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Sunday, May 24, 2015

May 22: Baby Foxes and A Baby Whale

After being around a lot in late April and the first couple days of May, J-Pod took a two week leave of absence from the Salish Sea. When they returned to inland waters on May 17, they kept their visits to the west side under the cover of darkness more often than not, so it wasn't until May 22 I was able to catch up with them again.

Early on the 22nd J-Pod hadn't been located yet, so I went for a walk down at American Camp, thinking I might find them off the south end and also hoping to find some fox kits to photograph. The whales weren't there, but I did find a trio of kits!

One of the things I love about fox kits, other their innate cuteness, is that they're mutually curious. Look at that face!

I just sat down on the grass, and they came over to check me out!

In addition to these orange and black ones, there was a gray one who mostly stayed a little bit further away:

I took so many photos of these guys, it's hard to narrow down which ones to share!

Later on, we came head to head on the trail with an adult fox who was carrying a snake. He stopped not far from us, and I suspected he didn't want to detour into the tall grasses, so we stepped off to the side of the trail and he ran right by us, not two feet away!

Umm, please get out of my way? This is my trail.

When there was still no sign of Js on the west side in the afternoon, I figured they were going to stay up north for another day, but then I heard from a friend they had made a switch and were coming down! The first few whales got to Lime Kiln just before sunset.

As is often the case, little J50 was quite a ways away from mama - her independence, along with the wicked rake marks she may have gotten from a difficult birth, lead me to think of this little whale as being very spunky, and a true fighter, which is just what this population needs!

5 month old J50 cruising by Lime Kiln in the sunset
A gull was also circling overhead carrying something, so I snapped a photo, and saw later it was carrying three fish! Impressive!

This is also a good time to note my few additions to my year list as spring has carried on: Swainson's thrush (159), Cassin's vireo (160), and black-headed grosbeak (161) - all first identified by song and "heard only", though I'd get nice looks at the vireos later and a grosbeak pair has become an occasional visitor to our feeders.

J-Pod would overnight off the south end of the island, and it would take some patience, but they finally made their way back north on May 23rd. Photos of that encounter next!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Voice for the Southern Residents in DC

Since last fall, I've been working with the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative to lobby for the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams as a measure to help generate more salmon for our endangered whales. In addition to promoting this petition which now has over 12,000 signatures (please sign and share if you haven't already), I've been spreading information about the dams in any way I can. This has included writing a blog post about why now is the time to breach the dams back in February, which has received over 1300 views, and also giving an impromptu talk about the killer whales with some friends while we were down in Baja in March.

Some fantastic people from the Baja trip have gotten involved in the campaign, and have been helping to spread the message among some of their political friends. As a result, they got some meetings with some people in Washington, DC, and along with a couple of others I was invited along.

Those of you who know me know how hard it is for me to get on an airplane. For many years I didn't fly at all, and it's taken some pretty compelling reasons to get back on a plane (like, say, the chance to kiss a wild gray whale). While flying across the country will never be on my list of favorite activities, the chance to be a voice for the killer whales in Washington, DC was too good of one to pass up. With the much needed support and encouragement from many, I decided to go - and to take Breacher, a killer whale from home with me.

Breacher on the ferry leaving Friday Harbor
Luckily we had fairly smooth flights across the country - including a beautiful look at the Rocky Mountains, and a nice sunset leaving Detroit:

The Rocky Mountains from 30,000 feet

I had never been to DC before, so while it was a whirlwind of a trip, I also made sure to take a little time to see some of the sights.

Keith, Breacher, and me in front of the White House
The Washington Monument
The World War II Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial
A lot of areas were under construction, but I could still tell that the National Mall is a beautiful part of our nation. It was very cool to visit a world center - a place I wouldn't usually go, and quite a contrast to Friday Harbor!

One of many beautiful park settings in the middle of the city
The National Gallery of Art
One of two clashing centennial demonstrations that happened April 24th: one was a memorial for the 100 year anniversary of the killing of over a million Armenians in Turkey, and the other (pictured), a Turkish memorial for the World War I Gallipoli military campaign that was also encouraging people to "Stand with Turkey".
The display in the main foyer of the National Museum of Natural History - I was pleasantly surprised to find that admission to this amazing Smithsonian museum is free
The main focus of our trip, however, was our meetings. While there has been major progress in the advocating for the removal of these dams - an effort that has been going on for almost 20 years - the Washington State senators still need to be convinced. The economic and biological facts are clearly on our side, but the lobbying still needs to happen in what has traditionally been a pro-dam state.

Coincidentally we were there right when Patagonia released a full-page ad in Washington State papers encouraging people to contact Cantwell and Murray:

The text of the ad sums it up well: 

"Let's envision a future that works for farmers, fishermen, tribes, salmon, orcas, you and the natural world. One that creates thousands of local jobs, restores recreational opportunities, saves taxpayers money, and invests in cleaner energy alternatives.

Four deadbeat dams on the lower Snake River stand squarely in the way of that future, their costs far outweighing the small amount of electricity they generate and transportation they provide. Lower-impact alternatives do exist and in the long run, they're a helluva lot cheaper.

We completed the three largest dam removals in history on Washington's Elwha River and White Salmon River, enabling salmon and steelhead to reach historic habitat for the first time in 100 years and resulting in celebrations that echoed around the world. Now it's time to do the same on the lower Snake River, bringing our nation's greatest salmon river back to life.

More than 70,000 people from all over the world recently signed a petition to President Obama to remove the dams. But the feds want to see support from the leadership of Washington State. A phone call from you to the Senators Cantwell and Murray is the most powerful way to get that support. 

Tell your senators, 'Don't hold back on jobs, salmon, recreation, savings, and clean energy. Let's take down the dams on the lower Snake River.'

Senator Maria Cantwell

Senator Patty Murray

Learn more at"

If you're in Washington, please take a moment to make those phone calls today!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Spring Bird Photos and Year List Update

Spring hasn't just been a time for whales, it's been a time for birds, as well! I've neglected to post updates here, but I've still been diligently tracking my year list. When I last left off, we had just come home from Southern California where my last year bird of the trip was a wandering tattler in La Jolla Cove, year bird #138 (listed on the blog as 137, off by one because I realized I had missed counting the purple finch way back in February!)

It took only a day after getting home to add some of our local spring migrants to the list, the orange-crowned warbler (139) and rufous hummingbird (140). Some wildlife viewing trips out on the boat also turned up a small flock of Bonaparte's gulls (141) in Spieden Channel, where the eagle viewing has been great too.

An adult bald eagle changes an immature away from its territory on Spieden Island

And I can never pass up the opportunity to get multiple species in one photo:

Black oystercatcher and Canada goose at Spieden Island

This is about the birdiest time of year, because while spring migrants like tree (142), violet-green (143), and northern rough-winged (144) swallows are arriving, some of the winter residents, like these long-tailed ducks in Mosquito Pass, are still here as well:

Three Meadows Marsh is where I saw all the swallows, and it's also where I added the Hutton's vireo (145), sora (146), and wood duck (147). My dad was up for a quick visit and hadn't seen a California quail yet either, so I thought we'd try looking for one at American Camp - and it worked! 148. As we were driving around the island that day I also added brown-headed cowbird (149).

One morning before work I heard my first black-throated gray warbler of the season (150). Later the same day I also saw my first barn swallow (151) of the year. Next, an unexpected and quick trip across the country to Washington, DC - more about that in my next blog post - led to me adding common grackle (152) to my list, but that would be the only bird back east as I didn't get a chance to leave the city.

Back home, birding in my yard has turned up my next five year birds: American goldfinch (153), Pacific-slope flycatcher (154), Townsend's warbler (155), chipping sparrow (156), and Wilson's warbler (157). But it hasn't just been the year birds in the spotlight on the home front, as a couple of times we've had up close and personal visits from our local barred owls:

A new visitor to our bird feeders on April 12

An even closer barred owl encounter happened this afternoon, May 8th!
The weather has been so fantastic, that one afternoon when the lighting was right I spent some time just sitting by the bird feeders until all the regulars felt comfortable enough to return. Here are some of my resulting pictures:

Hairy woodpecker
Rufous hummingbird
Spotted towhee
Pine siskin
Chestnut-backed chickadee

Finally, yesterday at work I heard my first olive-sided flycatcher (158), so that's where the year list tally sits at the moment. In my friendly year list challenges, that puts me a few species ahead of Dave in England who has 153 and well behind my dad who on a trip to Florida and the Bahamas jetted up to 194. On the more local front, I've got 112 species in San Juan County compared to my friend and fellow birder Phil who's at 97.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

T49As and T49C in Moresby Passage

I have two or three other blogs I've been meaning to write about other topics, but the whale encounters always seem to take precedence! Yesterday afternoon the sun was shining, the winds were calm, and the waters were flat - too tempting not to get out on the water. We knew transients had been seen in Haro Strait earlier, so decided to go look for them. On a few such excursions we've come up dry, but this time after a bit of searching we found them east of Coal Island heading north towards Moresby Passage.

The T49As
It was the T49As - a mother and her offspring. But where was her son, T49A1? After a time I noticed another blow in the distance - he and another male, his uncle T49C were a ways ahead of the others.

T49A1 - this picture just called out to be switched from color to black and white
The whales were in travel mode for a while, but all of a sudden after a long dive the two groups surfaced all together and started circling around. It's possible they made a kill - often Ts can take down a harbor seal with little evidence at the surface. It definitely seemed like something in the area had caught their attention, and perhaps they were circling and sharing prey with each other.

Surprise direction change!
It was interesting that even though all six whales were in the same spot, the whales were still surfacing separately from the others.

Several times the two males seemed to be on a collision course with one another - in fact I'm pretty certain they gently ran into each other two or three times.

T49C (age 17) and T49A1 (age 14)
It was awesome to just cut our engine and sit watching as the whales circled for about 20 minutes. We were also the only boat on scene, which made it so quiet that the sounds of the blows were very impressive.

Another boat - 4 Ever Wild from Victoria - showed up right when the whales seemed to decide it was time to move on. After another dive they surfaced between our two boats, giving us a close pass while we still had our engine off.

One year old calf T49A4 peeks over mom's back

A nice "ID shot" of T49A4
T49C (male) and T49A3 surface between us and 4 Ever Wild
At this point we let the whales continue on their travels north, and we started up and headed back to our home port. It was another fantastic continuation in what has been a spring full of great orca encounters!

Now hopefully this weekend I'll be able to post some of my other updates - because it's never just whales around here! I've got lots of bird and flower photos to share, plus a report on an unexpected trip I took across the country.

Friday, May 1, 2015

April Southern Resident Visits

Today, May 1st, all of J-Pod was doing the westside shuffle off San Juan Island. It was great to see them, and to hear that all three J-Pod babies were present and accounted for. 

J41 Eclipse and her less than three month old son J51
It's been an amazing spring for killer whale sightings - both residents and transients. Historically, we expect J-Pod to be around a fair amount in April and May, but in recent years, that hasn't been the case. Today's May Day sighting was already my seventh encounter with J-Pod of the year. Looking back at my notes, amazingly my first encounter with them last year wasn't until May 31st. In 2013 it was May 15th, and in 2012 April 22. (If you're wondering if having a boat has increased my odds of seeing the whales, I just noticed that there wasn't a single day I saw J-Pod only from the boat yet this year - I always also saw them from shore.) All or part of J-Pod was in inland waters (east of Sooke, by my definition) for 14 days this April.

In 2009 and 2013, no residents were seen in inland waters in the month of April for the first two times on record. For all the other years since 2007, the number of days any Southern Residents have spent in inland waters has been well below the historical average going back to 1990. It's no coincidence that 2009 and 2013 are four years apart - that's the average Chinook salmon life cycle, so if 2009 was a poor year for spring Chinook, it's not so surprising 2013 was as well.

Similarly, perhaps by looking at historic whale sightings, we could have predicted that the whales would be around more this spring. This year's 14 days of residents in inland waters is the most since 2007. This 2015 peak corresponds with another four year trend, looking back at 2011 and 2007:

So, what do I predict for May? More of the same! 2007 and 2011 were also the most recent peaks for resident orca days in inland waters in the month of May at 23 and 28 days of whales, respectively. (Contrast that 2010 and 2014 which were just 8 and 3 days of having whales in inland waters in May.) Fingers crossed that I'm right, and that this means there's enough salmon to feed our new baby orcas!