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Seasonal Notes from the San Juans: August

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!

8/7 – It is looking as if I will be getting quite used to crossing Spieden Channel to Stewart Island. I’ve already gone six times since my first trip over. I still very much respect this open section of water as it rips between flood and ebb. The challenge of crossing is more on the clients’ end, but I still find myself in moments of nervousness, being carried to far this way or that as we paddle across. It’s hard to imagine the homesteaders who crossed in rowboats to Roche Harbor on a daily basis.

Spieden Island being a private island gets far less human traffic and is much more alive with animals. Seals are much more comfortable beaching here, protected by steep cliffs with good exposure to the sun. As we paddle by watching Harbor Seals, there’s also the chance of seeing the odd exotic ungulate, hallmarks of the days when this island was owned and operated by brothers who set up a safari company.


Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) on Spieden Island.

Bringing people to hunt foreign animals on a remote island proved not profitable, but the animals stayed and have wreaked unknown horrors on the local flora. What was once likely extensive prairie on the South side is now short grass lined with trails from deer and goats. They’ve also swam to other islands nearby. The Cactus Islands, John’s Island, and Stewart Island all now have these goats.

I think about this every time we cross, in the tandem with geological musings. The entire southern flank of this long, narrow island is evidence of the glacial power that pushed over these islands. Thin soils on a Southern exposure are less conducive to expansive Douglas Fir forests and there’s a good number Garry Oak dotting the hillside. My favorite thing about Spieden is that it’s an example of what all the San Juans look like in an extreme. Head to the North side of the Island and you are immediately in the shade and a wall of trees tower above you. There’s a notable hint moisture in the air when you round from the sunny side to the shady.


The South side of Spieden Island.


8/18 – I woke up on San Juan Island to the cacophony of geese and ravens near Roche Harbor. Red-crossbills still chirrup in the treetops and have been since my last entry in my journal (this is the longest I’ve gone without writing anything in five years, not a great thing).

On the water, many more seal pups are weaned and still curious or looking for maternal companions. A lone individual has been greeting all the kayakers who visit the kelp beds off Battleship Island. He or she makes beeline for the first boats that stray into the kelp and plays with rudders and paddles. My first encounter I was astonished and we sat with this youngster for nearly an hour. It was so comfortable that it even took a nap on a clump of kelp.


A newly weaned Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina) pup resting in kelp beds off Battleship Island.

There are few Heerman’s Gulls around but the alcids increase in numbers. Only Purple Martens and Barn Swallows are left of their kind. I haven’t seen a warbler besides Yellow-rumpeds in weeks. Mre and more Calidrissandpipers are around and I saw a large group twisting over the low points of Henry Island near Open Bay.

8/25 – As things slow in work I have more time to enjoy these islands and have more pleasant conversations with people while paddling (as opposed to herding cats). My favorite tree here is the Pacific Madrone and it catches everyone’s attention with peeling red bark exposing vibrant green within (an adaptation that allows them to endure periods of drought by photosynthesizing through their bark). They’re less showy in bark now, instead they are exploding with orange-red berries. These are pretty alone but they bring an aural element to their show. Birds love the fruit and robin along with many other birds including Northern Flickers are going nuts in the trees around Roche Harbor. It’s certainly a nice talking point because even the dullest of guests notices the cacophony coming from the trees.


A Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) at Lover’s Leap on Stewart Island.

8/29 – If you’ve got a dock in the San Juans, River Otters will likely visit. I’m glad I don’t one. I can remain a complete fan of their cavorting and avoid distaste in their weaselly funk and habit of using docks as a latrine for their fishy wastes. It’s foul to say the least and today I was rounding the corner of a dock on Pearl Island when I was pummeled with the scent and caught 9 otters as they scurried from an overturned skiff, surely left in preparation for the winter. Instead they created a home for stinky water weasels. I couldn’t help but laugh in applause; the house that belonged to the dock was particularly gaudy.

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