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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Celebrating Earth Day With Whales, Tulips, Birds, and Marching for Science

Last Friday the 21st circumstances aligned to get out on the water to see a group of transients - the T49As, T65As, and T65Bs, who have been regularly traveling together in recent weeks. It was a short but sweet visit with them off the coast of Sidney Island, BC.

Young adult male T49A1

It was cool to see the two young males (T49A1 and T65B2) hanging out together separate from the rest of the group. Interactions outside of a family group always get my mind going as to what could be going on in their social world. These two were close enough to be touching and seemed to be having a good time, doing some rolling and tail slapping.

The other, bigger group of females and juveniles was a bit further away but we got one nice look of all of them surfacing together.

After stalling out for a little bit, the males joined up and all the whales took off at high speed heading north, so we said goodbye and headed back to port.

T49A1 and family head north towards the Canadian Gulf Islands
I had to head back to my home island because I had a ferry to catch! We were heading over to Bellingham for the March for Science, and in the late afternoon the sun came out which made a detour through the tulip fields of Skagit Valley irresistible.

The weather was a bit less cooperative for the March for Science the next day, Earth Day. But that didn't keep more than 2000 people from taking to the streets in Bellingham along with tens of thousands of others around the world to make a statement in favor of adequate funding for, public communication of, and nonpartisan application to policy making of evidence-based science. 

A couple of very powerful speakers took the stage before the march, reminding us all of the importance of not just pursuing our scientific passions but taking the time to share our research and the scientific method with everyone so there's a broader understanding of just how powerful a tool science is. We might hope for certain results from our research, but we must accept whatever the results tell us, and these facts need to be used to inform policy. Selectively picking and choosing what science to listen to is irresponsible both to our environment and to the future of humanity.

After running some errands after the march, there was still time to get a little birding in before catching the ferry home. 

Caspian tern in Anacortes - photo year bird #148
After many excursions specifically trying for this elusive bird (and hearing them often but never seeing one), I also finally photographed a marsh wren!

Marsh wren - photo year bird #149
What will year bird #150 be?! That was my original target to start the year and now I'm wondering if I might reach it before the end of April!

Speaking of the end of April, as the days tick by closer to May, we're all wondering when the Southern Residents return. After making a few visits in March and early April (by just a couple matrilines), they've been absent again for the last couple weeks. Gone are the days with J-Pod regularly on the west side in early spring, so now we are all left wondering when they will take up their typical summer routine. I am just one among many hoping that it is sooner rather than later!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

April Birds and Wildflowers

While the weather has been less than cooperative so far this month and the whales have been a bit too far from San Juan Island, we have taken advantage of some breaks in the rain and wind to enjoy the continuing spring arrivals and the first wildflowers of the season.

At Three Meadows Marsh we heard more birds than we were able to photograph (the marsh wren remains elusive, as does the Virginia rail which has always been the case - but so many friends have managed to photograph one this year that I've been hopeful!), but I did get a nicer shot of a yellow-rumped warbler.

Yellow-rumped warbler

I also was able to photograph my first tree swallow of the year. One cool aspect of the photo year list challenge is it gets me to attempt to take bird photos at times and of species I otherwise wouldn't even try. Swallows in flight? Yeah, right! But this year, this is my third swallow species I've photographed in flight, despite the challenges!

Tree swallow - photo year bird #137
 The other highlight was finding a pair of bushtits actively building a nest out of lichen! I've seen bushtit nests twice before, and all three times they've been built out of predominantly the same type of lichen. After staying still for a while, they were bold enough to continue working on the nest while we watched.

On the home front the feeders are more active than ever. I suspected the large winter flock of purple finches might have split up by now for the mating season, as the juncos seem to have done, but not so. They're still around in great numbers:

Meanwhile the woodpeckers are becoming more used our presence, leading to some fantastic photo opportunities!

Hairy woodpecker
Northern flicker
And every so often a new species turns out, like our first of the year American goldfinches a few days ago:

American goldfinch - photo year bird #138

Another surprise was a slate-colored junco! Considered part of the same dark-eyed junco species a our typical Oregon morph, the slate-colored is usually seen well east of here. Or perhaps it's a Cassiar morph? I didn't even know that was a thing until looking up the range of the slate-colored, and it's apparently somewhat of an intermediate between the slate-colored and Oregon morph, too subtle for me to really be able to tell where this one falls.

Yesterday I came across a birding hot spot at along an unlikely road near home. I pulled over to check out the swallows and ended up spending nearly an hour there and seeing/hearing more than 25 species, including killdeer, mew gulls, California quail, Canada geese, red-winged blackbirds, and three swallow species. I added a couple more to the year list, though my second attempt at photographing a northern rough-winged swallow this year failed again.

Savannah sparrow - photo year bird #139
Barn swallow - photo year bird #140
Today we headed out for a morning hike up Mt. Young. I thought it might be a bit too early for some of the common spring birds I find there, as well as for the wildflowers. Turns out I was wrong on both accounts! I was thrilled to hear the singing Cassin's vireos, Townsend's warblers, and Pacific-slope flycatchers, though less than thrilled with my attempts to photograph them among the dense foliage. The vireo and warbler are two species I don't think I've even photographed before, as they tend to stay deep in the branches or high in the treetops. Hopefully I'll have a chance to improve upon these shots later this season, which are both blurry.

Cassin's vireo - photo year bird #141

Townsend's warbler - photo year bird #142
I'm already surprisingly close to my goal of 150 species photographed this year, figuring I would probably be able to photograph about 75% of the birds I identified and going off my usual goal of 200 bird species a year. Right now I'm at 142 photographed out of 154 on my traditional year list, for a much better 92% thus far.

The flowers proved much easier to photograph, and many of my early favorites were in bloom!

Fawn lily, also appropriately named Easter lily
Calypso orchid, aka fairyslipper
A yellow monkey-flower species, always found on the same little hill each year
Shooting star on the Mt. Young summit

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Weekend Wildlife

With my parents up visiting, it was the perfect time to get out and about with the cameras to see what could be seen last weekend. While we didn't see any whales, we did see lots of other wildlife, starting with the 50 or so Steller sea lions that have been hanging out at Green Point on Spieden Island. Unlike my last visit, this time most of them were in the water, and some of them were very curious!

Spieden's terrestrial wildlife was also out in abundance, with one group of Mouflon sheep taking advantage of the low tide to be down on the rocks at water level. We thought they were probably licking salt off the rocks, but a closer inspection of my photos showed that some of them were actually eating seaweed!

Sometimes you don't appreciate the photos you take until you see them on the computer at home - that was the case with this snap, which gave me a laugh when I saw the surprised-looking expression on this mama Mouflon as her baby nursed (click to see a larger version).

There were so many deer and sheep out enjoying all the green grass, but we also spotted one bald eagle surveying the scene.

This is a great time of year for watching sea birds, too, because they've transitioned into their summer colors, like this common loon:

Same goes for these pigeon guillemots, though they've been sporting their "summer" plumage since February:

Back on the home front, more signs of spring seem to be appearing on a daily basis. While looking for year birds across the island didn't turn up any, at the end of the day I added two right in my own front yard! A yellow-rumped warbler drew me outside, but this singing orange-crowned warbler stole the show.

Orange-crowned warbler, photo year bird #135
On Sunday, we headed down to Cattle Pass, one of our favorite places to scope out birds - literally. Here's my dad scanning Goose Island, shortly before we found a flock of nearby shorebirds.

At first it appeared the shorebirds were all black turnstones, a species I've seen a couple times this year, though it feels like more occasionally than usual. Without more turnstone encounters, I hadn't turned up their sometimes companion, the surfbird. Until now! Three surfbirds were in and among the turnstones, adding another year bird to the tally.

Black turnstone

Surfbird, photo year bird #136

Surfbirds and turnstones can be difficult to tell apart. Turnstones are darker with reddish legs, while surfbirds are grayer with yellow legs. In flight, their wing patterns are also distinct, with the turnstones (top and bottom) having the additional white striping compared to the surfbird (middle):

As much as it felt like spring this weekend, it's back to feeling like winter this week with chillier temperatures, lots of rain, and heavy winds. I thought it was March that was supposed to be in like a lion, out like a lamb? In any case, the taste of warmer, sunnier weather has me more than ready for more days outside with the camera again!