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Friday, March 15, 2019

March 9 ~ Birding Semiahmoo

Last weekend we headed off island to run some errands. I thought it would be a ferry ride like any other, but it turned into a very memorable one: after 18 years of riding these ferries regularly, I finally saw orcas from the ferry! And not once, but twice on the same trip!

T124As outside of Friday Harbor
T123s near Blakely Island
While I'm glad that drought is finally broken, I have to say it's actually not so great to see whales from the ferry, because of course the ferry keeps going while I would rather stay and watch!

After getting our errands done, we had enough time to make a visit to one of my favorite regional birding spots at Semiahmoo. As hoped for, we saw a lot of birds, some of them new to the year list, and the icing on the cake was the beautiful evening light.

Common loon
We got a scoter hat trick, seeing all three species there (surf, white-winged, and black).

Black scoters - far away, but awesome because they are uncommon to see. Cameo appearance by a few brant!
White-winged scoter

On our drive we saw multiple pairs of bald eagles at nests - it's that time of year! This one perched on top of the tower at the end of Semiahmoo Spit and was calling to another bird (presumably its mate) flying above it.


It took a little longer than expected to add black-capped chickadee to the photo year list, but I finally got a photo of one. We've only got chestnut-sided chickadees on San Juan Island, and while I've seen several other black-cappeds, there was never a chance to photograph one without the "hand of man" for this year's challenge.


Two of my hoped-for species for the trip to Semiahmoo did not disappoint: greater scaup and brant.



As the light was fading it was getting time to head back for the ferry, but it was hard to leave with scenes like this:

Semiahmoo Spit

Just a couple more photographs before warming up in the car, for good measure:

Killdeer

Northern pintail in flight

Friday, March 8, 2019

March 3 Double Header: T46s and T90s/T101s

Last weekend we headed out on the water with Maya's Legacy on a beautiful day. With heavy winds to the north, we headed south down San Juan Channel and made a stop at Whale Rocks, my favorite sea lion haul out.


With a report of whales in Puget Sound, they made the decision to go for it - a bit of a long trek, but new boating territory for me! It was awesome to check off my bucket list going under the Deception Pass Bridge on a boat.



We're starting to see signs of spring, but winter is still keeping her grip on the region, as evidenced by the snowy foothills providing a backdrop to our journey:


When we got on scene with the T46s (and T122 who travels with them) we started by watching the two males T46D and T46E traveling together. It was impressive to see them with all the houses in the background, as it really shows how urban these whales are!

T46D (left) and T46E (right)
T46E (left) and T46D (right)
The T46s are such a cool family for many reasons. One is that T46 Wake was part of the last killer whale capture in Washington State in 1976. She was released and is still plying the same waters as one of the most successful mothers on record. As we discussed on the boat while we were on scene, if she had been taken into captivity as many other whales were in the 1960s and 70s, there would be nearly 20 fewer transient killer whales in the region, because that's how many living descendants she has.

T46 Wake with her son T46E.
Another reason the T46s are so cool is because they actually "disappeared" for 13 years, where they left the area and weren't seen during that time. When they returned, there was actually some confusion about the whales that were present. Two of the returning whales were given new designations as T122 and T123, but were later determined to be the likely offspring of T46. T122 still travels with the T46s, and was actually determined to be the same whale as T46A, a calf who was seen in 1982 before the long gap in sightings.

It's long been my dream to be able to name a killer whale, and my dream recently came true when my suggested name for T122, Centeki, was voted to be her name among the local whale community. (An effort is under way from naturalists, captains, researchers, and others in the region to give common names to many of the transient/Bigg's killer whales in the region that don't yet have them.) Centeki is one of the 13 lunar phases recognized by the Coast Salish people, and I thought this was appropriate given the confusion over her identify after her 13 year absence.

T122 Centeki, named by yours truly!

While we were on scene in Saratoga Passage, the whales appeared to be in travel/passive hunting mode, but shortly before it was time to leave it became clear they were on the hunt. Four of the five whales in the family group made quick work of a harbor seal, which we got a brief glimpse of as one of the whales lunged through the surface with the seal held in its mouth. As they shared the spoils, gulls came down to partake in the scraps. I thought this was a unique perspective of gulls fighting over a piece of seal meat while an orca surfaces in the background:


One more look at the impressive 16 year-old male T46E, with his wavy dorsal fin:


As we started making our way back north towards home, reports came in of another group of whales picked up between us and Friday Harbor. At this point, the trip was already running long, so why not just keep it going, especially when more whales in calm waters and beautiful lighting are right in front of you? Too good to pass up!

T101 and T101B under Mt. Baker
It was the T90s and T101s, and we watched them make their way into Cattle Pass from Iceberg Point.

Spyhop from T90B
The whales just added to what was already a stunning scene, with seals, sea lions, porpoises, and birds actively feeding in what was shaping up to be a pretty dramatic sunset!

Pelagic cormorant flyby
Sunset over the Cattle Point Lighthouse
While it ended up being a much longer trip than expected, it was a particularly memorable one! I absolutely love being on the water this time of year when things are still pretty quiet, especially as the whale sightings start picking up. It's looking like the heightened transient/Bigg's killer whale sigthings are continuing so far in early 2019, so we'll see what the rest of the spring will bring!