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Seasonal Notes from the San Juans: June

Like many writers, I keep a (sometimes) daily journal about my life and the natural history events, largely bird related, that I experience. The following blog posts, organized by month are excerpts from my summer living and working the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Enjoy!

6/1 – I’m sitting watching my landlord whack the crap out of nettles in the yard with a grass cutter. I’d been waiting in the hopes that Milbert’s tortoishell would make use of them as a host plant. Or that I could make some food or drink with their leaves. Or perhaps both. Instead they’re being beat down for no other reason than apparent proximity to the house. Why not weed the strawberries or do something else a little more productive? Why do people have this insatiable urge to control and restrict? These are but a small patch of nettles on the island, not real tragedy, but I was looking forward to their waving green flowers and their attending butterflies. Instead I’ll watch them brown as the chloroplasts fail without vascular support.


A Milbert’s Tortoishell (Aglais milberti) on stinging nettle.


6/2 – I found a Northern Alligator Lizard in the wood pile! It amazes me that they’re on Shaw Island considering our isolation from the mainland and the climate.

6/3 – Technically it was day off, but I decided to join co-workers (soon to be friends), on a lap of alternatives to my company’s typical 5 hour tour, in the event of extreme weather. We stopped for lunch at what would become a of familiar details, from a nicely seat shaped log to a boat hammered to pieces. I was too green to be conscious of radio chatter nor the boats slowly creeping up along the coast from the South (only once was I not so vigilant). Before I knew it my companions and I were tossing our things into the boats and trying to get to a better vantage off Kellet Bluff on the South end of Henry Island. Doing the responsible thing in the face of marine mammals, we rafted our boats together and waited. A spyhop. A breach. A large wavering flag of black. A flash of creamy gray saddle patch. The whales, resident killer whales, orcas, whatever you call them, were coming right toward us. We sat and let them pass, within meters. Before they sped on, in search of salmon who followed the flooding tide North, they breached. First one, surprising us all with the burst of sound and motion, and then two more simultaneously. Now, in November, this remains the best sight of my season. We reeled from the experience the whole way round Henry back to Roche Harbor.

6/4 – Paddling between Roche Harbor and Pearl Island on a regular basis allows me to get to know the regulars. Surf Scoters will be gone soon, but I suspect the Harlequin Ducks will last longer. Bald Eagles nest nearby in their typically brash style, in the difficult to miss, tactless fashion only a large predatory bird can manage. Turkey Vultures surely nest near here too, though I so infrequently consider or see their nests despite my appreciation for them. Both will come and go as the seasons change, the vulture generally escaping to the south, though a few remnants will linger in the warmish, dryish bubble of the South end of Vancouver Island and will occasionally drift over to the San Juans in search of better quarry. The eagles will follow the fish and if the fish are here or there, once they’ve finished breeding or at least attempts to, they’ll be where the food is.

Unexpectedly easy to observe from my water bound vantage are the Purple Martins, the House Wrens, and the Olive-sided Flycatchers. Certainly there’s no reason to not expect any of them. The martins appreciate the homes we’ve provided in the harbor and cast high about over the white boats, gurgling away, birds that superficially look more starling than swallow on the wing. House Wrens are happy to make use of the open woodlands afforded them by human clearing and a drier climate than many other places in the Western half of Washington state. And why should I not expect to hear the constant calls of Olive-sided flycatchers posted on their favorite treetops over the slice of my paddle? The forest creeps right to the precipice of rocky shore, now I realize there’s little reason all these characters and more aren’t obvious even in a kayak.

I’ll look forward to their revolving acts in the coming months.

6/7 – I went to sleep hearing the bleating of the first Common Nighthawks and dreaming of paddling by enormous seabird colonies in Iceland, as I’ve heard tell of from Leon and Shawna from Body Boat Blade. Infrequently do I meet people I find immediately enlivening and inspiring. I realize that while I enjoy being good at things, I have little interest in being an excellent paddler for any other reason than the fact it can take you great places.

6/9 – Talked to a birder recently who said “there’s not much good birding in the San Juans.” What he meant was that we don’t have a hugely diverse landscape, despite a few pockets of different plant and animal life, we don’t have the landmass to afford lots of species. That’s all well and fine but I thought about that attitude and what it really means. If we only looked at the places with absolute, unequivocal richness then how would we really know what else is going on? I know very few people watch birds on Henry Island and while there are few chances that there’s anything magnificently unique there, there could be surprises and even baseline information is a good thing. Most of these islands don’t get regular traffic from birders. Phil Green on Yellow Island comes to mind. He makes eBird lists frequently on his little rock, providing data normally unavailable. I find that admirable.

6/9 (Again) – I didn’t end up working today, so instead I headed out for a tour of San Juan Island. I wiled away a few hours at San Juan County Park, enjoying the sun and free time. Out in front of me was one of many rocks and small islands that make up the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

As much as the Black Oystercatchers probing the barnacles may appreciate a bit of land segregated from aimless tourists and dogs on the beach, I find these designated wildlife areas a bit of a joke. Some most certainly do provide habitat and are important resting and breeding locations for birds, mammals, and a bevy of marine invertebrates. However, mostly what I see are places that people couldn’t find a use for, meaning that the real girth of uninterrupted habitat is in places where people have gobbled it up.

“But here, lets give these marginalized rocks to the birds, they’ve covered them in shit anyway.”

It’s not different across to Vancouver Island, where I can see coastal dwellings squeezing the shoreline, reserved for the the elite. The water between us may be wild in one sense, but it’s plied by tankers and container ships day in and day out. Down South the only true wilderness I can see, still under threat from our mangling thoughtfulness, are the shrouded Olympics with a window into the upper Elwha and the great glaciers and peaks she flows from.

Funny to have such glowering, cloudy thoughts on such a sunny afternoon.


California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) above South Beach on San Juan Island.


6/10 – Beach Verbena and Beach Pea are in flush on the South end of San Juan Island. I watched the broiling waters of Cattle Point in ebb as 300 some gulls sat unconcernedly on their breeding islands, the Whale Rocks. On the West side a Harbor Porpoise sped by in the ebb. I’m getting a better feel for this place.

Talked to some aging tourists. While I had a good chat, what I really wanted to ask them was why they’d spent their lives toiling so they could finally (financially) afford to visit places they’d spent their whole lives dreaming about, only to be able to creak about maintained trails in a half lucid state. That sounds harsh, but I wondered if it was worth it to them, because that’s exactly what they’d done. I probably should have asked.

6/13 – See something. Don’t know it. Go home. Read about it! Do that over and over. Write about it. Photograph it. Hope someone pays attention.

We had a really low tide yesterday and it made for great intertidal action along the West side of Henry. Tons of stars. Gumboot Chiton. Snails galore. Direct quote from the journal: “Up in the air, I’m mystified by the lifeforms below.”

6/15 – Sitting on the porch I wrote down the birds I observed in the yard. With 22 species evident, I have now seen 51 birds in this open patch of woods. The male Spotted Towhee is still in a ceaseless battle with his reflection in the kitchen’s big picture window.

6/17 – Between limping from a silly soccer injury and trying to be a good guide to my current charges, I managed catch a glimpse of what I am certain was a Black Swift on Young’s Hill. I’m also certain I have no idea why one would be here. I see no storms that would push them from the high altitudes on Vancouver Island nor in the Cascades. Still, I can only trust my eye and this glimpse of a speeding black parentheses was only momentary.

The one-flower indian-pipe or ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora) is just starting to push through the mulch on the forest floor. As we ascended from the oak woodlands currently overrun with twisting vines of coastal manroot (Marah oreganus) (a wild cucumber), these plastic looking protuberances were just visible enough to point out. I thought about how this plant, totally unrelated to a similar looking plant, the phantom orchid, has developed a similar method of getting sustenance by being a saprophyte (or rather a mycoheteroph). If you see no green, there’s slim chance photosynthesis is happening.


Striped Coralroot (Corallorhiza striata) is another orchid that doesn’t photosynthesize but instead is a parasite. No green no chlorophyll.


I love the bat boxes at English Camp. It’s like someone took a tamper and squeezed them in as tight as possible.

6/20 – This same group, a quite enjoyable troop of hikers from California, another employee of my company and myself are all standing at the Cattle Point lighthouse when my scanning binocular view takes in a strange shape wobbling in Haro Strait. A male orca’s dorsal fin! This is much more fun than simply locating them by following the ridiculous stream of whale watching boats in their arc of lawful observance that still screams paparazzi. We had a couple nice breaches. I get why people are so obsessed with them, enough to have convenient notions that their trailing doesn’t influence orca behavior. I’m glad people get education about the whales by boat and get to gawk at some megafauna the same time. I still don’t feel quite right about all those boats at once.


A male orca (T-19b) from a distance. Even from afar they’re stunning animals.


No one else cares (or so I decide without telling anyone), that I’ve started seeing lots of Red Crossbills lately. And I had my first Rhinoceros Auklet at Cattle Pass (I wonder if they are always out in the Haro, fishing for their young back on islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca), while watching the whales. And my first Heermann’s Gull flies by. I stick to the birds, I can see them with much less intrusion on their lives.


Heermann’s Gulls (Larus heermanni) on the North side of Stewart Island.


6/22 – The longest day passed, my only time to write and think is on the ferry. Work is full steam ahead, so I relish these moments between Shaw and San Juan. Generally I try to decide where I sit based on what I want to see. Do I hope to catch a glimpse of Baker and later South to the Olympics in early morning light? Or do I want to see the Wasp Island scattering along Orcas and look North into San Juan Channel and see the distant Gulf Islands? (More importantly, are there pretty girls on the boat; in the same paragraph in the journal I also ask if I am becoming a misanthrope.) I won’t be digging in the dirt much this summer, that has become apparent, so I’ll have to settle for scarce moments to write and splashes of salt water as substitute for dirt under my fingernails.

6/28 – The past six days I was slave to work but I was able to step foot on two new islands. Gossip Island is one of the rocks that is owned by the BLM where we routinely will eat lunch en route to and from the other new place Stewart Island (as I’ll come to know well in a few weeks). We camped at Prevost Harbor on the North side of the island, with Pender and Saturna Islands looming from across Boundary Pass.

During this week I felt the monotonous drain of crossing a large body of water in a slow boat. The distant shore never seems close until you are on top of it. I heard the collective breath of hundreds of Harbor Porpoise foraging in the tumult of eddies below Lovers Leap at Turn Point. I listened to Western Screech Owls and hoped that the screaming young Barred Owls I could also hear would never find their younger cousins a tempting prey. I found myself resenting people who complained about bird song early in the morning and with no outlet or room to question such thoughts, I grew more resentful.


Looking toward Mt. Baker from Prevost Harbor on Stewart Island.


6/30 – I can’t believe it (but I knew it before it happened), there are so few bird songs this morning. No Swainson’s Thrushes nor Townsend’s Warblers whisper from the trees. The damned towhee is still headbutting the window and managed to scare off both my first Black-headed Grosbeak and Red Crossbills at the feeder with his thrashing about. I even had Red-winged Blackbirds visit, a total surprise looking at the surrounding forest. It’s quiet but the songbirds aren’t gone just yet, they’re just busy raising young or recuperating from parenthood.


The bane of my existence spring to fall, a male towhee who wouldn’t let up attacking the window.



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