Skagit County is a great place in Western Washington to look for eagles. I usually do a boat trip on the Nooksack River this time of year for good looks at hundreds of Bald Eagles, but those aren’t running this year because of the pandemic, so I took a drive up instead.
Rather than the hundreds of eagles on the Nooksack, I was able to see about half-a-dozen near the Skagit River up in the mountains (it has better road access than the Nooksack, where the road only comes close to the river in a few places.) In the afternoon, I headed down from the mountains to the flat part of Skagit County, where the Skagit and other rivers empty into the Salish Sea, and there I was able to find a few dozen eagles. Two were young eagles (that’s why they don’t yet have the white head and tail of the adult Bald,) trying to catch some Dunlin on a farm pond near Bow, WA.
In addition to the young eagles trying things out, there were a couple Peregrine Falcons taking turns diving on the same Dunlin flock. They didn’t catch anything either. They did have speed on their side, and that made it hard to photograph them.
During the afternoon of Day 5 we left Baranof Island and headed north through the Chatham Strait to Chicagof Island. On the way we sighted a trio of Orcas (Killer Whales) chugging north, alongside us within a few hundred yards of Chichagof Island’s eastern shoreline. They weren’t in any particular hurry, as they meandered mostly north, the M/V Sea Lion slowing to pace them. There was some good activity to watch as the adult female with the group repeatedly lobtailing/tail slapping the surface – a behavior seen a lot in the whales with social lives and structured cultures like the Orca.
It’s impossible to know exactly what is intended by the repeated lobtailing behavior – the meaning of signals like this can probably vary a great deal by context (were the other whales with this large female offspring? Or siblings? Was the large adult male we would encounter a mate? Or a stranger?) But the activity made for great watching. On the other side of the ship, a large male Orca (the one in the upper photo in this post) was seen. This whale seemed pretty comfortable around our ship, crossing under it a couple times so we got views of its right and left sides as we all puttered north, and even graced us with a breach. I did not, alas, manage to get a photo of the breach. That was a little bit of a downer, but only because I did not know what the evening of Day 5 would hold.
The Bay of Pillars is a gorgeous spot with some of the cutest wildlife we could possibly find on the whole trip, maybe even in the whole state of Alaska:
It doesn’t take very many otters to provide an overload in the cute department, and the Bay of Pillars provided them. The calm, flat waters of the bay gave us plenty of opportunity to view several pairs of otters, and the occasional lone animal. In fact, it was so glassy flat that I could even get photos of sea jellies from the ship’s deck:
As the ship anchored, the Sea Otters moved off into the small channels and coves off the edges of the bay. Probably the best for them even if it wasn’t the greatest for our views of them, the otters have no way of knowing this huge hulking ship with its rattling anchor wouldn’t mean them any harm. We did get to explore the Bay of Pillars by kayak, which is the best way I could imagine exploring the bay, with all of its shallow offshoots and branches.
I usually try for photos of wildlife, but the snaking line of kayaks stretched out behind the Sea Lion was too much for me to miss. I thought it made a pretty shot.
From the kayaks, we found more Bald Eagles, Spotted Sanpipers, sea otters, and even a little family of Common Mergansers:
Even though the kayaking ended in a little sprinkling rain, you don’t go kayaking without expecting to get a bit damp. The Bay of Pillars really left an impression on me as a gorgeous and pristine bit of wilderness, the perfect place to get away from it all… except the birds. There’s no getting away from the birds there.
Wowee! Night whales! Whales, but at night! Like, in darkness.
Most whale watching happens during the day, when you can see them. I was pretty happy that after dinner, near sunset (the above photo was taken at 9:30 PM,) we found more whales. Two humpbacks, doing some leisurely feeding at the surface, ignored the ship as we idled to watch them.
The water was calm enough that as the whales came to the surface to breathe, we could hear each breath clearly. Alaska has these great passages between islands that are deep and wide enough to hold significant amounts of food for whales, and are protected from the open ocean enough that they provide an excellently flat surface for viewing.
Southeast Alaska doesn’t just look like ocean and mountains, it also looks like this:
Alaska is a place with rainforest – more than 100 inches (about 109 in/277 cm) of rain a year for Petersburg, AK. Most of the Earth’s rainforests are tropical: the Amazon, along the Congo River, Southeast Asia. But temperate rainforests are vital to the Pacific northwest, and Alaska’s are beautiful to walk through. The glacially-carved valleys trails in Alaska wind through can be challenging, but they are worth the effort.
After a few miles hiking in the rainforest in the morning, we got back on board the Sea Lion for a move to Petersburg, Alaska. Petersburg is, surprising, no relation of Saint Petersburg in Russia, even though this part of the continent was occupied by the Russian Empire for almost hundred years between the mid/late-1700s and the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. Petersburg is actually named after Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian who established a cannery and docks in the early 20th century.
We disembarked in Petersburg first for a hike through the muskeg, and later for wandering through the town.
The muskeg was fantastic – an extremely acidic soil bog with twisted, stunted trees, wide vistas, and even carnivorous plants. The openness made it an easy place to watch birds, and we saw a Bald Eagle and three Merlins (it’s a common joke among California birders that if you’ve seen a Merlin, you haven’t; because Merlins are so relatively rare in coastal California.) I didn’t get a photo of the exciting Merlin mating contest. I’m not 100% sure that the three Merlins swooping down from the sky in a group, with one chasing off a another Merlin, and the remaining two flying off together, was actually mating behavior, but it is consistent with what I’ve seen of raptor mating before.
The merlin stopped once for a good view – just long enough for me to switch lenses to get a shot of him/her before zooming off.
More happened on that third day, but it will have to wait for the next post.
Once aboard the Sea Lion and away from Juneau, we could cover a lot of territory on the ship. We moved south along the Stevens Passage, headed for the Tracy and Endicott Arms (fjords in the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness.) The crew likely got some sort of tip about whales, because we continued south until we found a group of humpback whales near Gambier Bay.
These whales put on a great show, repeatedly diving and swimming by the ship, unconcerned (the officers had stopped the ship; we were essentially just drifting along, which is a pretty common safety measure among whale watching boats, although this was the largest ship I’ve been on to do this.)
The group of whales (pod) was relatively large, at least seven whales and possibly as many as ten. Humpbacks owe their name to one of two things, depending on who you believe. Either the name comes from the hump just ahead and under the dorsal fin, which can be seen in the photo above; or the name comes from their tendency to deeply arch their backs as they dive, giving them the appearance of a hunch, which can also be seen in the photo above. Wikipedia’s article on humpbacks mentions the arching of the back as the origin of the name, but does not provide a source.
The whales showed off a couple of great behaviors – tail slapping, also called lobtailing, which is bringing the fluke of the whale high out of the water and slapping it down on the surface to create a large splash and sound. It is not understood why the whales do this, but chances are that it’s a signal to other whales, the loud sounds created would carry well in the ocean and be a great way to signal whales that are far away from the slapper.
Last but not least, the humpbacks did breach at least twice, but I didn’t get a good photo. Caught by surprise (breaches can be over in just two seconds or so) I didn’t have the camera focused on the right place, and I wasn’t even trying to get a shot of the right whale.
All the photos above were captured before 8:30 in the morning, so there was even more to see that day, which may have to wait for another post.
The greatest and strangest things to see in the world all have to start somewhere, and my most recent trip to Alaska had some of the best wildlife viewing I’ve had in my life.
For this trip that start was Juneau. Although it’s a small town (only about 30,000 people,) Juneau gets a lot of visitors in the summertime. That made our stop in Juneau as we prepared to cruise on the Motor Vessel National Geographic Sea Lion through Southeast Alaska feel a lot more crowded than the rest of the trip. I shouldn’t knock Juneau for its crowds during the summer – people come there for a reason, and it’s not just Juneau’s convenient location (not entirely serious there – I don’t really think of Juneau as being particularly convenient.)
Juneau does have the Mendenhall Glacier nearby, and a variety of eagles and other critters worth watching, both those that are easy to find in the lower 48, and those that are hard to find. I had a lot of trouble getting good shots of Mendenhall Glacier and its associated waterfalls and icebergs because of the crowds; after all, Juneau is a major cruise ship port, and in addition to our 60-passenger ship there were two of the 1,000+ passenger ships dwarfing ours in the port. Instead, just off the beaten path to the glacier there was a smaller, quieter, and almost empty path that ran closer to the water and was well worth taking.
There we found some quiet, and the good views of a Spotted Sandpiper shown. Not an unusual or rare bird, especially for Alaska, but it was nice to find some nature in amongst the mass of people making their pilgrimage to Mendenhall.
Also, even the cruise ship dock itself gave up some natural beauty. The bald eagle pictured was no more than 50 yards from the Sea Lion tied up just down the dock. Cities don’t give up their natural beauty easily, but Juneau has more than most, and it didn’t take a long time or much travel to find it.
The whales have been systematically moving in closer to shore (at least some of them, there are still plenty of whales offshore.) So close, that sighting humpbacks in San Francisco Bay is becoming a regular thing this summer, and people have seen feeding and breaching in the Bay, very uncommon behaviors for the Bay itself.
There were at least two, probably three or four, humpbacks close to the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge yesterday – this photo was taken around 6:30 PM on July 11th.
Here’s a fluke shot of one of the whales. Sadly, I didn’t have time to get to a better viewing position than Hawk Hill up on the northern side of the Golden Gate Strait, but I keep being reminded of the natural wonders that visit us in the Bay.
Saturday, June 4th, was a good day out on the water despite some persistent fog that seeped the color out of the photos below (I’ve increased the contrast and color on most of these, because posting photos in grey and black doesn’t really appeal to me.)
After we found a couple grey whales northbound near Point Bonita, we visited the Farallon Islands, and on our return we were treated to breaching humpbacks right where the shipping lanes diverge, about 12 miles or so offshore from San Francisco:
Unfortunately, they only breached a couple times while in view, and the fog took a lot of the drama out of these photos. Still, it’s always a treat when whales decide to show a little more of their bodies off than we can usually see.
Breaching wasn’t enough, though. Soon one of the whales transitioned into pectoral slapping – taking its 15-foot long pectoral fin up out of the water to slap down on the surface:
Here the whale is on its side, back facing the camera, and it slapped its fin down repeatedly, making a great splash each time. The most likely reason for this behavior is the big splash and associated noise – sounds that carry long-distance are the most efficient ways for whales to signal each other. We can’t know what information the signals convey, because even the same signal can have different meanings due to context. Since the whales are most likely feeding in this area, it may have to do with finding food. Another possibility is that it may have to do with our boat driving up, since the change in signaling behavior happened just as we arrived.
Our day wasn’t over yet, though! In addition to humpback whale behavior, we also got treated to dolphins, which were very hard to photograph.
These are part of a pod of common dolphins that numbered between 100-150 animals, so it was impossible to get the whole pod in one frame. With only a few on the surface at a time, it was a little difficult to guess where to look, but they were a great treat to see.
This is a shot I enjoyed getting; it’s an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) in San Rafael, CA on January 30, 2016. Bitterns are well-camouflaged to hide in the reeds and tall grasses of marshes, so finding one and getting a clear photo are a little difficult. This might be a guy or a girl: the males and females in this species are very similar, with the males often being slightly larger, and supposedly the male’s crown and back are more black while the female’s are more brown. I certainly can’t tell. In any case, s/he didn’t look too happy that I had noticed him/her. They did this great pose, even though I was 30 or 40 meters away on the trail, and then slowly slinked away into invisibility in the reeds.