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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Summary of June Southern Resident Visits

Yikes, I think more than two months without a blog post is a new record, and not in a good way! It has been a very busy summer so far, and thankfully part of that has been due to some visits from the Southern Residents over the last six weeks. In the interest of sharing some photos and recapping some sightings, I'll make this a bit of a summary blog.

June 11 - 16: J-Pod and the Greater L4s

On June 11th the Southern Residents returned to the Salish Sea for the first time in nine weeks. All of J-Pod returned with the group I've called the "Greater L4s", made up of the L4s, L26s, L47s, and L72s. (The L12s actually came in too, but left the next day, while the others stayed.) This was obviously cause for great celebration, including playing hooky a morning from work to go say hi to them all and truly kick off the summer whale-watching season.

L55 in Haro Strait June 11
It was a picture perfect, glassy calm morning to be out on the water, and we got some fantastic hydrophone recordings before there were any other boats out. You can hear a clip here.

J38 Cookie also seemed "excited" to be back, though as much as we were hoping he was helping to make babies, he was actually fooling around with a couple of other young males, J39 Mako and L109 Takoda.

Regardless of what they were up to, it was just great to see some exuberant, roly-poly whales.

One of the best parts of seeing the whales after a long absence is to see how much they have grown, such as L122 Magic who already looks so much bigger at 3 years old!

L91 Muncher and L122

I think everyone was holding their breath that after such a long absence, the Southern Residents might only make a brief 24 hour visit, but luckily they stayed around for the next five days. On June 15, they were doing a good old fashioned "westside shuffle", and I got to see them early in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night!

The morning included a special moment at Land Bank where it was just me and the whales, and I was treated to this spyhop from J36 Alki.

Spyhop from J36 Alki

In the afternoon, the J16s and J19s came up as far as Lime Kiln before turning around, but not before J16 slick took a turn in the bull kelp right off the lighthouse, and did four or five spyhops making sure we got a nice look at her from every angle!

J16 Slick flings some kelp in the air with her tail
"Which side is right?....
....or my left?"
In the evening, after a big group of Js zipped north on a huge flood tide, they then turned and rocketed back south right off the shoreline of Lime Kiln, all in a big line.

A little behind them came the rest, in a slower and more playful fashion.

Breach from J37 Hy'shqa

Sadly, on the morning of the 16th, the whales were headed back west again, but two other things made their first visit of the summer even more bittersweet. One was that L92 Crewser was not with them, bringing the population down to just 75 whales. The other was that three year old female J50 Scarlet was looking emaciated. All calves, but especially female calves (due the male-bias sex ratio in calves in recent years and also the female's ability to produce more whales) are so, so critical to this endangered population. We are all crossing our fingers for this little whale, who has been a fighter from day one, with the scarring she showed right after birth potentially being from a difficult birthing process where other whales had to assist. As of today, July 15th, more than a month later, she is still with us, but is not yet looking better.

June 20 - 21: J-Pod and the Greater L4s

On June 20th, the same group of Js and Ls came back into inland waters, and they were in party mode as they passed Land Bank's Westside Preserve in one big group in the afternoon.

J27 Blackberry and his brother J39 Mako

Some of the L4s
They went all the way up to the Fraser, then when they came down the next day they split into two groups. J-Pod came down one of the "normal" ways, but the Ls came down San Juan Channel, and I saw them as they exited Cattle Pass. The few times I've seen Residents exit Cattle Pass, they always seem to go beserk, and this time was no exception as they were breaching and tail slapping all over the place as they moved out into the bigger, windier seas of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It was a quicker visit this time, as on the 22nd the whales were westbound out the strait again. The same Js and Ls made another visit to inland waters June 27-29, but were not very cooperative for shore-based whale watchers this time as they passed the west side of San Juan Island in the middle of the night each time. That would wrap up their visits for June, and then there would be another nearly two week absence before the Southern Residents returned in mid-July. Js came back in on June 12th, bringing K-Pod with them for their first visit to the Salish Sea since March! But this will all be further recapped in my next post, which I promise won't take two months to share!

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Best of Spring in the San Juans Part 2: Yellow Island Wildflowers

Six years ago Phil, the caretaker of Yellow Island, invited three of us local bloggers out to visit during prime wildflower season to see how we would each portray the island and its wildflowers in our unique style. (You can see my post from that visit here.) Phil is nearing the end of his tenure as caretaker of The Nature Conservancy Preserve, a post he has held for 19 years. In honor of his retirement, we made another visit out together.

The three bloggers with Phil in 2012
The bloggers return with friends in 2018
I've never had a visit to Yellow Island that isn't spectacular, but first I want to say a few words in tribute to Phil, who is one of the most inspirational regional naturalists I know. He's not just passionate about one species or genre, but truly appreciates all aspects of nature, and enjoys they all through photography, citizen science, audio recording, and simply observing or being. Living on Yellow, he of course has a passion for plants, and you can read here his reflections on his years of seed collecting on Yellow Island. He has done countless citizen science surveys of both birds (on eBird) of marine fishes (while diving, for REEF). For years we've had a friendly county year list competition to see who can document more birds in the county, and despite spending a lot of time on his small island instead of my more diverse habitat here on San Juan we are usually pretty darn close! He serves on the local Marine Resources Committee. He's become proficient at making nature recordings, and has contributed so many bird song recordings that the Macauly Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology did this profile of him. He basically captured my happy place in sound form with this early morning recording of singing birds and the blows of a group of passing killer whales. Basically, he's a pretty incredible guy, a treasure to our community, and it's an honor to call him a friend! (Are you blushing yet, Phil? ;) )

Now that you have a glimpse as to why we wanted to visit him in his element for one last wildflower season, let's get to the flowers! The day we scheduled to go out dawned gray and rainy and I feared it would stay that way, but as if on cue as soon as we met at the dock for the short ride over to Yellow the sun broke through the clouds! The conditions were perfect for photography with bright light to capture the raindrops on the flowers.

Camas (Camassia sp.)

Camas (Camassia sp.)

Blue-Eyed Mary (Collinsia sp.)
I had to try black and white to capture this row of raindrops on a blade of grass - I like how it turned out:

Part of the spectacle of Yellow is the shear abundance of flowers, particularly on my favorite side of the island known as Hummingbird Hill. It's hard to try and capture in a photograph, but I try on every visit. Given how many photos I have, I can only imagine how many Phil has after all these years! That's the beauty and joy of photography though - you can always go back for more and try to see and capture something different, no matter how many years you are shooting the same subject or location.

Yellow has not only the abundance but the variety of wildflowers, giving a unique opportunity to see so many species in one place. While one photographic goal is to capture the multi-colored landscape of various species at once, another is to get nice portraits of individual species, both those that are abundant and those that are easy to pass by.

Large-flowered Blue-Eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora) - probably my personal favorite shot of the day

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida)

Broad-leaved stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium)

Prairie star (Lithophragma parviflorum)
Meadow death-camas (Zigadenus venenosus)

Naked broomrape (Orobanche uniflora)
This last one is a tiny little flower, a species I learned about from Phil on that visit six years ago and that was flowering again in the exact same patch of stonecrop. It has no leaves of its own, so instead of conducting photosynthesis to get nutrients, it parasitizes other plants, with stonecrop being a favorite host. Despite being wide-ranging in both Washington and across North America, it is very easy to overlook!

It's truly hard to capture in words what this gem of an island is like. It's one of my favorite spots in the Salish Sea, particularly in the spring. I hope you'll  learn more about visiting Yellow Island for yourself here. I promise it's worth the trek!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Best of Spring in the San Juans Part 1: Fox Kits

There are so many things to love about this time of year in the Salish Sea: the longer days and warmer temperatures, the return of migrant birds, the generally calmer waters, and the increase in whale sightings are just a few for me. But there's a couple other classic elements of a spring in the San Juan Islands, and one of them is the emergence of fox kits from their dens. Viewing foxes here has become increasingly popular, especially in the spring, so much so that the San Juan Island Visitor's Bureau had me write a blog for them about the topic. So if you want to know the details, you can read more about fox-watching on San Juan Island at the link above.

Sometimes we like to think we live in a wilderness here in the Salish Sea, but it's truly a very urban ecosystem that we are lucky enough to share with all kinds of wildlife. For better or for worse many of our regional animals are adapted to living near humans, but we should still do what we can to minimize our impacts on them and their behavior. As such, I made several visits to the regular fox dens at the south end of the island until I found a time where there were both not many people around. It was an overcast day, but two nearby dens were both active - I've heard from others that one family has six kits and another two, but they were all mixing and playing together.

While they're all of the species "red fox" they come in all different colors from orange to brown to gray to black. One of my personal favorites was this silver one with a single white sock (chasing its brother/sister):

But it's also hard to resist this face:

Much of the activity happens when mom or dad shows up with food. The kits seem to know the boundaries of where they're allowed to wander, but they go racing out to meet their parents as they come in for a visit.

Whatdja bring me, mom?!
More and more kits quickly gathered around - looking first at her mouth to see if she brought in any prey....

But then settling for a nursing session...all six of them at once! What a patient mama.

She tolerates their frolicking for a little bit before moving on, and they follow her to the edge of their invisible perimeter. (Side note: several other adults were visible sleeping in the prairie - my imagination says that they move away from the ends to get some actual rest without kits pouncing on them begging to play.)

Amazingly she makes a loop back right past us, totally unconcerned about our presence.

As she heads back out on the hunt most of the kits return below ground, but this one stopped for a moment to look out at the great big world beyond the den:

I just love having these guys as neighbors, and they are one of the highlights of spring here for sure!

Friday, March 23, 2018

March 18th: J-Pod in Boundary Pass

On the morning of March 18th word came in of lots of whales southbound in the Strait of Georgia. J-Pod had been up north for over a week; could this be them finally coming back down? Luckily for me there was still space available for Maya's Legacy trip out that afternoon to go and see! We headed north in nice calm waters to Boundary Pass, and it didn't take us long to spot our first fin: J27 Blackberry.

J27 Blackberry in front of Saturna Island

After spending a few minutes with him and the J41s who were in shore, we fell back to the next group made up of the J17s, J38, J45, and L87. They were all spread out and slowly moving down Boundary Pass. As a freighter came around the corner, they could have easily moved to get further away from it. Instead, J38 Cookie swam directly at it. For a moment, we thought maybe he would surf the freighter wake. He didn't, though we heard that later in the day L87 did on a different ship! It really makes you wonder: surely a vessel that loud would have some impact on their ability to hear and be heard, yet often they do nothing to avoid those or any other ships, or even seek them out. We are spending so much effort trying to make the seas quieter for these whales, and in the meantime some of them are choosing to swim right alongside the loudest ships in our waters!

J38 Cookie and freighter

Behind this group and inshore came some of the J16s. J26 Mike and J36 Alki were on our offshore side.

J36 Alki
We had moved from group to group in part to search from the J16s. Inshore of us were J16 Slick with her other two daughters: J42 Echo and J50 Scarlet. They went down for a dive, and then something amazing happened.

The trio of whales had been hugging the shoreline, but after a long dive, they surfaced maybe 75 yards away aiming right at us. We had a woman on board who is facing her second battle with cancer and whose favorite whale is J50 Scarlet. Slick and Scarlet came right alongside the boat. Surely it was a coincidence - but then again, I've seen things exactly like this happen so many times that you begin to wonder.

J16 Slick approaching
J50 Scarlet surfacing behind J16 Slick
J16 Slick and her youngest, J50 Scarlet
J16 Slick from behind
While we stayed parked with our engines off, the whole family group converged and surfaced on the other side of the boat.

Despite being overcast the lighting was exquisite, and I snapped some of my favorite pictures ever of J26 Mike.

Just beginning to surface
J26 Mike
J26 Mike
After this incredible pass, our time was up, and we slowly made our way back across Boundary Pass watching out for more of the overall very spread out whales. We ended up seeing whales from every matriline to confirm that all of J-Pod was present. On our way home, we got to head by Spieden Island, and while there's always something to see, this swing by had it all!

Hauled out harbor seals

The least common of the three exotic mammal species on Spieden: the Japanese sika deer
Family of river otters

While Mouflon sheep can be seen on the island year-round, we saw two things you don't get to see every day. One was the cute baby lambs that grace the island in the spring:

Tiny mouflon sheep lambs!
And the other was a pair down on the rocks. They do this sometimes to lick the salt, but these two seemed to be also eating the seaweed!

Of course, no trip to Spieden Island in the spring is complete without a visit with the Green Point Steller sea lions. The sun even peeked out to make for perfect lighting.

Throughout the afternoon J-Pod continued their way around Turn Point and down Haro Strait, and in the evening they were audible on the Lime Kiln and Orcasound hydrophones with some great vocalizations. Here's a clip of what we heard

All in all, you couldn't ask for more on a Sunday afternoon, let alone one in March! It was such an unexpected treat all the way around.