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Monday, March 12, 2018

Part 2: An Epic Encounter With the T2Cs

Now that you've met the T2Cs in my previous post, the stage is set for the amazing encounter we had with them from shore at Reuben Tarte County Park!

Perhaps in part because they travel slow on account of Tumbo, when the T2Cs show up they seem to hang around for many days at a time. I actually got to see them three times over the course of five days. First, on March 7th, as they passed Reuben Tarte:

Second, on March 9th as they headed north past San Juan County Park:

But the real encounter for the ages was on the morning of Sunday, March 11th when word came in from a friend of a small group of orcas heading north from near Friday Harbor. When we got out to Reuben Tarte County Park, we were one of the first ones there, but more and more "orcaholics" gathered on the shoreline over the next hour. Blows were visible well to the south and it was clear they were heading in our direction, but very slowly. Before they were anywhere near close enough to ID, I just had the feeling it was the T2Cs again, and that it would be worth the wait.

Watching through binoculars, it was at first the mom and three offspring traveling together with Tumbo trailing behind. As they approached O'Neal Island, however, T2C1 Rocky split off to travel with Tumbo, and they headed out into San Juan Channel while T2C Tasu and her two youngest offspring went inside of O'Neal. The three whales were closer to shore and reached us first, but when they surfaced right in front of us they stalled out. My guess is they either corralled a seal or perhaps pinned one to the bottom, because the two brothers immediately reacted. Both Rocky and Tumbo picked up speed and became surface active on their way towards the others. 

Inverted tail slap from T2C1 Rocky

Rocky reached the group first and my somewhat educated but still wild guess is that he and the others were taking turns pinning the seal to the bottom. Mom and the two youngsters would surface while Rocky disappeared on a long dive, and then vice versa. Meanwhile, as he so often does, Tumbo held back, nearby, but not part of the action. Then, I don't know if the seal bolted or if they already had it, but all of them veered towards shore right where we were all gathered on the rocks.

Heading right for us!

Baby T2C4 did a series of dolphin leaps - always such a cool thing to see from an orca!

They all came in for an ultra-close pass - here are some zoomed out photos to give a little perspective.

And some zoomed in shots of whales, up close and personal!

T2C Tasu

Love it when you can see them underwater!

Underside of a tail fluke
T2C3 Lucy and T2C4 - an amazing perspective to get, especially from shore!
T2C1 Rocky
If we had any doubts about whether their hunt had been successful, our questions were soon answered. Gulls started coming down to the surface to look for scraps, and a bald eagle even swooped down and grabbed a piece of meat from the surface!

Gulls coming in to enjoy the spoils
But the most compelling proof was when one whale surfaced with intestines draped over their back - kinda gives a new meaning to "playing with your food"!

I'm not sure if they made more than one kill or were just enjoying the celebration, but it was clear they weren't in any hurry to go anywhere, and as they drifted a little ways off the rocks, the whole group got more surface active with tail slaps, spy hops, and breaches.

Tail slap from T2C2 Rocky

Just when it looked like they were going to go north, they turned and started coming back towards us. In the end, they were "milling and killing" right off Reuben Tarte for just over an hour!

Big size difference: 16 year-old Rocky and 1.5 year old T2C4

Mama T2C Tasu

They eventually did make their way back south down San Juan Channel, leaving all the human observers breathless on the shoreline. There were smiles all around!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Part 1: Meet the T2Cs

The T2Cs have been spending more time in the San Juan Islands in the last two years, and they have quickly become local favorites due to their unique family history. If you're not familiar with their story, I thought it might be worth a quick recap and an introduction into their current members before continuing with the three encounters I was lucky enough to have with them over the last four days. Because if it weren't for a legendary piece of local history, these whales wouldn't exist today.

T2, also known as the Pointednose Cow, Florencia, and M2, was the presumed matriarch of a unique group of killer whales that became known in the area about 50 years ago. Her family was distinct because many of its members had physical deformities. Her presumed son, T1 Charlie Chin, had a severe underbite. Another young relation, T4 Chimo, was mostly white in color. (It was determined this was due to a genetic disease  known as Chediak-Higashi syndrome.) In 1970, this family was captured in Pedder Bay between Sooke and Victoria with the intent of being sold to marine aquaria for a live in captivity. A month after capture, Chimo and another young whale named Nootka were the first to go, to Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria. Meanwhile, three of their relatives - T1, T2, and T3 remained in Pedder Bay.

These whales of course were marine mammal eating transients, but in 1970 nothing was known about the difference between residents and transients. The whales were repeatedly offered fish, but didn't eat. They became very emaciated, until one of them, T3, died 75 days after capture. Four days later, T1 and T2 finally accepted and ate a salmon - a fact even more remarkable when we consider what we know about the cultural divide between residents and transients today. They began to regain their health as they awaited their transport to Seven Seas in Texas. But in late October of 1970, after more than seven months in the pen, someone sunk the nets and gave the remaining two whales a chance to escape. T1 and T2 improbably regained their freedom.

T2 Florencia went on to give birth to three more offspring: T2A Bajo, a male who was last seen in the late 1980s, T2B Pedder, a still-living female who regularly travels with the T60s and has no living offspring of her own, and T2C Tasu, who would travel with her mother until T2's death in 2009. I was lucky enough to meet the famous Florencia just months before her death when I saw her in Haro Strait in late 2008.

T2 Florencia in 2008
This is also the first time I met T2C Tasu, who had her two oldest offspring with her at that time. Fast forward to today, and both of those sons are still with her!

T2C Tasu and her oldest son T2C1 Rocky in 2008 (top) and 2018 (bottom)
So thanks to the mysterious person or persons who freed T1 and T2 back in 1970, T2C was born in 1989 and now has four offspring of her own. As they've spent more time around the San Juan Islands in recent years I've gotten to know this family of 5, and thought I would introduce them to you one by one before recapping today's epic encounter.

T2C Tasu - born 1989

T2C Tasu - Mother - Notch at the base of her fin
T2C1 Rocky - Born 2002

T2C1 Rocky - Oldest son - Large male at age 16
 T2C2 Tumbo - Born 2005

T2C2 Tumbo - Second born son - Has scoliosis, leading to a curved spine and dorsal fin
 T2C3 Lucy - Born 2011

T2C3 Lucy - Daughter - Lots of scratching and scarring
 T2C4 Unnamed - First Seen 2017

T2C4 Unnamed - Youngest son - Calf of the group
What makes this family so memorable is T2C2 Tumbo, who has scoliosis. Like several of his ancestors, this has led to him being physically deformed, although more severely, as he has a twisted spine. He tends to swim fairly slow, and is unlikely to be an efficient hunter. What is incredible is that his family has supported him to the age of 13. Over the last two years as I've spent more time with this family, Tumbo is often trailing behind the other 4 whales, but each of the others take turns to swim with him, and sometimes the whole family stalls out to wait for him. They don't travel as far or as fast as other groups of killer whales, but they've seemingly been willing to give that up in order to stay together as a family unit. Whenever I've seen them make a kill, some or all of the 4 other whales are involved in the hunt, and then Tumbo comes in to join them for the feasting. It is almost certain he wouldn't survive on his own.

T2C2 Tumbo and T2C4 in March 2018 - the other 3 whales were ahead and the calf was swimming slowly with his big brother
When you just get a glimpse into the lives of these whales, who live underwater in a world so alien to our own, sometimes it can be hard to see their intelligence or complex social systems. It's through long term observation that these aspects of their being are more apparent, but with the T2Cs, a single encounter with them immediately reaches the heart. The compassion, caring, support, and - dare I say it? - love this family shows for one another has found them a spot in the hearts of all who are lucky enough to meet them. 

Now that you have an idea of who these whales are and what their incredible family history has been, the stage is set for my next blog post where I will share my Sunday morning encounter with them that lived up to the word "epic".

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Welcomed Home by Snow and Whales

We got home from our trip south just as the worst of the winter weather system hit - bye bye California sunshine, hello Washington snow! The local birds at least were very happy we made it back when we did.

We were home a few days, dealing with icy roads and bone-chilling winds, when Jason and I turned to each other and said, "Why do we live here again?" As if on cue, that very afternoon (February 24th) some transient killer whales turned up in San Juan Channel and we were lucky enough to be able to hop out with Maya's Legacy Charters to go see them. Oh yeah, this is one big reason why we live here!

It turned out to be the T124As, a group of five whales including calf T124A6 born in 2016, a little one who would pop his/her head up high on every surfacing!

Successful mama T124A, with the closest I've seen to an open saddle patch on a transient

Head high and eyes wide open for calf T124A6, shown here between mom T124A (left) and sibling T124A3 (right)

They were slowly cruising up San Juan Channel and then, just before turning into Upright Channel, they suddenly made what was presumably a harbor seal kill. They stopped, milled, and moved on so quickly it was amazing they had time to eat whatever they had taken down, but all the bird activity at the surface left no doubt as to their success.

They're efficient hunters but the life of a transient can't always be easy given that their prey has teeth and can and will fight back. When you look closely many whales show their battle scars, like these deep scratches on the dorsal fin of T124A4.

T124A4 with scarring on dorsal fin (click to see a larger view)
After moving on from their first kill and heading north into Upright Channel, the group quickly made their second kill, with a little more theatrics at the surface this time:

If I thought a lot of birds came in before, the number of birds this time was incredible! There were hundreds of gulls trying to take advantage of the work these Ts did.

So many gulls flying around the whales!

A mew gull looks for a morsel at the surface
The light just got amazing then as the sun sank lower into the sky. Look at that lumpy head on T124A, which was really visible from both sides. My friend Sara thinks they're fat rolls - she certainly looked like a robust whale, quite a feat for a mom who may still be nursing!

As we got into the chop where the channels met, the apparently hungry whales made another kill - three one right after another! This time I got a glimpse of the seal at the surface to confirm what they were eating. Not a good day to be a harbor seal in the San Juan Islands.


We left the whales to the third course of their dinner and headed home to get ours under a beautiful winter sunset.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Soaking Up the California Sunshine

After heading north from San Diego it was nearly time to head back home where snow would await us, but first we had just enough time for a pit stop in sunny Laguna Beach, where we got married almost two years ago. The weather couldn't have been more perfect and with winter storm warnings forecast for our drive home, we had extra incentive to soak up our last couple days of California warmth. Even for California, it was amazing to me how many flowers were in full bloom in February!

I of course have extra special memories from here, but I think it would be one of my favorite places in California anyway. It's a smaller, funkier beach town with much more dynamic landscapes; I just love it there.

There wasn't as much variety of bird life on the beaches as in Mexico, but we still got some nice birding in.

Heermann's gull - a species we won't be seeing at home until late June
As we enjoyed our last sunset in Laguna Beach, we just had the feeling that would be the end of our warm weather, as indeed it was. The next morning there was a new chill in the air even in southern California.

For a few moments the golden light just looked magical on the waves!

The next day we stopped at a neat little preserve called Madrona Marsh in Torrance. The harsh lighting made birding a bit difficult, but we did get a quick look at what would be my last life bird for the trip - an ash-throated flycatcher.

We spent the night in Santa Maria and then made a stop at the butterfly grove in Pismo Beach early the next morning. The birding was great, as we added another handful of year birds in the hour we were there.

Nuttall's woodpecker - the only place I had ever seen one of these before was....also at the butterfly grove in Pismo Beach!
California scrub-jay
It was still too early in the day/cold for the monarch butterflies to be flying around, but after some careful searching of the trees we did find a cluster of them huddled together looking like a branch of dead leaves.

On our continued drive north we stopped at a little city park in Sacramento where a worm-eating warbler has been seen. (It was funny: as we passed by a couple of Frisbee golf players and they saw our cameras they knew we were probably looking for "that little bird".) We didn't have any luck finding it, but did get our best look of the trip at a red-shouldered hawk.

And just like Batiquitos Lagoon, I can't pass Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge without making a stop. It's 6-mile auto tour loop always provides some great birding and was not a disappointment!

Greater white-fronted geese

White-faced ibis

Western meadowlark
American coot
And I don't think I have ever seen so many black-necked stilt in one place! A conservative estimate was 250 of them. I'm not sure what was going on in the second photo - attempted mating?

We saw nearly 40 bird species in just over an hour there - pretty impressive! Oh, and one mammal species:

California ground squirrel
For our last two days of the drive up we hit the snow and it felt like our vacation was over! Thankfully we managed to dodge the worst of the weather and the biggest snow didn't hit home until the day after we got back. That actually made for a cozy return and some nice photo opportunities! The last birding of the road trip, however, occurred at the Anacortes ferry landing where the most impressive sight was the more than 30 great blue herons roosting on the old dock pilings:

It was a great trip that provided both the birding and some of the warm weather we had hoped for. In conclusion, here are a few statistics for our nearly two and a half week trip:

Miles traveled: More than 3800
Number of states traveled through: 7 (including Sonora, Mexico)
Number of bird species seen: 187
Number of photo year birds added: 120
Number of life birds for me: 19 
Number of life birds for Jason: 42
Number of mammal species seen: 15 - ranging from yellow-bellied marmot to bottlenose dolphin!