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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!

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