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Seasonal Notes from the San Juans: July

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!

7/6 – I’m glad the 4th  of July, with all its engines and alcohol and explosions, is through. Usually I enjoy this holiday. This year I suppose dodging drunk motorists and erratic children captaining dinghies made for a different attitude. There’s always a malaise in the air afterward and there also seem to be less animals around for a few days too (the latter is probably an impression).


Fireworks on Lopez Island seen across San Juan Channel from San Juan Island.


Over the holiday “weekend” I held my first Sun Star. This nobly purple beast of a star was latched to the edge of Henry Island, but came away easily for us to admire it. One of its rays was regrowing, one of eight extending arms whose tube feet reached for traction upside down in the air.

As the kelp bed between Henry Island and Battleship grows, so the Heermann’s Gulls amass. There were at least 35 sitting on the beds when I paddled up this week. They sat still with several boats approaching, confident in familiar habitat; varieties of giant kelp grow in forest like colonies between here and Northern Mexico, the gull’s range. A Great Blue Heron felt otherwise and thrust off with a harrumph of a squawk.


Heermann’s Gulls (Larus heermannii) on a kelp bed.


7/19 – There’s so much to see out the windows of the ferry. I try so hard to be vigilant but it’s all too easy to get complacent in daily transportation across these broiling bodies of water. Just by trying to look out the window, I do better than many established locals commuting on the inter-island ferry, half of them just curl up to sleep. And sometimes I’m rewarded. I saw my first Marbled Murrelet of the season on July 15, just as we slipped through Wasp Passage into San Juan Channel.

7/28 – No more bird song, except the spare robin and other resident birds, which crow with a touch less exuberance still. On the flip side, the waterbirds are increasing.

More and more husky Rhinoceros Auklets bob in the straits and channels. I saw my first Spotted Sandpiper earlier this week, flitting along the West side of Stewart Island. The Pigeon Guillemots’ site fidelity has decreased and they wander further afield, they’ve finished breeding and are changing to their piebald winter plumage. Canada Geese are starting to arrive on the airfield at Roche Harbor. I’ve twice heard Black-belled Plover and Greater Yellowlegs somewhere overhead while stepping out to admire the stars, which they surely were using in their nocturnal navigation (what a wonder that both are cosmopolitan species, found all over the world).

The only songbird that seems to have increased are Red Crossbills. Their number I presume relate to the large cone crop all the conifers are sporting. Then again, not having lived in a Pacific Northwest locale quite so ensconced in conifers, I could merely be naïve to their profundity.

7/30 – I’ve been struggling with the concept of personal productivity (a decrease due to work) and decided it’s better to listen to waves and kingfishers and watch Greater Yellowlegs and Western Sandpipers than worry about dulling my eyes against the LCD. I’ll have all winter for that.

Yesterday was a long day, consisting of three, three-hour tours from morning till dusk. What lasts in my notes and memory are:

The snorting and cavorting baby seals and their attentive mothers, pressing noses and guiding their young.


A Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) mother and her pup curious about my boat.


The California Gulls, back en mass which I gave valiant effort to paint in an exciting light as they flipped about high overhead, catching the caste of termites winging off to reproduce (I had no takers finding either phenomenon interesting).

The moment when I realized my sunset tour was devoid of engines and I sat silent with my charges as family groups of Marbled Murrelets murmured back and forth between our boats diving for bait fish. Heerman’s Gulls laughed into the wind from their floating roost. If it was up to me, I would have stayed out there.


Sunset on the Haro Strait.


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