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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

April 14 ~ Birding Trip with Maya's Legacy

Sunday, April 14th dawned a somewhat blustery and gray day, but that didn't stop a group of intrepid bird-watchers for heading out on a excursion with Maya's Legacy Whale Watching out of Snug Harbor. The birding started before we even left the docks with singing white-crowned sparrows, a pair of black oystercatchers on the rock in the harbor, and mew gulls foraging along the shoreline. As we slowly made our way out of the bay, we also spotted a great blue heron along the shoreline.

We didn't have to go far for our first "stop" in Mosquito Pass, where as usual in the fall, winter, and spring, there was a lot of bird activity, including bufflehead, red-breasted mergansers, red-necked grebes, and pigeon guillemots. We got a nice side-by-side comparison of double-crested and pelagic cormorants and also spotted what we may often think of as more freshwater species, Canada geese and mallards. Before continuing on into Spieden Channel we spotted a group of 7 of one of the most hoped-for species of the trip: long-tailed ducks!

Long-tailed ducks in Mosquito Pass

While our main focus was on birds, when you're cruising slowly through the islands you're of course going to see all kinds of things, and no trip along Spieden Island is complete without some of the exotic mammals that live there. I have made a lot of on-the-water trips to Spieden over the years, but I don't think I have ever seen as many sheep on it as I did on this day! Hundreds of them.

Mouflon sheep on Spieden Island
We counted more than a dozen bald eagles on or above Spieden, and they weren't just idly hanging around, either. This immature was nonchalantly dive-bombing lambs, making for some very distraught mothers. The eagle didn't seem very serious about the pursuit - perhaps just looking for any sick or injured, or just playing around - but the sheep were taking the threat seriously!

Bald eagle spooks some Mouflon sheep

A little further down the shoreline, four more eagles were huddled around a carcass of some sort (perhaps seal?), along with some northwestern crows.

Eagles and crows scavenging a carcass
When one of the immature eagles took flight, it was amazing to see how much white was on it!

Next we headed over to White Rock, where as hoped for we turned up our first shorebirds: a couple of black turnstones and about a dozen dunlin. There was also another eagle perched on top of the rock, making for a striking image with the harbor seals hauled out below.

Bald eagle and harbor seals at White Rock
Let's take a closer look at one of those seals....awwwwww:

Young harbor seal at White Rock

Next we continued north towards Monarch Head. The way there was a bit choppy, but we started seeing some new species for the day, including rhinoceros auklets and our only western grebes for the trip. At Monarch Head itself the only addition oddly enough was a pair of turkey vultures, but the stunning geology still made the trip worth it:

Cool rock formations at Monarch Head
Next it was over to East Point on Saturna Island where the first sight (and smell) we noticed was all the Steller sea lions:

Steller sea lions at East Point
A closer look at the birds on and near the same rocks, however, turned up four gull species (glaucous-winged, mew, California, and Bonaparte's), harlequin ducks, a couple of black oystercatchers, and another male long-tailed duck. A little south of us we spotted an active bait ball, so we started to head over that way. They mostly settled down by the time we got there, but there were still several dozen common murres, rhinoceros auklets, red-breasted mergansers, and, best of all, Bonaparte's gulls. The few sitting on the rocks at East Point were cool, but the reason they're one of my favorite marine birds is because of how awesome they look in flight. It's late enough in the season now that they also all have black heads, our only black-headed gull in the region.

Bonaparte's gulls in flight near Patos Island
As we cruises from Patos to Sucia, another small rocky reef had an unlikely pair sitting together: a harbor seal and a bald eagle.

It's rare enough that I get over to this part of the San Juan Islands that I didn't even know there was an impressive sea lion haul out on Ewing Island near Sucia. It was incredible to see how high up on the rocks these guys go!

Sea lions on Ewing Island
 Even the harbor seals seemed to want to show off their (admittedly less impressive) climbing skills:

Harbor seals at Ewing Island
Bird-wise there were many more pigeon guillemots, some harlequin ducks, a few surf scoters, and surprisingly our only loon of the day (a Pacific loon), but the best look was of a pair of black oystercatchers that came by to scold us for being in the area:

Black oystercatcher in flight near Ewing Island, with Steller sea lions in the background
We continued cruising south towards Peapod Rocks, where we found more black turnstones but none of the hoped-for surfbirds or plovers. There was plenty of bird activity though with a nice variety of the usual suspects all in one place, including glaucous-winged gulls, pelagic cormorants, harlequin ducks, and several more pairs of oystercatchers.

Peapod rocks
It was time to start making our way back to the home port so we picked up speed for really the first time of the day and wound our way west through the San Juans. We were still just short of 30 sepcies on the day, however, so instead of cutting back through Mosquito Pass, with the seas a little calmer we went on the outside of Henry Island in hopes of finding a peregrine falcon. Success!

Below the peregrine (who was high up but on such a photogenic perch) was a red-flowering currant clinging to the rocks, and amusingly there was a female rufous hummingbird feeding at it! While this is not my first time seeing hummingbirds from a boat, they're certainly not one of the species that comes to mind when you're thinking about marine birds. We were only a few minutes from the dock at this point, but the day list wasn't done yet: as we pulled back into Snug Harbor we also added hooded mergansers and rock pigeons.

Despite the less than ideal conditions it was still a beautiful day on the water. It was a nice change of pace, too, to slowly meander through the islands and enjoy many of the smaller sights that make this place so special. There is definitely so much to see here beyond just all the whales!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

March 26 and April 1 with J-Pod

We recently got our new boat (acquired last fall) launched, which means new photographic opportunities have opened up again as we get back out on the water! On our first test drive we went birding in Griffin Bay, and I snapped this shot of two mew gulls and reflections unlike any I had ever seen before:

So far to date in 2019 the Southern Residents have been in the Salish Sea about twice as many days as 2018, and we are happy to have them! On March 23, I had my first encounter with them in 2019. While it was a lot more hearing them over the hydrophones, we did see a couple whales in the morning from Land Bank. It was great to see J17 Princess Angeline, a whale who had been ailing (and had "peanut head") dated back to the end of last year, and while it wasn't the greatest look, it appeared she was doing a bit better.

J17 Princess Angeline

On March 26, less than a week after we got our new boat in the water, J-Pod was coming down San Juan Channel, and opportunity that was just too good to pass up! Ever since we got the boat last fall, we had been debating which whales might be the ones to "christen" the boat. Given the time of year and the way sightings have been with Southern Residents, we suspected it would likely be Ts, but it definitely felt right for it to be J-Pod.

J35 Tahlequah - It felt perfect to have her be the whale to "christen" the boat by breaching and spyhopping nearby
Spyhop, also from J35 Tahlequah

We always say every whale encounter was different, and this one was no exception - we saw two different whales peeing into the air while laying upside down at the surface! This is a behavior I've never seen before, and to see it twice in the span of about half an hour....please tell me this isn't their new "fad"!

If you are so inclined, you may need to click to see a larger view, but the upside down whale is urinating!
J-Pod only got about as far south as Yellow Island before turning back north again, so as they made their way back toward Boundary Pass and the Strait of Georgia, we headed back to our home port. If this spring was anything like last year's, I thought it might be weeks or months before seeing them again, but amazingly, on April 1 J-Pod was again picked up aiming for San Juan Channel! We hopped out on a boat with friends in the late afternoon and caught up with them just north of Friday Harbor.

The first group we saw was J36 Alki, J42 Echo, J19 Shachi, J27 Blackberry, and J31 Tsuchi following right along the San Juan shoreline. The lighting was just right for backlit blows (at times to the point where we could see the blows but not the whales!):

J27 Blackberry
From left to right J27 Blackberry, J36 Alki, and J19 Shachi
They passed right in front of Friday Harbor, which is always a cool perspective to see!

J27 Blackberry in front of Friday Harbor
As this group continued south, we stopped to watch J41 Eclipse and J51 Nova, who seemed in a playful mood, as we saw Nova do several breaches as they approached. As they got closer we saw Nova pick up a piece of bull kelp, and he spyhopped several times with it draped around his head or over his pec fins.

A peek-a-boo spyhop from J51 Nova - you can just make out a piece of bull kelp floating to the right of his head
On one of the spyhops he surfaced with his mouth open. I don't know what it is about whale teeth, but it is always SO exciting to see them!

J51 Nova, mouth open
It was definitely turning into a spyhop kinda night, and shortly after this one, J42 Echo popped up again, and also spyhopped with her mouth open, teeth showing.

Another mouth-open spyhop, this one from J42 Echo
The rest of J-Pod was starting to come into view over on the Shaw Island side of the channel, and the whales we were watching went over to join them. It turned into a large (~15 whales), slowly moving, playful group that was a joy to watch.

Spyhops for all on this night!
Not only was the lighting perfect, but the whales passed right under Mt. Baker. And, as if on cue, J35 Tahlequah did a huge cartwheel. It sure does the heart good to see her so social and active after her tragic ordeal last summer, in which she carried her deceased neonate for 17 days.

Amazingly, instead of continuing down San Juan Channel, the whales veered for Upright Channel, a place I had never seen Southern Residents go before! As they angled into the channel, they passed close to a Washington State Ferry heading for Friday Harbor.

The ferry didn't seem to interrupt the party at all, as all the surface activity continued.

Half breach from one of the big boys
Next we saw L87 Onyx, in what looked like a sexual pursuit of another whale. At first I thought it was J37 Hy'shqa he was after, but it turned out to be J45 Se-Yi'-Chn. Boys will be boys, and orcas will be orcas!

L87 Onyx upside down at the surface
Suddenly, Onyx veered off and came over to circle the boat, giving us a special up close look, complete with a "rainblow".

L87 Onyx creates a "rainblow"
We hung in the same area for quite a while, as several other pairs and trios of whales came by, spread across all of Upright Channel.

J26 Mike passed right off the point of Canoe Island
The leaders got up to about Upright Head, and it appeared to be decision time. Would they continue east towards Rosario, veer over to Harney Channel, or come back the way they had come? They eventually decided to head back west through Upright Channel, but amazingly they hugged the Shaw Island shoreline so close they went inside of Canoe Island and right into Indian Cove, a channel not only narrow, but according to the chart on board only 13 feet deep on high tide! It was time to head in, but we had to stay long enough to see if they were actually going to go all the way through there....they did!

The beautiful evening ended as it had begun, with picturesque backlit blows: