Friday, August 19, 2016

Perseid Meteor Shower and Night Sounds

It was all over social media: the Perseid meteor shower was supposed to be the best in years. I’m normally a morning person but does 3 a.m. make you a morning person or a night person. I guess since I will have been asleep for a few hours and getting up this falls under the very early morning person category. So at 0245 the alarm went off and I was out the door with coffee and audio recording equipment to entertain myself between meteors.
The following recording gives the highlights of a two-hour recording session from 0300 to 0500. If you want to know what’s happening at 0 dark hundred, I suggest you start the audio and read along.
The first 50 second clip was a real score for me. A bird species I had heard was in the area but never got to see or hear myself. Of course what you will first notice is crickets! Lots and lots of crickets. They will be the background through much of the audio. Very faintly in the background you can hear what has been described as a ping pong ball bouncing. This is the call of the western screech owl. For scale, the crickets are only meters away while the screech owl is more than a mile away on either Crane or Shaw Island.
The next clip runs just under four minutes. In my last post in July I talked about all the seals and seal pups in the area. August is weaning time for the pups and they are not happy about it. It can get very noisy, especially at night. The sounds you are hearing are mostly pups calling for moms. There is also a lot of splashing noises. Adult seals for unknown reasons like throwing their hind flippers over their heads and slapping the water. Whether this is just for fun, a mating behavior or what is not known. At approximately the 2:45 and 4:40 marks, there is a different noise, with a loud splash at 3:15. Think about that when you hear it and see if you know what it is. The next segment goes into detail.
The next four and a half minutes have the previously mentioned sound heard at 6:00, 6:40, 7:45, 8:10, 8:40 and 11:25. What you are hearing is a river otter chewing its latest catch. For anyone who has seen an otter foraging, you can picture it surfacing with fish or crab in its mouth, throwing its head back and chomping away. After each snack there is a small water noise as it dives again for its next snack. The loud splash heard at 3:15 was most likely the otter hauled out below me on the rocks, and then suddenly aware of me and diving into the water.
This segment also has two interesting birds calls. At 6:50 another very faint owl call, this one described as “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”. This is a barred owl. I’ve only heard them a half dozen times in the San Juans although they are known breeders and fairly common now.
At 11:20 a great blue heron gives out a disturbance call.
The final four and half minutes are one of my favorite birds that I’ve posted before, black oystercatchers. What’s interesting is that here we are in the wee hours of the morning, and they are calling an d flying about as if it were daylight. When birds like the heron and oystercatchers are calling in the middle of the night, it makes me wonder if an otter has wandered through or is there  other reason to be excited at 4 a.m.? At the end of the black oystercatcher section,  a bald eagle, black turnstones and Canada geese make cameo appearances.
That’s it for the audio, so what about the meteor shower. I’d have to rate it as just okay. I did end up seeing 30-40 meteors over the two hours and these tended to come in little bursts. I might see five in fifteen seconds but then not see any for several minutes. I was also surprised that the NE quadrant was supposed to be the best viewing direction. The two brightest meteors I saw were when I happened to turn around and look SW.
Summary: It was a beautiful, clear, starry night full of wildlife sounds and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

July, the seal pupping month.

The flowers are mostly gone, the meadows mostly brown and the east spit is closed to boat landings. So why would anyone want to come to Yellow at this time of year. Well, the weather is generally warm (not hot) and dry and the views are amazing. But the real attraction in July is seeing baby seals.

I generally walk the spits every morning looking for signs of a birth. This can take a couple forms. If I see a pile of fur on the beach, this is lanugo, a body hair that all mammals have in the womb. If it doesn't come off in the womb, then it sometimes gets rubbed off in the birthing process and a sure sign a seal was born here the previous night.

lanugo and amniotic sac
Another way is to find an entire placenta. It may look a little gross but it's actually a sign of new life, (100% guarantee there's a new pup out there somewhere) not to mention the placenta will be food for eagles, vultures, crows and ravens.

Seal placenta

This is my eighteenth pupping season and I have only witnessed one birth. Luck was with me and I actually had a camera with me. The whole process lasted maybe 20 seconds from starting to contract to the pup being fully out.

seal birth

initial bonding

I watched the pup grow over the next month as the mom and pup always used the same haulout rock.

mom and pup at one month

Other seal births I just missed like the following where the pup is still 'wearing' it's amniotic sac.

new born pup nursing
The pups can go into the water immediately and on rare occasions are born in the water. They are good swimmers but when they get tired, mom is ready to give them a ride.

There are times when up to half a dozen mom and pup pairs are swimming around like this and something many visitors get to see.

And the reason the spits are closed: even when the birthing time is over the spits are still used as haulout sites and nurseries.

East Spit nursery

West Spit haulout site

And just because a pup is alone on the rocks or beach, leave them be. Mom still has to eat so she's off fishing. The pup stands a much better chance of survival if humans just stay clear.
seal pup alone on the rocks
All photos for this blog were taken over the past dozen years. But I can guarantee any one of these photos could have been taken this year. It's what makes summer special on Yellow!

And for those that wonder what seals sound like, enjoy the following recorded after dark on the east spit.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Mid June on Yellow Island

The meadows are looking very brown with just scattered splotches of color Other than two large pink patches of fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) above the east spit and in the glade, small purple groupings of harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria), pink nodding onion (Allium cernuum), and yellow Puget Sound gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia) provide color here and there. A few (<20) cactus (Opuntia fragilis) did their 24 hour pale yellow bloom thing before withering. Seaside rein-orchid (Piperia elegans) adds its white flowers to the flower mix scattered across the island.
Rufous hummingbird nectaring on fireweed

Harvest Brodiaea
Nodding onion

Puget Sound gumweed

Seaside Rein-orchid (photo from a previous year)
fMost days on Yellow I upload a bird list to eBird and there are now more than 3000 Yellow Island daily checklists online. Recently eBird allowed uploading audio files with the checklists and the audio will become part of the Macaulay Library of natural sounds. This inspired me to get serious about recording bird songs and calls. I upgraded my recorder and signed up for Cornell’s Bird Recording Workshop held at San Francisco University Field Station located at an elevation of 6000’ in the Sierras June 11-18. The director of the Macaulay Library, Greg Budney, was the lead instructor for the class. For seven days we got up at 0430 and went out to various sites to record birds. It was a fabulous vacation!
The following are some of the recordings of Yellow Island birds that I wake up to every morning. Enjoy! (One of the recordings is from San Juan Island. Can you guess which one?)
Western tanager and orange-crowned warbler:


Friday, June 3, 2016

Yellow Island’s third ‘peak bloom’

Early May saw the rapid disappearance of camas across the island but even as the camas was fading new species were blooming across the meadows and rocky balds.
Oregon sunshine, aka wooly sunflower, (Eriophyllum lanatum) finally came into its own after a couple false starts in mid March and mid April. There are now large patches of what may be the brightest yellow flower Yellow Island has to offer.

Eriophyllum lanatum, wooly sunflower
Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) is about tied with the Eriophyllum for brightest yellow flower. My absolute favorite place on the island is the rocky area atop Hummingbird Hill that is covered with frilly reindeer lichen that forms a nice bed for the stonecrop. The combination of colors and textures cannot be beat.
Sedum spathulifolium, broadleaf stonecrop
A third bright yellow flower is Puget Sound gumweed. It appears across the meadows and rocky outcrops but is particularly thick on the south side of Hummingbird Hill.
Grindelia integrifolia, Puget Sound gumweed
Three non-yellow species that occur individually or in small groups are California broomrape (Orobanche californica), Hooker’s onion (Allium acuminatum) and harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria). These cheery spots of color brighten a  meadow that is rapidly turning to brown (or some would say yellow as seen from a distance).
Orobanche californica, clustered broomrape
Allium acuminatum, Hooker’s onion
Brodiaea coronaria, Harvest Brodiaea
When all these species start fading, there are at least four species that have will bloom in June into July. Can you name them?

(This blog was written May 15 but never posted. Amazingly all species mentioned are still blooming nicely, plus a couple of the last four mentioned above.)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Mid April Flower Reort

It's been over a month since the last post and a lot has changed. The early individual blooms of fawn lilies (Erythronum oregonum) exploded into large patches of stunning white flowers. This species peaked around April 1 and as of today there are just scattered blooms on the north side of the island.  Shooting star, (Dodecatheon pulchellum), also peaked around April 1 and is now mostly going to seed. This is a normal bloom pattern for fawn lilies and shooting stars.

Fawn lilies surround an old growth Douglas fir
A colorful clump of  shooting stars.
Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida), western buttercup (Ranunculus occidentalis), and chocolate lilies (Fritillaria lanceolata) were also blooming a month ago. However, these species have persisted and now cover large areas of the island with their reds, yellows and shades of brown. Again, this is a normal pattern for these species which should persist into May.

Paintbrush line the trail
Chocolate lilies across the north side of the island.
One species that isn't showing a normal pattern is great camas (Camasia leichtlinii). Camas first bloomed March 24. The earliest bloom date over 30 years of record keeping was March 10, the latest April 20, with an average of April 4. March 24 is well within the normal range.  However, instead of showing a normal bell shaped curve of a gradually increasing bloom, peaking in late April, within ten days camas covered the island. Already many are starting to go to seed. We have had a stretch of unseasonably warm weather so this may be why.

Camas on the east side of Hummingbird Hill
One other major surprise was the first bloom on Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). The average for Nootka rose is May 10. The previous earliest date was April 26. This year it was a week earlier, April 19. It should also be noted that Nootka rose was one of the species fooled last fall. About a quarter of the roses bloomed in the fall of 2015 due to unseasonably warm weather.

People always ask, well, how does this compare to other years. All years are different but for me, this was/is another five star year. Spectacular! Here's a sampling from the past week. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mid March Yellow Island Flower Report

It’s been several weeks since the last update so what has changed? While the red flowering currant and blue-eyed Mary may be at their peak now, several other species are just beginning. The first rufous hummingbird found the flowering currant on March 11.
Red flowering currant this week.
Blue-eyed Mary in a bed of camas.
The next species to flower was buttercup, Ranunculus occidentalis. It bloomed on February 14. While this is early for buttercup, the earliest first bloom date in over thirty years of recording was January 16 in 2009. However, that was a lone plant and the next individual to flower that year was two months later in mid March. This points out one of the problems of looking at first bloom dates. Do they indicate the start of the species blooming that year or are they reporting an anomaly? The latest first bloom date for buttercup is April 3, 1990.

buttercup sharing space with camas.
February 21 had two species show their first flowers of the year: harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) and desert parsley (Lomatium nudicale). This is the earliest recorded date for both species. For paintbrush, it was six days earlier than last year February 27, 2015 that was the previous earliest bloom date. For the desert parsley, this was off the charts early. The previous earliest date was March 22, 2015, 31 days later! And this wasn’t just one plant. Three individual plants in the same general area all bloomed with in a day or two of each other.

Paintbrush and Roemer's fescue.

Lomatium blooming very early
Pacific sanicle (Sanicula crassicalis) bloomed two days later on February 23. This was also a week ahead of the previous earliest first bloom, March 3, 2015. Similar to the desert parsley and paintbrush, the previous record was in 2015. The latest first bloom for sanicle was April 14, 2000.

Pacific sanicle in bloom
It’s a leap year and two species celebrated by blooming on February 29: fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) and prairie saxifrage (Saxifraga integrifolia). The earliest and latest bloom dates for fawn lilies is February 14, 2015 and March 25, 1985. For the saxifrage the corresponding dates are February 27, 2010 and April 15, 1982.
This patch of fawn lilies was the first to bloom the last few years.
As of this writing, only two other native species have bloomed: chocolate lily (Fritillaria lanceolata) on March 7 and shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) on March 11. Earliest and latest for these two species are: Chocolate lily March 5, 1992 and April 10, 2008 and shooting star February 28, 2010 and April 3, 2009. For the shooting star it is interesting the extremes occurred in back to back years. Also for those two species I’ve only found two plants of each in bloom so far.
One of two chocolate lilies blooming
One of two shooting stars blooming

While there are several hundred fawn lilies and several dozen paintbrush and buttercups, the island is far from colorful. The flowering currant and blue-eyed Mary still provide the majority of the color with fawn lily a distant third. But how patriotic: red currants, white fawn lilies and blue-eyed Marys.

(Unlike the last post, all photos are from 2016.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Early Blooms on Yellow Island

Early February and what’s happening on Yellow? Are the flowers getting ready to bloom? Amazingly we have a couple species that have been blooming since last November. The strange fall weather that closely mimics spring weather definitely fooled two very different species.
Red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) was found in bloom in mid November. Because I don’t look for first bloom dates in November, the exact date is a mystery. Ribes is a shrub so it is easy to follow individual plants. Those that flowered in in November, perhaps 10% of those on the island, have lost their flowers now. But of those that didn’t bloom in 2015, the first bloom I noted this year was January 30. And here we are on February 13 with most of the individual plants showing some flowers. I always think of the rufous hummingbirds arriving to take advantage of the early currant blooms. However, this year the blooms are too early and the hummer taking advantage is an Anna’s hummingbird that over wintered on Yellow. (That is another first for Yellow Island.) 

Another very different species is blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora). Likewise it bloomed in mid November and has stayed in bloom every since. Unlike Ribes that is a perennial, Collinsia is an annual and forms small blankets of flowers over the rocky areas. It’s a nice touch of color on grey winter days.

All northwesterners know winter is the rainy season. With all the rain, winter is also the greenest time of year with various mosses and licorice ferns adding numerous bright shades of green to the rocky outcrops. Add to the mosses the very healthy off white colored reindeer lichen and the multiple hues of the broadleaf sedum (Sedum spathulifolium) and the rocks atop Hummingbird Hill can be a photographer’s paradise.

Within a month or so the lilies that have already broken ground will start to bloom, tourists will start arriving, and the flowering season will begin exploding in earnest for another year. 

(Note the flowering currant and blue-eyed Mary photos are from previous years later in the season.)