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Sunday, August 30, 2020

End of August Check-In

As this unconventional year has gone on, the motivation to blog has been low, even though spending time in nature and the outdoors has been my greatest solace. This has been my longest hiatus ever from blogging, but I've still been doing a lot of photography and do miss having an outlet to share my photos! So here's an attempt at getting back to it again.

While July was an incredible month (read: like "normal" aka the old days) when we had visits from all three Southern Resident pods including a two-week stay by J-Pod. August, by contrast, has been very quiet on the whale front for us, with just a single brief shore-based encounter a few days ago. But we've still gotten out on the water a few times and have also been doing a lot of bird-watching, especially looking for shore birds, on land.

On August 16, with my parents visiting, we headed out on the water with Maya's Legacy on a trip that will be one of the highlights of the summer. It was a hot afternoon (so extra nice to be on the water with the cooling breeze) and the sky-blue waters were like glass. We saw two humpback whales: Two Spot (CS631) in San Juan Channel and Valiant (BCX1068 calf 2017) at Salmon Bank.

Two Spot in San Juan Channel

Valiant, missing a couple chunks out of his very scraped-up flukes, survived an encounter with killer whales when less than a year old. This whale is also known to be the calf of BCX1068 Split Fluke, who is in turn the offspring of BCY0160 Heather, whales known to migrate to Mexico. It's pretty awesome that we are getting to know the life histories of Salish Sea humpbacks to this extent!

The distinctive flukes of Valiant with the Salmon Bank marker in the background

Next we were lucky enough to get to head out to Smith and Minor Islands, which I've only been able to visit a handful of times. They're offshore due south of Lopez Island and offer amazing wildlife viewing both on their shorelines and in the extensive kelp bed that surround them. One of the main highlights there are the tufted puffins, which nest in burrows on Smith Island. There have been higher numbers of them there this year; in the past, there may only be one or two pairs seen, but on our visit, we saw more than a dozen tufted puffins, though we weren't able to spot the lone horned puffin that has also been hanging out there.

I'm not sure I've ever even circumnavigated Minor Island, where a long sand spit offers a haul out for harbor seals:

Back on land, as I mentioned, we've been scouting out shorebirds in particular. As fun as that has been, it's hard to believe the reason we're seeing them is because fall migration has already begun! Time, this year more so than any other, has been so bizarre in how at times it has been passing so slowly and in others so quickly. In any case, we've been having a lot of luck turning up a nice variety of migrating species!

Least sandpiper at Third Lagoon

Least sandpiper at False Bay

Sanderling at South Beach

Semipalmated plover at Jackson Beach

Western sandpiper at South Beach

While there have still been a lot of orcas in the Salish Sea in August, we're looking at the likelihood of the first August on record without the Southern Residents here, as it has been all Bigg's killer whales. While I've been tracking their movements (and many interesting social groupings and family splits) from afar, my only encounter with them was on August 26 when we saw the T46s and two of the T137s pass Reuben Tarte County Park. It was short, but sweet, and the way this year has gone, I was thankful just to see some dorsal fins.

T46E Thor and T137B Tempest off Reuben Tarte

At the very least, the weather has continued to be amazing, so we've been going out for walks a lot in the mornings and/or evenings when it's a little less hot, and yesterday were successful in locating several species we had been trying to find all week:

Lesser yellowlegs at Jackson Beach - the 200th bird species I've ever seen in San Juan County!

Short-billed dowitcher at Jackson Beach

Long-billed dowitcher at Jackson Beach

This morning, we decided to take our boat out as well to bird San Juan Channel, and again the conditions were perfect.

A pair of marbled murrelets in Griffin Bay

Right at the end we found our target species, too: a dozen red-necked phalaropes.

Red-necked phalarope

While this year has ended up looking very different than originally anticipated, I've been continuing on with our photo year list challenge, which this year expanded from birds to focus on any vertebrate. The red-necked phalarope was species #175 for the year, not too shabby considering we've been exclusively San Juan Island based since March! We'll see if I can still sneak up to my target of 200 by the end of the year, and I'll also see if I can back to at least a semi-regular habit of blogging!