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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!