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Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Photo Year List Summary

Since 2010 I've been keeping track of how many bird species I see in a calendar year, this year adding the twist to see how many I could also get identifiable photographs of. It's a fun project that makes the common species "new" again each year, gets me outside a lot (especially in the winter when it's harder to be motivated to get out in the cold), and helps me explore new places. My goal for this year was to get 200 species on my "traditional" year list. I wasn't sure how many I would be able to photograph, so I decided to aim for photographing 75% of my year list total, or 150 species.

First of all, let's look at how 2017 ended. With the holidays came a trip down to Oregon, and we started out bright and early in order to be able to bird Skagit Flats at sunrise.

Sunrise over the Cascade mountains on December 23
While we didn't get the owl activity we had hoped for, we did see the out-of-range blue jay that has been hanging out at some feeders, where the property owners have generously been allowing birders to visit:

While it took about 20 minutes of waiting in the sub-freezing temperatures for the jay to show up, there was a lot of other activity to watch at the feeders and in the yard, including a few usually-shy varied thrushes in the apple trees.

We also took a short detour to Fir Island to see the huge winter flocks of snow geese and trumpeter swans, quite a sight in front of the snow-capped Mt. Baker on a crisp but sunny winter morning.

We tried in several locations to see some common redpolls, a finch more common to the north and east but a species having a regional irruption year. We didn't have any luck, but at one of these locations did manage to photograph a Cooper's hawk, a species I had seen several times but not photographed yet in 2017.

We struck out with the redpolls at another location in Seattle, too, but did get a nice close up look at a gadwall, and I just love all the intricacies of the feather patterning.

We picked the right day to travel with clear skies and dry roads, because the next day at my parents' house in Oregon the snow and freezing rain hit. I snapped this photo of a junco and his metal friend on my parents' deck from the cozy warm dining room; we didn't venture outside for about two days!

By the day after Christmas the weather had cleared a bit, so we visited one of my favorite local birding spots near St. Helens. I thought I was taking a picture of another Cooper's hawk, but it wasn't until we got home and looked at our photos that my dad pointed out it was actually a red-shouldered hawk! Another new addition.

At the same marsh I also got a photo of an American bittern, a species I had just missed with the camera in January.

The next day we also checked out a local acorn woodpecker colony, though we failed to see the rare visiting yellow-bellied sapsucker that had also been seen regularly nearby.

Acorn woodpecker in Hillsboro, Oregon
So how did these last minute additions (nine more photo year birds in December!) help me stack up? I finished the year with 205 species on my year list. I clicked away at well over 75% all year long, surpassing 150 birds photographed early on, so had a stretch goal of also trying to photograph 200 species this year. Despite a good push at the end of December, I fell *just* short with 199 species photographed, meaning I photographed an astounding 98% of the birds I identified this year. How close was I to 200? This blurry Virginia rail photographed December 26th would have been the one to push me to the 200 mark had it been in focus!

So close....better luck next year

I made several more attempts in the final days of 2017 to get that last elusive photo year bird, but with no luck. Seeing transient killer whales twice was a more than fair consolation prize, however.

The T75Bs and T75Cs in San Juan Channel on December 30th

The T18s in Haro Strait on December 31st
 The weather was awesome on the last day of 2017 for photographing the other wildlife, too.

Popeye the Friday Harbor harbor seal soaks up the winter sunshine

One of the resident bald eagles at Cattle Point had a lot to say this afternoon
Because I love data and playing with numbers, here are some other facts and figures about my 2017 year list...

Who were the six species I heard or saw and didn't get a picture of? Heard only: western screech-owl, Virginia rail, sora, common nighthawk, and western wood-pewee. Saw but didn't photograph: Vaux's swift.

Big miss for the year? Hutton's vireo. I'm also amazed a poor iPhone photo of a barred owl in September was my only sighting of that species this year.

Biggest surprise? Getting a whopping ten owl species in total (9 photographed plus 1 heard). Our February trip with a birding expert where I photographed six owl species in one day was certainly the main reason, but I never would have expected even with that trip that I would photograph all these owl species in a single year: barred owl, barn owl, short-eared owl, long-eared owl, great horned owl, northern pygmy-owl, northern saw-whet owl, snowy owl, and great gray owl.

I stayed more local this year, as all my birding was in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia (where previous years have often included at least California and Mexico as well) and thus I was surprised to get seven life birds this year as well: glaucous gull, northern pygmy-owl, great gray owl, gray-crowned rosy-finch, Pacific golden-plover, Hammond's flycatcher, and Baird's sandpiper.

I'm not the only one that plays the year list game, and for years I've been comparing to both my dad and Dave in England. My dad traveled a lot more this year so is the winner with 236 species, and Dave finished with 190. It's amazing how close Dave and I always tend to be, despite being half a world apart! In 2013 we even tied. Here's how we've stacked up over the years:

Most of my birding is of course in San Juan County each year, so here's the number of species I've seen in the county each year:

Finally, while it's skewed a bit by when and where I travel each year and how much effort I spend birding, it's kind of interesting to see how many species I add to my year list each month. I had posted this as a table in years past, but here it is in graphical form:

And part of what makes it fun is that tomorrow - January 1, 2018 - it all begins afresh! So what are my goals for 2018? With a few more travels in the plans, I'm aiming for 220 for my year list (a mark I've only hit twice), and I'll target 95% of the birds photographed, which comes out to 209 species! At the moment that sounds really daunting, but we'll see how I do! I'll of course be posted updates on the blog throughout the year. Happy 2018 to you all, and thanks for reading!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Weekend Trip to the Saanich Peninsula

This weekend we made a quick trip over to the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island, BC. We visited the Butchart Gardens, my first time there. I was really glad we arrived about an hour before sunset, because that gave us time to see the gardens in the daylight (and also to avoid the mad rush of people coming just for the lights!). We especially enjoyed the Japanese Garden, which would be closed after dark.

One thing I've really grown to love about macro photography is that regardless of the day (or the weather or the light) you can almost always find something interesting to photograph. It was a pretty gray afternoon with fading light, but there are always little wonders to be found.

We took a full walk around the gardens in the fading light. It wasn't quite dark enough for the nighttime photos we were hoping for of the Christmas lights, but there were still some opportunites for pictures.

As darkness continued to descend, the lights became more and more spectacular, and they really go all out.

The most spectacular vista at night is the overlook of the sunken garden
And it's no fun to photograph so many colorful lights without playing around with some abstract long exposures...

This morning before catching the ferry back to our home island we headed down the peninsula in search of a flock of common redpolls that's been seen regularly in a certain neighborhood. Of course as luck would have it they didn't turn up in the hour we were there, but we still saw more than 15 bird species in a walk around the neighborhood.

Anna's hummingbirds now overwinter on San Juan Island, too, but I'm always amazed at how many I see on Vancouver Island - they are everywhere!

Even though the redpolls were a no-show, I did manage to add one species to my photo year list. I've seen sharp-shinned hawks a handful of times this year, but never cooperative enough to get a picture of - until now. I've seen or heard 196 bird species this year, and have managed to photograph 188 of them. I was hoping for a 75% success rate so am amazed to be at about 96%!

Then back at the ferry landing we had a flock of very cooperative hooded mergansers bathing nice and close.

It was quick trip, but always nice to do some exploring, and the sunshine made for an especially nice pick-me-up!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Winter Wildlife and December 2nd with J-Pod

Overall, the weather has been windy and rainy, not conducive to much outdoor activity. It hasn't stopped us from getting out there completely, as a couple weekend ago we went off island to do some birding, and successfully saw two different owl species.

Snowy owl at Sandy Point near Ferndale, WA
Short-eared owl hunting on Fir Island in Skagit County
With some family visiting over the Thanksgiving holiday, we went down to check out the foxes at South Beach. This one provided a welcome splash of color in an otherwise very gray landscape on a very gray day!

We've also been able to do a lot of bird-watching from the comfort of our own home due to some very active bird feeders, which we have been keeping a closer eye on than usual with the start of Project FeederWatch. Thanks to the counts we've been doing, we realize we get visits from about a dozen species a day totaling about 60 birds! The vast majority of these are a huge flock of juncos, but we also regularly get visits from four different species of woodpeckers.

Pair of hairy woodpeckers

Anna's hummingbirds have been steadily expanding their year-round range northward over the last couple decades. Ten years ago it was rare to have one overwinter on San Juan Island; now, it's commonplace. For the first time I'm getting them as regular visitors to our feeders during the winter. How do they survive without blooming flowers? These adaptive little guys eat insects and sap - though they aren't above sugar water, either!

Anna's hummingbird - in December!

This afternoon (December 2nd) we got word of orcas in San Juan Channel. They were heading away from us, but a bit later a friend on shore saw them turn around, so we headed out to Reuben Tarte county park to take a look. A few others were already there looking, and surprisingly, the first whales they pointed out to us were a pair of humpbacks! Shortly thereafter we spotted three orcas in the distance heading down San Juan Channel. They were spread out and far away, but since we didn't see any others, we assumed they were transients. Later in the afternoon, however, we got a chance to hop aboard a boat out of Friday Harbor with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching. We thought we needed to go a ways to catch up with them when I spotted a whale right near Point Caution just north of Friday Harbor. I zoomed in on the first photo I took and spotted a large "finger" on the saddle patch - something you don't see on transients! It was J17 Princess Angeline and her youngest J53 Kiki.

Surprise! Residents! J17 Princess Angeline and J53 Kiki in San Juan Channel
The whales were very spread out both north-south and across the channel, but slowly more and more came into view. It's amazing the energy and mood boost that comes from seeing whales, especially apparent this time of year when the winter dolrums have set in. 

J35 Tahlequah
J40 Suttles
Some of the whales practically went right into Friday Harbor! I've seen whales right near Friday Harbor from shore, but I've never had the opportunity to photograph resident killer whales with Friday Harbor in the background before. Another item off the orca photographer bucket list! ;)

As the daylight was fading the last two whales we saw approaching were L87 Onyx and J45 Se-Yi'-Chn. The colors of the sunset were becoming more spectacular and we were all crossing our fingers for a perfect surfacing from them in the amazing lighting. Of course, right when the sky looked like this they took a long dive.

Beautiful winter sunset....but what happened to the whales?
After surprising us by doubling back, we did finally get a look at the big male Onyx in front of Friday Harbor. The light had changed by then, but I'm not complaining - at least it wasn't dark yet! It was pretty awesome to see him right off the Friday Harbor ferry terminal, complete with ferry at the dock!

L87 Onyx and a ferry at the dock in Friday Harbor
Unexpectedly seeing J-Pod and L87 was a thrill that helped make up for the long stretch of dreary days. Luckily it looks like there's a lot of sunshine in our near future, so hopefully I will have more photos to share again before long!