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Monday, March 30, 2015

J-Pod Welcomes Me Home on March 24th

I was thrilled and surprised on my first full day back on the island - March 24th - to hear that J-Pod was on the west side of San Juan Island! When I got off work I thought I had probably missed them at Lime Kiln, so I headed for the boat and hopped out into Haro Strait. Turns out the whales were still further south and the seas were a bit lumpy, so I turned back, but not before stumbling across the humpback whale Big Mama BCY0324!

Big Mama BCY0324
 I ended up getting to Lime Kiln on shore just in time to see the J19s foraging off the lighthouse.

From left to right calf J51, big sister J41 Eclipse, and mom J19 Shaci
It was cool to see little J51 swimming in big sister's slipstream rather than in mom's. It must have been big sister day, because later on I saw baby J50 swimming alongside sister J42 Echo rather than with mom J16 Slick!

J51 pops up on his/her own....
...followed a moment later by mom and sister

These three whales were seemingly hanging out waiting for most of the rest of J-Pod to catch up. The other Js took their sweet time, but from the south end of the park I could see them slowly, slowly heading our direction close to shore!

There's no better than feeling than watching whales approaching!
The J22s, J17s, and J14s slowly passed Lime Kiln in one big, semi-playful group. It was an extra special treat because it came in March!

J34 Doublestuf did several series of big tailslaps!

The sadness of leaving beautiful Baja and the friendly gray whales behind was definitely softened by this unexpected J-Pod passby! Here's hoping for a spring full of whale-sightings - April and May used to be fantastic months for seeing J-Pod here, but that's been less true in recent years.

From left to right (I think): J37 Hy'Shqa, J14 Samish, J46 Star, and J28 Polaris

Sunday, March 29, 2015

San Diego From the Air and La Jolla Cove

Before heading back to San Juan Island, we spent a few more days in San Diego. We took a short scenic flight over the city, and my favorite part was flying up the coastline at about 1000 feet. I even saw a few gray whales and bottlenose dolphins from the air!

La Valencia hotel, also known as the Pink Lady of La Jolla

La Jolla Cove

Scripps Institute of Oceanography

The next day, we had a chance to visit La Jolla cove on the ground. It was insanely crowded as locals and visitors enjoyed the unseasonably warm early spring weather, and it never ceases to amaze me how the marine wildlife is living in such close proximity to so many people. Too close, really, I thought in this case.

People were showing little to no regard for the posted regulations about keeping your distance from sea lions.

It was really disheartening to see people not caring at all about the healthy sea lions, let alone the sick and dead ones. Here's someone taking a selfie with a pup; you can see one of them is really emaciated.

It's been a tough year for sea lion pup survival, and I'm sure the added stress of people isn't helping. But for some reason, the sea lions keep hanging out there.

We were commenting how amazing it was no one had been bitten, but apparently just a few hours before we were there a five year old kid got bitten in the face by a sea lion so....there you go.

In addition to the California sea lions, there were some harbor seals on the beaches as well. I was surprised to see so many pups; up here in Washington the pups aren't born until July, but I guess in California pups are born between February and April. This one was nursing despite having people all around it:

There were also lots of pelicans and cormorants around, plus one wandering tattler (137) to top off my year list additions for the California/Mexico trip.

Then, on Monday the 23rd, it was time to make the last leg of journey back north, where we welcomed by rain in Seattle.

Flying over the Space Needle on our descent into Seattle

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Day Three: More Gray Whales and Fantastic Mangrove Birding

As became my morning tradition, first thing on March 19th I spent time at the point watching the birds and bottlenose dolphins. A large mixed flock of short-billed dowitchers, willets, and marbled godwits would roost on the rocks each night:

Willet and marbled godwit

Short-billed dowitchers

Close pass by a bottlenose dolphin

While watching these animals, a reddish egret (129) flew by. I also saw a single spotted sandpiper (130) and one eared grebe (131).

We were incredibly lucky to have friendly gray whales on every one of our whale watches. Here's one of the other pangas in our group getting a nice interaction with a mama on our morning whale watch:

It's so cool to get to see these large mammals close up - here's a nice look at the knuckles along the dorsal ridge of a gray whale. These guys are one of the only whales that don't have dorsal fins.

After our first whale watch of the day, we hung around the point waiting to go out on another excursion to the mangroves across the lagoon. While waiting I had a chance to photograph some of the local lizards. I believe this is a common side-blotched lizard, Uta stansburiana.

As much as I love the whales, I was eager to get over to bird in the mangroves, where I had added numerous life birds last year. In 2014 I was incredibly lucky to add all my target birds, but I was hopeful to see them all again....and I did!

We started out with some willets near the edge of the mangroves:

The heron species are the most impressive. We saw several more little blue herons - this one is a juvenile:

We got fantastic looks at a couple reddish egrets:

We also saw a couple tri-colored herons (132), a green heron (133), lots of great and snowy egrets, and a couple great blue herons for good measure. Finally, a juvenile yellow-crowned night-heron (134) flew overhead, too. 

We had seen lots of double-crested and brandt's cormorants in the lagoon, but I was surprised to see this immature sitting in the mangroves:

Immature double-crested cormorant
One of the most coveted birds of the Mexican mangroves is the mangrove warbler. I felt incredibly fortunate to hear and briefly see one last year when our pangero called one out of the bushes. This year, later in the season, we could hear them everywhere. Even though they're officially just considered a different color morph of the yellow warbler (135) which is a species we get on San Juan Island, I was still keen to see and try to photograph one. Yet again, our pangero impressed me with his ability to find them. We probably saw about five of them, one of which was obliging enough to sit out in the open for a while to be photographed!

A male mangrove warbler

Finally, on our way out of the mangrove, we heard what is now known as a Ridgway's rail (136) - last year it was considered a clapper rail, but the species has split.

Time seems to both stretch out and pass too quickly while at la laguna. All too soon we were enjoying our final sunset from Punta Piedra, complete with a colorful thundercloud to the east over camp:

The next morning, we were back on our way up the Baja Peninsula to the United States:

But my trip wasn't over just yet!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Day Two With The Friendly Gray Whales

The morning of our second full day at San Ignacio Lagoon brought the best dolphin encounter of the trip. Each morning bottlenose dolphins could be found foraging off the point, and on this day there were about 40 of them in calm waters. In addition to getting my first hydrophone recording of cetaceans, I took tons of photos. Nobody seems to know exactly how many dolphins live in the lagoon, but they are seen there year-round so are thought to be a resident population. I asked several of the pangeros, and they estimate there's 100-200. I'm sure it would be possible to conduct a photo ID study given enough time, because the dorsal fins on each one are very unique, with lots of notches and scars.

I thought this one, who cruised by with his eye just above the surface, might be looking at me on shore. But when I looked closer at my photo, I realized his eye was closed the whole time - I guess not! Maybe just basking in the sunrise?

One challenge I always like as a photographer is to see how many species I can get into one photo, especially with cetaceans. Here's two bottlenose dolphins with a royal tern:

It got even better than that, though, when a gray whale breached several times in the background!

Bottlenose dolphins and a breaching gray whale!
Right before it was time for breakfast, an osprey flew overhead. With no bald eagles to compete with, there are a lot more of these "fish hawks" down in Mexico than up on San Juan Island.

On our morning whale watch, we didn't have to go far from camp at all. About one-third of the lagoon is open to whale-watching, while the inner portions are a whale reserve. The camp at Punta Piedra is right on the edge of the whale-watching region - you can see our tents on the point behind this whale's tail!

When migrating, gray whales pretty much just swim along, but in the lagoon, we got to see the whole variety of whale behaviors, such as spyhops. Check out those throat grooves!

When I commented that I had never seen gray whales tail slap, it didn't take long for me to see that behavior, too!

We were incredibly lucky to have friendly gray whales on each of our whale watch trips. These whales approach the boats and demonstrate a mutual curiosity about humans, allowing themselves to be touched and kissed. It's quite different from the 200 yards we have to keep from orcas in the San Juan Islands, but in such an isolated location it's been possible for this trustful relationship to blossom without harming either whales or people. For their part, the whales are amazingly gentle and aware of their surroundings given that the moms are about twice the size of the pangas. And the humans carefully regulate the interactions, limiting the number of boats that can be out there (no more than 16 in the lagoon at a time), how long each boat can be there (90 minutes per whale watch), and the hours whale-watching can happen (8 AM to 5 PM). That's all on top of making the majority of the lagoon a no whale watch zone. All the boats are run by the local fishermen and they self-police themselves with the help of a "sheriff" who monitors the boat activity every day.

Here's me leaning over to kiss one of the calves - it sounds like a funny thing to do, but when you're there with them you can't help but do it!

There just aren't words to describe what it's like to be that close to a whale - a whale that's checking you out, too!

We even had a baby come up to the boat and open its mouth several times. They seem to like to have their baleen touched. It's pretty unreal to put your hand inside the mouth of a wild whale, but I gently did it! The baleen was amazingly stiff and clean (though of course the babies haven't used it for scraping food off the bottom of the ocean yet).

A baby gray whale opens its mouth alongside our panga
On the bird side of things, I only added one more year bird to the list on this day (March 18th), when I spotted a flock of semi-palmated plovers (128) while walking along the beach just before sunset.

All these amazing sightings and photos, but we still had another whole full day to go!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Return to Laguna San Ignacio

In February 2014 I got to go on the trip of a lifetime to visit the friendly gray whales at San Ignacio Lagoon on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. It's something I had dreamed of doing for over 15 years, and while I knew I would go back, I never imagined it would be so soon. Thanks to being invited along on a group trip with a very good friend of mine, I was fortunate enough to head back south to Laguna San Ignacio last week.

We traveling with the same tour group - Baja Discovery - as I did last year. Their camp is in the best location, right on a prime whale-watching point, so you can watch the whales literally all the time. As I call it, the camp at Punta Piedra is "the Lime Kiln of Baja". We all met in San Diego, then crossed into Mexico and flew down to the lagoon. While on the bus in Tijuana, I spotted my first Mexican year bird: cliff swallow (122).

The flight itself is scenic. At times you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. Here's a shot looking down on an island from the plane as we flew down the Pacific coast:

It wasn't far from here that I saw my first gray whales of the trip - from about 10,000 feet!

Gray whale, as seen from the plane
To get from San Juan Island to the camp at Punta Piedra I travel by ferry, car, plane, bus, plane again, van, and, finally, panga:

While the first evening was taken up most with settling into camp (and not with photography), I did have to step out with the camera to take in the stars on that clear night. Here's the constellation Orion, along with a ton of other stars:

On our first morning at camp, it was the bottlenose dolphins that stole the show. As they would every morning, about 30-40 of them were foraging right off the point. I would later get the first cetacean recording with our new hydrophone of bottlenose dolphin clicks and whistles! On the first day, however, I was thrilled to catch this photo of a jumping dolphin:

The mornings were also great for birding, with lots of shorebirds roosting on the point and others foraging just offshore:

 When it was time for our first whale watch, though, the focus turned to gray whales!

The San Juan whale contingent: me, Cindy (who works for Baja Discovery in Mexico and The Whale Museum on San Juan Island), and my friend and research partner Michael
The whale-watching was very different for me this year compared to last year. Last year, we went down with the first trip of the season in early February, when there were still lots of males in the lagoon. Whale-watching is only allowed in the outer portion of the lagoon, and in that area there was lots of mating activity, while the moms with the very young calves were all deeper in the lagoon. This year, in mid-March, all the males have already departed. Pretty much just mothers and calves were left in the lagoon, most of them in the outer lagoon where the boats can go. The whale activity was much less frenzied - unless you count all those calves learning how to breach!

The whales were also a lot "friendlier", in that the calves were the right age to start approaching the boats more than earlier in the season. When they do, it's hard to know what to do - it ends up being some combination of taking pictures/video and just enjoying it! For this first trip, this is about the only good photo I got of the whales approaching before it was time to touch my first baby gray whale :)

Incoming whales! Heading straight for our panga
You might think hanging out at a desert camp on the edge of a lagoon would leave you with lots of time to do nothing, but life at camp is busy! If you're not whale-watching or eating, there's lots of other activities to participate in, such as going on a tidal walk to the mudflats not far from camp. After doing "the stringray shuffle" to cross a tidal creek, I got a flurry of year birds: little blue heron (123), white ibis (124), short-billed dowitcher (125), turkey vulture (126), and American oystercatcher (127):

American oystercatcher with other shorebirds in the background

While I loved all the birds, the highlight of the tidepools were the two-spot octopi. If a female had eggs, it got left alone in its scallop shell home:

Female octopus with eggs in a scallop shell
But when we found one without eggs, we got to briefly take it out to look at it:

Two-spot octopus!
After tide-pooling, it was time for our second whale-watch of the day - life is rough, I know. This time I got a few more photos of a baby checking us out:

All this, and it was only our first full day! I have several more blog posts in the queue to share, but if you're ready for more now, check out this video I put together of our trip. Towards the end is some underwater gray whale footage I shot.