came out a little bit!

Even on this side of the Cascades, the orcas aren't far from my mind. The Southern Residents feed on Columbia River Chinook salmon a lot, particularly during the winter months. While a good fall run of Chinook salmon is expected this year, in general Columbia runs are just a fraction of their former selves, in large part due to dams.

The John Day Dam
One reason dams are/were hugely important is as a source of hydroelectric power. On the ridgeline in the above photo, however, you can just make out what might be a good replacement for hydroelectric power: wind.

Wind turbines near Centerville, WA
[Side note: to learn a lot more about how dams impact salmon runs, and why we should start to seriously consider removing some dams, I highly recommend the movie DamNation. You can watch the trailer here, and the movie is available on both Netflix and iTunes or you can purchase the DVD from the movie's site.]

We also stopped at the replica Stonehenge before crossing into Oregon, because, why not? But to see what I'm thinking in the photo below, watch this video.

I actually don't think this one looks too much like the real thing, and we do know why they built this one: as a war memorial.

We wound our way down into Central Oregon away from the Columbia River, going through all kinds of very small towns and lots of wide open fields. In addition to spotting a small herd of pronghorn antelope, I saw a single mountain bluebird (189). I thought I might see more, but that ended up being my only bluebird on the trip! On our way to Mitchell, which would be our home base for the next couple days, we stopped at the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The John Day Fossil Beds were the main attraction that drew me to this region, and the Clarno Unit is the smallest of the three units in the monument.

While we did the hike along this cliff face, we actually got a little rained on, but that didn't stop me from spotting some birds!

Rock wren (year bird 190)

Canyon wren (year bird 191)
In fact, this would also be the only place I would see rock and canyon wrens! We also saw rock pigeons in more or less their natural habitat, rather than on the city streets.

I would add one more year bird just outside of Fossil, Oregon as it was getting dark on our way to Mitchell: wild turkeys (192)! Next up: more hiking, more birding, and more amazing geology! The Painted Hills of Oregon.

Monday, November 10, 2014

October 27th ~ From North Bend to Goldendale

At the end of last month I turned 30, so to celebrate the big birthday we decided to take a little road trip to parts of Washington and Oregon that I hadn't ever explored before. After running some errands the day we left the island, (and driving through Fir Island where I added snow goose [186] to the year list) we spent the night in North Bend, Washington before heading east over the Cascade Mountains. We were so close to Snoqualmie Falls, our first stop in the morning was to check those out:

Snoqualmie Falls

Heading over the Cascades, we got to see some nice fall colors. Overall, it was pretty dark and gray though, so we didn't make too many stops.

As we reached Yakima, the sun was shining. Ahhh, eastern Washington - that's more like it! Having crossed over the mountains, it didn't take long to add black-billed magpie (187) to the year list.

It almost looks like the mgapie is in the grass behind the cow, but he's actually sitting on the cow's head
Instead of staying on the major highway, we took a smaller side road that followed the Yakima River Valley. Good decision! It was beautiful. We stopped at a little river access where there was a hike that went up a side creek. It ended up being one of my favorite walks of the trip, perhaps because it was totally unexpected.

Suspension foot bridge crossing the Yakima River

Beautiful fall colors - and sunshine! - in the Yakima River Valley
We also made a brief stop at the Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge, but it was a bit of a disappointment bird-wise. The only birds we saw in about half an hour there were two white-crowned sparrows! It was, admittedly, the worst time of day in the middle of the afternoon, but still!

I was very excited to continue across the Yakama (yes, it's spelled different from the town) Indian Reservation. We headed up the Toppenish Ridge and across the Lost Horse Plateau, where I was hoping to see some wild horses. I read about it a bit ahead of time, and knew that there is a rather large population of horses there - an estimated 15,000, which most people think are way too many. When we started seeing groups of horses right away, I really wondered if we were seeing the wild ones. Turns out, we were!

Wild horses on the Lost Horse Plateau, along Highway 90 south of Toppenish, WA

A few groups were even pretty close to the road!

They were so cool to see! Day one of the real road trip was an absolute success, and we hadn't even reached the region where we planned to spend most of our time yet. There would be many more sights to come!