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Sunday, June 11, 2017

No Rs - But Ts, Ts, Ts!

As the days continue to slip by with no sightings of the Southern Residents (since J-Pod last departed on June 1st), this year is beginning to feel more and more like the summer of 2013 when the Southern Residents were conspicuous only their absence. Despite the fact that we keep hoping for reports of the whales returning to inland waters, the lack of sightings should come as no surprise. Not only are we one 4-year salmon cycle from the dismal year of 2013, but one glance at the Chinook salmon test catch data for the Fraser River shows how low the numbers are. They've been doing regular test catches since the end of April and in all that time have caught less than 10 fish - it's a jaw-droppingly low number.

All we can do is hope they're finding food wherever they are hanging out and continue to advocate for what these whales need - more fish. In the meantime, it's impossible not to enjoy our new neighbors, the transient killer whales. Whether by coincidence or not, as the Southern Residents have become more scarce, the transients have become more abundant, and the last week in particular has been phenomenal. At the Orca Behavior Institute we've had six encounters with them in the last five days.

On June 7th, a large group of transients headed across Haro Strait and as they headed north one group broke off from the rest - the T2Cs. These are a fascinating family group for several reasons. For one, they're descendants of the famous marine mammal-eating whale T2 Florencia, who along with T1 Charlie Chin ate fish after 79 days of starvation in captivity. They had already been sold to marine aquariums when someone lowered their nets and freed them in the middle of the night. Secondly, T2C Tasu is the mother of four living offspring, including T2C2 Tumbo who is a twelve year-old male with scoliosis. 

One of the youngest members of the regional transient killer whale population - calf T2C4

His survival to this point, despite obvious physical deformation, is a testament both to his will to live and the altruism shown by his family. He is regularly seen trailing slowly behind the rest of his matriline, as he was when we encountered them. But when we saw them stop to make a kill, he came to join them in the feasting.

The T2Cs on the hunt
T2C2, the male orca with a deformed spine, did not participate in the hunt, but did come over for the feeding
The hunt itself was an amazing thing to watch as my best guess is that the T2Cs pinned a harbor seal on the bottom, as after an extended time of surfacing and diving together, they started diving in alternate pairs, possibly to drown the seal while they took turns breathing. They were circling in the same spot for a long time and it was impossible to tell which way they would end up traveling; when they continued on their way, we were lucky enough to get a close pass. We know cognitively that orcas are big animals, but it hits you in a different way when you see one dwarf you and your boat:

A close pass from T2C Tasu
T2C1 Rocky and calf T2C4
On a couple of days, we've also gotten to see the T65As off the west side of San Juan Island, and in both cases they spent time in resting formation. This shot was taken from Land Bank in the rain, which along with the calm waters made for a memorable encounter.

The T65As resting in Haro Strait
On the morning of June 9th, word came in of a large group of inbound whales heading for San Juan Island. My first thought was, "Residents?!" I luckily got to the west side right as the whales did, and for 15 minutes had a magical moment where there were no boats on scene and no people with me on the shoreline as they approached.

A big group of whales, close to shore rounding Edwards Point, surfacing a lot and milling - I thought it might be residents, until I got a look at the dorsal fin on this male on the left (click to see a larger version with all his notches):

Not only was this not a Southern Resident, this was a whale I knew right away I had never seen before! Turns out it was T170, a rarely encountered orca. I heard this ID while the whales were still in sight, but who were all the other whales with them? For the moment, it didn't matter, and I just took in the tranquil morning encounter.

Later though, of course I did want to know who all was there. My friend and OBI partner Sara and I spent some time pouring over the transient photo ID catalogues, and were able to identify both some more common local visitors in the T36As and T49C as well as some more "exotic" whales in T172, T117A, and T117B. The T117s in particular were tough to figure out. As far as I know, they've never been seen here in local waters, and have changed a fair amount since their ID photos in the 2012 version of the catalog I have. For one, T117A was thought to be a female and now has a fin sprout! Here's a comparison of their ID catalog photos and my heavily cropped photos of them from June 9th to give you an idea of how we figured out who they were.

T117A: broad fin, "dent" on the front edge of the fin, skinny left side of saddle patch
T117B: Nick at the top of fin, "bump" on saddle patch with unique shape
It was a fun puzzle to solve, and it's always exciting to "meet" some new whales! They were going slow enough that I ran from Land Bank to Lime Kiln, but unfortunately by the time they got there they had pulled way offshore. They continued north throughout the day, and while the "regulars" hung around for the next day, the "exotics" kept on going north and out of the Salish Sea.

That doesn't mean the T encounters were over, however! The T2Cs seemingly took up residence in San Juan Channel for 3 days, and last night, on June 10th, we headed out for an evening encounter near Waldron Island. 

T2C1 Rocky

The whales were slowly moving north and the lighting was gorgeous. Again, T2C2 Tumbo, the male with scoliosis, was trailing behind the rest of his family. It tugged at the heart strings for sure when, on a couple of occasions, his big brother T2C1 Rocky broke off from the others and came over to spend some time with him.

Brothers T2C2 Tumbo (left) and T2C1 Rocky (right)
The other three whales went over to harass some seals hauled out on a small rocky outcropping. I don't know how shallow it was right there, but it was amazing how close the whales were able to get to the seals - close enough to scare the gulls off the rocks! One seal even panicked and slipped into the water, but amazingly the whales, who seemed like they could have practically grabbed the seals right off their haul out, seemed to move on without eating anything.

Scary moment for some harbor seals on a small rock (left) as T2C3 Lucy moved away from them
As the sun sank towards the horizon it was hard to leave, as the lighting just got more magical.

T2C1 Rocky
One of my favorite shots of the night - the T2Cs under a sundog
Eventually, we did turn south and head home to port as the whales headed north towards Canadian waters. The boat ride home was gorgeous and I couldn't help but wonder, "What will the next week bring?"

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Signs of Spring Everywhere

Earlier in the week, J-Pod departed the inland waters of the Salish Sea again, but not before making one more pass by Lime Kiln Point State Park. Many of them were way too far offshore to ID or even see, but a few of them, like J17 Princess Angeline with her youngest J53 Kiki, were fairly close to shore:

It absolutely doesn't feel right for the residents to still be scarce as June arrives, but there's nothing we can do about it but hope they're finding enough to eat wherever they are spending their time. In the meantime, there are plenty of other amazing natural sights to enjoy on San Juan Island, including just in our yard, where the birding has been quite amazing! This week one species after another has started to show up with their first brood of chicks, and none of have been more amusing that the trio of fledgling red-breasted nuthatches. When they first arrived in our yard, they could only perch on top of things, but as the days have progressed they've learned to perch upside down and sideways like their parents, and have apparently enjoyed doing so even when there's no food to be had as a result!

They look so much like their parents, but their colors are just a little fainter and something about them still gives them that baby cuteness:

The nuthatches were the first to arrive, but there have been others, some of which have taken a moment to identify like this fledgling spotted towhee!

There's also been one or a couple of young dark-eyed juncos:

And as of this morning, the first fledgling chestnut-backed chickadees have arrived, although it took a lot of patience to get a shot of one!

No house wrens yet, although it the pair is still active around the nest box after having gone into stealth mode, likely for the egg laying an incubation period. I think maybe their nestlings have hatched at this point as the trips have become more frequent, perhaps to feed the babies. I hope we get to spot the fledglings some point soon!

We also have a pair of both hairy and downy woodpeckers that visit every day, and while we don't know for sure, I hope that they too are nesting nearby and will bring their chicks to visit!

Down at American Camp yesterday, we paused to watch all the fox activity in the rabbit field. There are several dens of foxes down there and the kits, who have gotten pretty big, all seemed to be active. They were keeping a wide berth from the bald eagle that had landed in the prairie, however, but when one of the parents returned, it bolted and then jumped at the eagle to chase it off! Only a sequence of photos really captures what happened; after the eagle flew off, the kits came in to feed on a kill the eagle had been on. I wonder if the foxes stole the eagle's kill, or if the eagle was trying to mooch off the foxes? Something tells me it was the latter.

While the major bloom of spring wildflowers like camas and lily have passed, there are still other flowers and interesting plants to see on the prairie, like this chocolate lily seed pod:

There are several small species of lupine in bloom; I think this one is two-colored lupine:

Lupinus bicolor

And also both yellow and purple salsify:

Tragopogon porrifolius
Then today, a walk on Mitchell Hill turned up my first deer fawn of the season:

And also a close-up photo op of this blue-eyed darner:

Aeshna multicolor
The weather has been just perfect - the only thing missing is more whales!