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Sunday, January 27, 2019

Winter Birding on Lopez Island

With so many microclimates and microhabitats in the San Juan Islands, there are very different places to explore and even different birds to see depending on which island you are on. Because of the convenience of the ferry schedule, when we decide to explore another island, we usually go to Orcas, but yesterday we decided to go for the extra early and extra long ferry rides in order to explore Lopez Island. Good decision!

Locally known as "Slowpez", Lopez is definitely the quietest of the larger ferry-served island with about half the population of Orcas and a third of the population of San Juan. It's also been nicknamed "the friendly isle", in part because every car waves to every other car as they pass each other anywhere on the island. I've only been to Lopez a handful of times myself, which means there are still parks I have yet to explore over there. After our visit yesterday, I think I actually prefer the Lopez over Orcas, because there are more coastal access points with dramatic landscapes and fewer in the way of hilly wooded hikes.

One of the main reasons for our trip was to go birding and try and add some species to our year and photo year lists. Our first stop in the morning was to Fisherman Bay, where both the species and photographic opportunities added up quickly!

Belted kingfisher in the early morning light at Fisherman Bay
Great blue heron at Fisherman Bay
Heading out the spit at Fisherman Bay
Abstract rock and tree reflection at Fisherman Bay

Our next stop was Shark Reef, which is on the opposite side of San Juan Channel of our regular stomping grounds at Cattle Point. Unlike Cattle Point, which is all open prairie, you hike through the woods to get to the rocky Shark Reef.

Boardwalk at Shark Reef
Shark Reef, on the east side of Cattle Pass
Next we searched for one of the main target species for our trip: the wild turkey! While they used to be found on other island including San Juan, currently the only flock of wild turkeys on the island makes their home on Lopez. We were just about to give up when we came upon a group of more than 20 of them! I'm not sure why they are so much more fun to watch than many other birds, but they are - I suppose it's because they're very expressive, comical, and have lots of social interactions.

Wild turkeys on Lopez

It's surprising to see such a large bird fly - not only over this fence, but even up into the trees above!
Our next stop was Iceberg Point, a place I amazingly had never visited before. There are miles of hiking trails there and we only got to go out to the point in one direction, so we will definitely have to go back. While the birding was decent, the scenery is absolutely stunning.

Iceberg Point

It also offered a different perspective on Cattle Point:

The geology is complex and amazing throughout the San Juans as well, and Iceberg Point was no exception.

Hummel Lake was pretty quiet, but seems to be one of the first locations swallows show up in the islands each year. With reports of some already in nearby Skagit County, the early arrivals might not be far off! We settled for this picturesque common merganser though:

Our last stop before heading back to the ferry was out to Spencer Spit, but we got waylaid on the way there at first by a northern shrike (which would only perch on fence posts, so sadly will not quality for the photo year list which has the theme of photos "without the hand of man"), and then by these sheep. Have you ever seen sheep run before? I don't think I have!

Unlike the ferry ride there, the ferry ride back was in the daylight, so we continued birding from the boat (as we again stopped at every island on our way home). 

An up-close view of double-crested and pelagic cormorants at the Shaw Island ferry terminal
No luck on the shrike, but I did get a rock pigeon picture "without the hand of man"! I like this theme because it makes me attempt different and more challenging photos, such as in-flight shots. The different challenge means the first rock pigeons I saw this year perched on a man-made structure didn't "count", but I like this result much better!

In the end we tallied 52 species on the day, the highest single-day total yet this year! Not at all a bad showing, and after a several year gap in visits, we will definitely we going back to Lopez sooner rather than later.

Portrait of a glaucous-winged gull at the Orcas Island ferry landing

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Bird Year List: End of 2018, Beginning of 2019

This was my ninth year keeping track of a bird species year list. My goals for 2018 were to reach 220 birds for my year list, and photograph 95% of them, for a target of 209 species photographed. I exceeded the number goals, tallying 261 (my highest ever) on the year list and photographing 243 of them, a 93.1% capture rate. Thanks to our road trip to Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico, I also tallied 21 life birds this year, second only to my 23 life birds on the Alaska trip in 2010.

Because it's fun to play with numbers, here's the break down over the years for bird species added by month:

Dave (from England) and my dad Rainer and I have also had a friendly competition over the years. For 2018 my dad tallied 266, winning for the second year in a row and the sixth time in eight years, and Dave came in at 195.

There were a lot of birding highlights in 2018 but here are a few of my favorites.

Madera Canyon in Arizona was one of the most incredible birding spots I have ever seen. Not only was it full of life birds for me, but the action at the feeders at Santa Rita lodge was captivating and ever-changing; one full day of sitting there doing nothing else was not nearly enough of watching! One of the most unexpected moments was, thanks to a tip from a couple fellow birders, locating a pair of elusive Montezuma quail:

Later on that same trip, we rented a boat in San Diego Bay to track down the "mega-rarity" - a Nazca booby. While it was a bit of splurge expense-wise, we knew it was a memory we would never forget, and it was definitely one of the major highlights of our two week trip:

While it's exciting to see exotic birds far away from home, some of the best sightings can also happen literally right in your yard. Another highlight this year was this barred owl who spent at least half an hour eying our domestic quail in their aviary in broad daylight.

For 2019, we are trying out a new twist on our photo year list, trying to take photos without the "hand of man" in them. So, no birds at feeders, sitting on wires, etc. Last year my photo year list had about 15% of the pictures with the hand of man, so I wasn't anticipating it would be too much of a challenge. Turns out there's a lot more things to think about than expected! For instance, I decided this lovely shot from Day 1 of 2019 shouldn't count, since this song sparrow is perched on pressure treated lumber.

On January 1st I tallied 44 species on my year list and got decent photos of 17 of them. This was my favorite shot of the day:

Greater yellowlegs at Jackson Beach on January 1
Given the more difficult photo challenge this year and the fact that I won't be traveling as far afield, I'm lowering my goals a bit for 2019. My goal is to reach 200 species on the year list and photograph 90% of them, or 180. Here's to another great year of birding!