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Saturday, May 25, 2019

May Bigg's Killer Whale Encounters

2018 was the first year on record with no Southern Residents in the inland waters in the month of May. This year, J-Pod was seen a few days early in the month, but there has been no sign of them since May 6th. While their absence in the spring months is continuing, the presence of Bigg's/transient killer whales is still on the rise, with more reports this year than last year, continuing the incredible upward trend of the West Coast Transient population increasing their usage of the Salish Sea. Many of those sightings have been too far away for us, such as up in Howe Sound or down in Puget Sound, but we have had several great encounters so far this month. Here are highlights from a few of them:

May 3 with the T49As, T65Bs, T75Bs, T75Cs, and T123s in San Juan Channel

On this incredible day when we encountered these 17 whales heading north up San Juan Channel, there were more than 50 Bigg's killer whales total in the Salish Sea. This group was in steady travel mode when we saw them, and despite the more frequent occurrence of larger groups in the area, it's always impressive to see so many whales surfacing side by side.
Incredibly, every one of the 5 matrilines present had a calf under the age of 2. We are so incredibly lucky not only to have these mammal-eating orcas around, but to have them as a comparative population for the struggling Southern Residents. There were more thriving little ones in this group of Bigg's killer whales than the entire Southern Resident population has had in the last four years.

We also got to see the largest whale (T49A) and smallest whale (T123D) present surfacing side by side, highlighting the major size difference!

T123D (~8 months old) and 18 year-old male T49A1
May 19th with the T65Bs, T75Bs, T75Cs, and T124C in Moresby Passage

With wind and rain in the forecast, and sandwiched by days with no nearby orcas, we were incredibly lucky on this day to encounter these 9 whales when we headed out for our Orca Behavior Institute fundraising whale-watch with Maya's Legacy out of Snug Harbor. Earlier in the day they had killed a Steller sea lion, and when we arrived they were in full-out play mode, literally flinging around the pelt that remained from the sea lion. It was not for the faint of heart, but it was incredible to watch.
T65B flinging the Steller sea lion pelt
Sea lion pelt being launched into the air by an inverted tail slap

Of course I happened to have my camera down when the most epic photo opportunity of the day happened, but luckily my husband Jason caught it!

Side view of T65B flinging the Steller sea lion pelt....again!
In general there were just a lot of shenanigans going on, including two whales playing with the lines on a couple of crab pots, and a lot of spyhopping, tail slapping, and rolling a the surface in general.

May 24 with the T65As in San Juan Channel

After spending the better part of 2 weeks in Puget Sound, the T65As were picked up heading north towards the San Juan Islands. Luckily for us, they chose to come up San Juan Channel, and we hopped in our boat to watch them as they passed Friday Harbor.

They were in what I would call social travel mode as they passed Turn Island, rolling at the surface while in contact with one another and tail slapping as they meandered north. They made a sharp turn towards San Juan as they rounded Turn Island.

This family group is made up of six whales, the youngest of which (T65A6) was seen for the first time just over a year ago.

From left to right, T65A3, T65A6, and T65A4
The second youngest, T65A5, is five years old this year.

T65A5 next to mom T65A
Just south of Brown Island, they stopped to take out a couple of harbor seals.

T65A2 surfacing after a long dive. It looked like they were tag teaming pinning a harbor seal to the bottom.
Afterwards, they started quickly moving north past Friday Harbor and continuing up San Juan Channel.

A moment these sailors will be unlikely to forget!
When we got our last look, they were in perfect flanking formation: successful mom surrounded by all her offspring.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

May 11-12 ~ Spring Shorebird Migration near Grays Harbor

For years I've been wanting to head to the outer coast of Washington to catch the spring shorebird migration in and around Grays Harbor. This year, we finally made it happen! While we missed the peak numbers by a week or two, we still saw an incredible variety of species - about 15 different types of shorebirds in two days!

On May 10th, the day we traveled there, the weather was both sunny and unseasonably warm. Of course, the next day saw a 30 degree drop in temperature and was very gray! It made photography a little more difficult, but still could have been much worse had it been windy or rainy instead of just gray and cool.

High tide is the best time to view shorebirds on the mudflats, and unfortunately the high tides while we were there were either very early or very late. Our first stop for the day was at Bottle Beach State Park, where we arrived as the tide was very quickly going out in the morning, but we still got to see a lot of shorebirds, even if mostly from a distance.

I also got what was a bit of a surprise life bird in the red knot, as I really thought I had seen them once before! But nope, they were a lifer! Cool!

Red knots in flight
Next we went to Grayland Beach State Park, a known snowy plover nesting colony complete with a blocked off nesting protection zone. We walked along the perimeter of the nesting zone and were lucky enough to see one snowy plover - the first time I've seen this species north of California!

Snowy plover! New Washington bird for me

We were looking at some gulls on the beach when a sudden a bald eagle came swooping by - in pursuit of a greater white-fronted goose!

Bald eagle in pursuit of a greater white-fronted goose

The goose ended up landing in the ocean and dove underwater three times as the eagle was dive bombing it.

An odd sight: a greater white-fronted goose in the ocean
It was one of those same gulls that then came to the "rescue", chasing the eagle away, and allowing the goose to survive.

At Westport Light State Park the best bird wasn't a shorebird at all, but a very cooperative male common yellowthroat, another new one for the photo year list:

In the late afternoon, we made our way back around Grays Harbor towards Ocean Shores, where we were staying. Near the jetty at Point Brown, it was interesting to see fishermen right in the breakers, successfully hauling in fish. I wonder what they were catching?

We were soon distracted, though, but the hundreds of sandpipers just down the beach! They were mostly sanderling, but there were also a fair number of semipalmated plovers mixed in.

This crab also made for a cool photo op. He/she was alive, though apparently missing an eye and probably not doing so well.

The next morning we came back to the jetty at Point Brown, spending most of our time scanning through the scopes. The bird highlight was a parasitic jaeger, unfortunately much too far away to photography, but rarely enough seen by any of us that it was pretty exciting. We did, however, see 4-5 gray whales fairly close to shore, including this one that spyhopped twice.

Next we headed north up Highway 109 towards Point Grenville, a stretch of coastline none of us had never seen before. Unfortunately the dramatic beaches at Point Grenville were closed to the public, but we were able to see part of the view from up on the bluff, though the birding was a bit disappointing.

View from Point Grenville
After a late lunch we headed to an exciting spot for birders in any town: the sewage ponds! The Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Plant was bustling with bird life, and we successfully located the single blue-winged teal that had been reported earlier:

As we continued to zig zag all over the place, the next walk we took was at the Oyhut Wildlife Recreation Area, which provided yet another different habitat with a marshy lagoon. The low-flying swallows (some of whom were perching on the sand) provided an opportunity for me to finally get a nice photo of a tree swallow for the year:

In the evening we made another high tide attempt just before sunset by visiting Bill's Spit in Ocean Shores. The light was fading and the water was coming in fast, nearly cutting off access to the beach, but the quick visit was worth it, not only for the tranquil scenery but for the shorebirds that were coming in to roost for the night.

Looking out over Grays Harbor
Dunlin in flight
I even snagged one last photo year bird, bringing the trip total to a whopping 18 new species added, nearly doubling my goal of adding 10 species.

The unmistakable silhouette (when viewed larger, at least) of marbled godwits
All in all it was a great trip and I was glad to have finally made it out there, but now of course I definitely want to go back again when both the weather and the tides are more cooperative!