We set out on Friday to go to Smith Island, the only place in the San Juan Islands that has a nesting colony of tufted puffins. Unfortunately, the weather was too windy to venture out of the protection of the islands. Smith Island is a few miles south of the San Juans in unprotected waters.
Instead we were treated to over an hour of spending time with Bigg’s (formerly known as transient) killer whales. We were able to see a Bigg’s killer whale family known as the T49’s. These killer whales eat marine mammals, and they were actively hunting through the passes between the islands. There were numerous harbor seals on the rocky haul outs with newborn pups, and pregnant females. Harbor porpoise were also observed feeding in the tidal rips.
We made the best of our inner island trip to sight birds, and were well rewarded. We saw numerous pigeon guillemotts and rhinocerous auklets; both of these species are related to the tufted puffins.
Also sighted were:
Bald Eagles and nest
Double crested and Pelagic Cormorants
Great Blue Herons
Glaucous Wing Gulls
We had a great bird watching cruise this past weekend, a trip that took us through the middle of the San Juans, then north to Sucia and Patos Islands. We saw a nice variety of birds, with seals, sea lions and a Humpback whale as well. Thanks to Jim Bachman for his incredible photos from the day!
Another beautiful Saturday cruising through the scenic San Juan Islands, looking for birds, rewarded us with a number of interesting avian encounters.Â While most of the wintering waterfowl have now moved north to their breeding grounds, thousands of Brant were still present in Padilla Bay; an important wintering area for them, where the sheltered, shallow waters provide them withÂ productive eelgrass grazing.Â Other birds present now in large numbers included hundreds each of our two common breeding Alcids: the Pigeon Guillemot and the Rhinocerous Auklets, along with half a dozen pairs of their tiny cousin, the Marlbed Murrelet.Â These birds are now all wearing summer plumage.Â The Guillemots are tuxedoed in crisp black and white, and flash vivid pink feet and legs.Â The Auklets are sporting white “whiskers,” and we got many good looks at the rubbery protrusion atop their bills for which they are named.Â The Murrelets have traded their black-and-white winter attire for a subtley-patterned brown.Â Â We also saw one single Common Murre (most are now nesting on sea stacks off the outer coast), foreshadowing their expected infiltration of our area as summer progresses – eventually becoming one of the most numerous birds out in the deeper channels.
Another bird with striking breeding plumage is the Brandt’s Cormorant; we were treated to close looks at a perched individual who must have wandered in from the outer coast, where most Brandt’s Cormorants are nesting on sea stacks at this time.Â Pelagic Cormorants, on the other hand, breed locally throughout the Salish Sea, and we enjoyed an up-close look at a nesting colony on a jagged and inacessible cliff.Â The Pelagic Cormorant also looks its best at this time of year, with bright red faces, large white flank patches, and glossy, dark iridescent greet plumage.Â They build their nests on extraordinarily narrow ledges on the cliff face.
Shorebirds have also mostly gone north, but a surprise find was a Black-bellied Plover in full breeding plumage on Viti Rocks.Â It’s speckled back blended in perfectly with the barnacle-covered rocks.Â A few remnant Dunlin flew by the boat at one point, andÂ a Spotted Sandpiper put in a brief appearanceÂ as we passed throughÂ the Swinomish Channel.Â Three Surbirds were near Chuckanut Rocks, where more than forty were sighted the previous week.Â But Black Oystercatchers remain, as they nest locally throughout the islands, mostly on small, predator free islands and offshore rocks (predator free – except from the Eagles).Â We found at least two active nest sites, attended by pairs of these noisy, eye-catching birds with tons of personality.
At least twenty Bald Eagles put in appearances for us, including on and around three active nests, one of which has been added to year after year and has become quite a behemoth.Â An Osprey spotted near the Swinomish Channel was a nice find, as Ospreys are much less numerous around the Salish Sea than one might expect for a cosmopolitan fish-hawk.Â The Bald Eagle definitely dominates in our area.Â Another predatory bird we encountered was a nice adult Parasitic Jaeger, a gull relative who makes a living by stealing the fish caught by hardworking Gulls and Terns.Â We all “oohed and ahhed” as it mercilessly harassed a young Glaucous-winged Gull.Â Jaegers pass through our area much less commonly in the spring than the fall, so it was a nice bit of a bonus!Â Every outing is a little different, with the exact mix of species changing as the season progresses, but there are always be something memorable to see.