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Monday, May 29, 2017

A Weekend to Remember: Northern Lights and Sunset Orcas

Last weekend was absolutely beautiful, but there were no orcas nearby. Still, it was too nice not to get on the water at least a little bit, and a trip through Spieden Channel was in order.

Tranquil blue waters in Spieden Channel
While we did get a few glimpses of a humpback whale, the highlight was this family of river otters along the Spieden Island shoreline:

As we reached two weeks without a sighting of the Southern Residents, the whale withdrawals really started settling in! At least J-Pod used to be around on almost a daily basis in May and even in April, but not so for the last 4 or 5 years. Presumably this has to do with the poor spring returns on Fraser River Chinook, and hopefully the whales are finding enough to eat elsewhere. Even when the orcas aren't around, however, there's plenty of awesome sights to see in San Juan Island, and on the night of May 27th/28th I got to check an item off my bucket list in seeing the northern lights for the first time. It's a rare but not unheard of occurrence here, and having it happen from my home island was even more special. Sometimes they can really only be picked up here with long camera exposures, but this was a pretty big storm and they were apparent as soon as we got an open view to the north, getting brighter after our eyes adjusted to the darkness.

It was amazing to watch them brigthen and dim and change shape before our eyes. On one hand they moved slower than I had pictured from seeing videos; on the other hand it was amazing how quickly they could change. Usually just greens are seen from here, but for a brief time there was a second band of yellow as well:

When I saw what I thought was a satellite approaching I set up a shot hoping to get its track above the northern lights. I was able to confirm later it was actually the International Space Station; talk about being in the right place at the right time!

Just when the cold was starting to set in and we were thinking of leaving the lights got brighter again, and this time we saw some purple too!

The northern lights would have been more than enough to make for an epic weekend, but mid-day on Sunday we got word that J-Pod was heading back into the area after their long absence. Despite being warm, clear, and sunny here on San Juan, it was foggy in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the boats lost the whales so we heard no further reports on their progress. Jimmie, the student working with us at the Orca Behavior Institute this summer, was scanning at Lime Kiln in the evening as we had a hunch they were still coming in. I think it's pretty cool more than 20 whales can totally give everyone the slip for so many hours, especially on Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest boating weekends of the year here. All of a sudden, they appeared in front of the lighthouse out of no where and were north just ten minutes later! I missed them completely but these are the days I'm thankful we made the decision to buy a boat! It sounded like they might be heading north quickly but luckily we caught up with them right at Mitchell Bay and followed them north past the cormorant rookery on Henry Island.

These days, the whales are very spread out more often than not, so seeing them in a tight group has become a special treat. Last night, all 25 whales of J-Pod were traveling together, an absolutely beautiful sight.

Add the sunset lighting to the story, and you run out of adjectives to describe the scene pretty quickly.

To top it off, we had the whales to ourselves for the end of the encounter, which is always extra special.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

This is When We Use the Term "Epic"

When watching whales you can easily run out of adjectives as much of what they do is awesome to witness. Around here the word "epic" is usually reserved for those rarest, most memorable observations - like the one we had yesterday afternoon.

The T123 family group has been around for a couple days, and upon hearing they were headed towards San Juan Island it was too nice a day not to head out to try and see them. The first amazing sight awaited us before we even left the bay, however. Something about this bird made me do a double take, and I'm glad we did a U-turn to get a better look - it was a yellow-billed loon!

This species usually occupies the far north, and while they're occasionally seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and outer coast of Washington, I personally have never seen one outside of Alaska! Normally that sighting alone would be enough to make my day, but with transients nearby and potentially heading away from us, we only took a short look to take some pictures before continuing on our way.

Not a bad day to be on the water!
When we met up with the T123s in San Juan Channel, they were heading south, but shortly after we arrived they turned back north, which was good news for us. This family group, which has been around a lot this spring, is made up of three whales: mom T123 Sidney, her adult male son T123A Stanley, and her five year-old daughter T123C Lucky.

They made a turn into Spieden Channel, and out of no where, started hot pursuit of a Steller sea lion. These sea lions, which can reach weights of up to 2000 pounds, are regular prey for transient killer whales but no easy meal to take down. The Ts harassed this one for about 15 or 20 minutes, but it looked like he got away, as they didn't stick around long enough to feast. The chase, however, was indeed one of epic proportions. Not all hunts are dramatic, as sometimes they can take a seal and eat it without much indication of a predation event at the surface at all. This one, however, had it all, with many aerials like dolphin leaps and surface lunges creating huge splashes of water in all directions.

T123 Sidney shows her raw power

The Vancouver Aquarium research team was on the water with their drone, which they use in part to help assess body condition in Southern Resident Killer Whales. By chance, they had launched their drone right before this attack took place - I can only imagine what the whole thing looked like from the air, and hope they share it at some point!

The research boat "Skana" retrieving their drone
We were left speechless by the hunt, but as the whales seemingly gave up and moved on their way, the rest of the Steller sea lions at Green Point had plenty to say as they ganged up to make sure the orcas moved along.

Things calmed down considerably after that, as many of the boats on scene headed home and the whales entered into a slow, comfortable travel doing long dives between surfacing tight together.

We had agreed to stay for one more surfacing and slowly motored along paralleling the track the whales had been on for the previous half hour or more. The minutes ticked by: 5...6....7...8, when I caught a disturbance out of the corner of my eye behind us. The whales had changed course and were right behind us, so we cut the engine and drifted as they approached.

Any close pass is a memorable one, but on very rare occasions, there is some mutual curiosity shown by the whales towards humans. The youngster T123C Lucky emerged out of the depths alongside our boat, and turned on her side as she moved past us, looking up at us as we looked down at her. It was brief, but for a moment time was frozen. Somehow I decided to take it in with my eyes rather than through the camera lens, though I was still shooting from the hip and snapping away without thinking. Amazingly, I lucked out and captured this shot, which will undoubtedly go down as one of my all-time favorites:

Without breaking the surface, she turned and continued on north after the rest of her family. Again, we sat drifting in the boat, speechless, until they surfaced again nearly 10 minutes later a quarter-mile away. Epic, indeed.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Whale and Bird Filled Weekend

Although the weather still won't quite commit to summer, the wildlife-watching has been fantastic on San Juan Island and is very much starting to reflect the changing seasons. The excitement for me this weekend started on Friday afternoon when the T101 group of transient orcas passed by Lime Kiln. While it's becoming more common to see transients from shore from San Juan, it's still not too common to see them this close off the west side!

Male transient orca T102 - born the same year as me!
The T101s are an impressive group because it's a female and her three adult sons. Often you'll only see one or maybe two males that stick together in one family unit. I hadn't personally seen these guys in 8 years, so it was neat to see them again!

T101A and T101B

J-Pod had been up north since they came through on Sunday May 7th, and it was very nice of them to wait until Saturday morning to come back south. It was also nice to get a break in the rainy morning weather to see them! They were very spread out both east-west and north-south across Haro Strait, so we only got good looks at about half of them from Lime Kiln, but we weren't complaining!

J16 Slick

The whales were "all mixed up" too, meaning they weren't in their family groups, so IDs were a little more challenging! The J16 family group was split up near the lead, in the middle, and at the end!

J36 Alki and her son J52 Sonic

We've had so much bird activity in the yard it's been possible to just hang out outside and turn up 20 species over the course of half an hour. One of the dramas that's been unfolding this spring is use of our nest boxes, including following a male house wren has he started building a nest alone, attracted a mate, and then defended his home from some violet-green swallows who were interested in taking over!

A male house wren begins to build a nest, persisting to place these seemingly too large twigs into the hole

The singing pays off! The male keeps close watch on a female as she adds softer materials to the nest he's started
Fight! The male wren defends the nest box against a pair of violet-green swallows that are interested in moving in
One reason I went outside Saturday evening was to check up on the wrens, as the nest box has seemed very quiet since the swallow incident, although we did see the wrens continuing to build up the nest later that day after the swallows had left. I'm hoping they've just gone more into stealth mode, perhaps as the female is incubating eggs, because we haven't noticed them entering or exiting the nest box in a few days, although we did hear the male signing yesterday.

While there wasn't much happening near the nest box (though I did observe a quiet chickadee enter to feed some begging chicks in the neighboring box), there were plenty of other birds to observe in the yard last night! Here are just a few of the things I saw:

Warbling vireo - new yard species and photo year bird #158
Bewick's wren singing his little heart out
Hairy woodpecker on the suet feeder
Rufous hummingbird on the lookout to defend "his" feeder
Yesterday afternoon J-Pod seemed indecisive about heading west, as we could still see them milling out near Discovery Island from Lime Kiln, but head west they finally did, so without any whales in the area this morning we again turned our attention to birds, and we found more than 35 species on a walk at Three Meadows Marsh. Included in the list were 4 more photo year birds, three of which I had been hearing in the last week or two but hadn't seen or had an opportunity to photograph.

Common yellowthroat - photo year bird #159
Yellow warbler - photo year bird #160
The other odd sight was this barn swallow that was trailing something behind it. At first I thought it was a plastic bag, but it seemed rather to be something fabric-like, with a string tied around the bird's tail or body. It seemed to be flying pretty well, though was laboring a bit more than the other birds. Hopefully it finds a way to free itself!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

J-Pod Returns!

After nearly 5 weeks of no reports of any Southern Resident Killer Whales (anywhere, not even just here!) we were all relieved Sunday morning to get the early morning report from out west that J-Pod was heading back in. They were still several hours away, but it was hard to sit still, especially on such a beautiful spring day! So we passed some time by heading to the south end of the island where the multiple fox dens with their plethora of kits are another main attraction this time of year.

Watching these guys frolic across the prairies definitely helped pass the time!

In the early afternoon we headed up to Lime Kiln and watched as the whales rounded Discovery Island and made their way across the straits. With so many changes in J-Pod last year due to the loss of five of their members, many questions hang in the air. The first and foremost on everyone's mind was: would everyone else still be there? I'll avoid the suspense and say now that the answer is YES. We saw members of all family groups and identified nearly everyone as they passed Lime Kiln, but a few whales were too far offshore to ID. Thankfully today the Center for Whale Research posted their encounter update confirming everyone was present.

Another question is what will happen in the wake of the death of the matriarch J2 Granny, who was so often in the lead. Will someone will her role? Will travel patterns and association patterns change as a result? We at the Orca Behavior Institute will be diligently taking data this summer and beyond to help answer questions like these, but on this day, it was J19 Shachi in the lead.

J19 Shachi
From a human perspective, Shachi seems like a good candidate to take a leadership role for J-Pod. She was a regular traveling companion of both J2 Granny and J8 Spieden, including in more recent years when J-Pod started splitting into smaller groups. But only time will tell if this will be a regular  role for her, let alone a permanent one.

Not too far behind Shachi I was happy to see J41 Eclipse, my personal favorite, with her son J51 Nova.

J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova

The J19s, J17s, and J11s were all in the first group to passby. Often J27 Blackberry is with his brother J39 Mako, but on this day he was with his sister J31 Tsuchi:

J27 Blackberry and J31 Tsuchi

There was a short gap after these matrilines passed by, but we could see blows in the distance to the south and knew the rest of the whales were on their way. Another question for this summer is what will become of L87 Onyx, the whale born into L-Pod who has spent several years traveling with both K- and J-Pods. As his closest traveling companions (elder females from each pod, most recently J2 Granny) have passed away, he's moved on to associate with different whales over the years. Will he stay in J-Pod? Who will he latch onto?  The J14s, J16s, and J22s made up the second group, and for today, Onyx was with them. Specifically, he and J38 Cookie were the trailing whales, passing much closer to shore than anybody else. I couldn't believe how much Cookie has grown over the winter!

J38 Cookie

We hopped on the boat to meet up with the whales again near Mitchell Bay. First we hung out with the J16 family group some more, and then dropped back to see who was now traveling with Onyx and Cookie. The answer was J45 Se-Yi'-Chn and J49 T'ilem I'nges, two other young J-Pod whales. 

The boys passing Kellett Bluffs

 This group, who was in a playful mood, is interesting for several reasons. Not only are they all males, but they all lost somebody last year, with the passing of J2 Granny, J14 Samish (mother/grandmother to J45 and J49), and J34 Doublestuf (brother to J38). With their families broken by their losses, are they finding solace in one another? These are the kinds of questions we will never have definitive answers to, but we can hope the answer is yes.

One of several breaches by J49 T'ilem I'nges

After a little while Onyx fell back from the others, and we stuck with him. Unlike many whales when they're traveling on their own, Onyx doesn't always stay in just travel mode. It was the same on this afternoon, when he started doing tail slaps and dorsal fin slaps all by himself. If his story isn't enough to make you like him, his behavior usually is!

L87 Onyx - the whale who breaks all the "rules"
Another shot of Onyx with Spieden Island in the background
As the whales continued on towards Turn Point, we split off to head for home, but not before getting one last look at the J16s who were grouped up offshore.

Our next question about the whales was: after such a long absence, would they find enough fish to stay? Our encounter with them was on May 7th, and on May 8th they were seen by others up north. Presumably they're still up there today, and hopefully finding a lot to eat! Just like in all things, what goes up must come down, so as long as the Js are up north, we've got a chance to see them again on their way back south! After getting such a great "whale fix" to start the season, we're definitely ready for more!