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Saturday, December 28, 2019

Abundant Wildlife at the End of December

Normally I associate this time of year with bad weather, short days, and hunkering down inside, but the last week has proven that wildlife in this region can be epic regardless of the season!

On December 21 we headed out on the water with friends before taking off for the Christmas holiday, and were surprised to find an active group of 10+ humpbacks in the Strait of Georgia. Humpbacks, like transient killer whales, were rare when I first started spending time here in the early 2000s, but both have been increasing dramatically in recent years. Even with the recent influx of humpbacks, we expect them to be gone and off to their breeding grounds by December, but perhaps with the increasing population some of them will start staying year-round. Things are changing so fast in the Salish Sea!

The first group we came across of about half a dozen whales was super active at the surface: breaching, lunging, tail slapping, and trumpeting. My friends who have seen humpbacks at their breeding grounds said it looked like a male rowdy group; it makes sense their hormones might be kicking in even if they haven't left for warmer waters! These types of behavior are amazing to see regardless of the season in the Salish Sea, but even more astounding given that it was December!

BCX1233 "Coon"

MMX0047 "Bullet"

There were several "new to me" humpbacks in the group, including one that particularly caught my eye due to the very white flukes:

BCZ0297 "Pulteney"
It turns out this sighting was extra cool, because this was the first time this whale was documented in the southern Strait of Georgia/Salish Sea!

You may be wondering about the humpback naming system, both the alphanumeric designations and the common names. The "BC" refers to whales that have been added to British Columbia/DFO humpback whale catalogue. The X, Y and Z refers to how much black or white there is on the tail: “X” = less than 20% white; “Y” = 20 to 80% white; and “Z” = more than 80% white. The common names come from various sources, but in the case of Pulteney, it's in reference to the Pulteney Lighthouse on Malcolm Island off Northern Vancouver Island. Not only is this where this whale is commonly seen, but the dark marking between the white flukes looks like a lighthouse.

But there were more than just humpbacks up there in the Strait of Georgia! We also got to check out the impressive sea lion (both Steller and California) haul out at the Belle Chains, and a pair of eagles in perfect lighting on a nearby rock.

A very vocal pup!

California sea lions - uncommon in the San Juans, but there were plenty of them up on this BC haul out!

Sea lions always have the best facial expressions >.<

After a trip down to Portland to visit family and friends for Christmas, we are now back in wildlife mode up north, and today spent time with the bald eagles that congregate along the Nooksack River in the winter to take advantage of the spawning chum salmon. I've been here a couple of times before and it never disappoints, but it was awesome to have more time to spend today. While it's impossible to capture in the photos the experience of having ~50 eagles visible in all directions, the shots speak for themselves in terms of the kinds of behavior that can be witnessed here!

Very close fly-by from an immature

Probably my favorite shot from the morning encounter - the smaller/compressed version really doesn't do it justice, but hopefully it gives you an idea!

Lots of multi-eagle interactions

This one is taking flight with a salmon carcass

I feel so lucky to live in such an amazing part of the world where there is so much wildlife to watch. Here's hoping 2020 starts off with some amazing encounters as well, but it will be hard to top the end of 2019!

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