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A 2015 Photographic Year in Review

As an annual tradition, I go back through the previous year’s photos and revisit the experiences past, contemplate the now, and plan for the future. Sometimes I do it right away, just as the dust has settled in the first week of January. Sometimes I take a few months to regard it all. Regardless of timing, here I am, taking you through a year of Wingtrip exploration in photos.

I always feel like I didn’t do much over the course of the year, dwelling on the things that didn’t happen, instead of realizing what an amazing year I’ve had. Before I looked at my photos, I was moaning about my lack of traveling to a friend, complaining that the farthest from home I’d gone was the Bay Area in California. I couldn’t help but chuckle when looking back at my images, I had shots of killer whales leaping from the air, beautiful landscapes stretching across the frame, intimate photos of bird life, and best of all, proof that I had amazing friends willing to stray into nature with me.

You’ll guffaw along with me, when I tell you that turning 30 last year made me feel old. Not in the sense of grumbling bones and slowing metabolism, but in the sense of not having all my ducks in row and being a third of the way through an optimistic life expectancy. That was weird feeling and hard to separate from wandering through natural history and artistic expression, even if they’re only somewhat connected. I suppose that’s part of growing up; worrying about your future (and the future of the planet). After spending the last few months of 2016 working am exhausting job that I have no career aspirations in, only to pay the bills of the city, I’ve managed to scramble back to a place where I can work on the things I love once more. Maybe finish some projects. Maybe regain some consistency. My point is, I’m not old, I can do what I want, and I don’t have to give in just yet. I never wanted to be rich anyway.

But anyway, 2015 was a great year. I met some wonderful people. I saw some amazing animals. I explored the state I am proud to live in. I made some good progress on writing goals while I lived on a farm on a small island. I became acquainted with the natural intricacies of a locale, where I lived through the seasons, without the confounding presence of the city. And of course, I went birding.

So, here’s my favorite shots of the past year. Read the captions. And enjoy.

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I spent a lot of time on Shaw Island, a tiny community in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. It’s a magical place, with great people, several of which I am lucky enough to call friends.

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My co-workers from the kayaking outfitter and whale watching company I worked for during most of 2015 were amazing. I got to spend one final evening with several of them at Turn Point on Stewart Island before moving back to Seattle.

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I helped scout an expansion of the Puget Sound Seabird Survey with this guy. He likes birds, but he LOVES herps. We found this garter snake, at Bottle Beach on Grays Harbor.

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I spent a lot of time exploring (and being lethargic) with the one on the right here. This is at the Shaw Island County Park, the longest sandy beach in the San Juan Islands.

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Here she humored me by climbing up this misty hillside among bigleaf maples and sword ferns above the Elwha River.

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And went searching for beautiful wildflowers in the shrub steppe of Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area near Vantage, Washington.

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Speaking of flowers, I spent a lot more time than usual devoted to blooms. This is Yellow Island, a small island owned by the Nature Conservancy, renowned for its native wildflower array.

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Snowball cactus in Whiskey Dick. A real pleasure to find them blooming!

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I have a soft spot for early blooming plants in the Pacific Northwest. This is red-flowering currant, a harbinger of spring and Rufous Hummingbirds!

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Tiny and delicate, fairy slipper orchids were in little corners of the property where I lived on Shaw. I found this one just feet outside my door. Several days later I went back to check on it. A deer had eaten it!

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Nor the magic of watching them open day to day.

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Another thing I got to do almost daily, starting when the flowers began to bloom, was go whale watching (read more about it here). These male Southern Resident Killer Whales, members of J Pod, appeared out of nowhere in the midst of our boats. They appeared to be playing and kept rolling into each other.

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We see a lot of other things out on the water in the San Juans. Steller sea lion are one favorite. These guys were waiting out high tide at a favorite haul out site.

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I only saw Dall’s porpoise twice over the season of whale watching. But it was spectacular, with the crystal clear waters just over the international border in Canada giving us views below the surface. Several animals rode our bow for an exhilarating few minutes.

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Humpback whales are the largest animals in the San Juans. Unlike killer whales, we rarely see more than one at once, unlike in places like Hawaii or Alaska where they are more gregarious. It was fun seeing these two, surfacing and diving in unison.

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Brother Transient Killer Whales surfacing on the East side of Lopez Island.

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Orcas and the Olympics.

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Possibly my favorite photo of the season, a portion of J Pod moving along in front of Discovery Island, heading towards the coast of San Juan Island (in the distance). In this photo I can almost imagine a time when these animals only knew duggout canoes, and the salmon were plentiful.

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The only time I’ve ever seen the face of a harbor porpoise despite being the most common cetacean in the San Juans. These guys came barreling through San Juan Channel and we expected them to be faster Dall’s porpoise, but instead were a sprinting group of harbors. Every day on the water has a surprise.

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Few people realize that killer whales can be big bullies. Here a Transient is about to swallow a Pigeon Guilemot and drag it underwater. This happened several times. To say the least, the bird wasn’t happy.

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Look closely, that’s a harbor seal face in the front of that Transient Killer Whale. It’s a millisecond from being lunch. On the same encounter we watched a big male in the group breach with a seal in his mouth and slam it back into the water. Talk about unnecessary (and awesome). Harbor seals are about 60% of their diet and what we mostly saw them hunting.

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Oh yeah, and those killer whales, they jump out of the water a lot.

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But, there were other things to see on the water that weren’t mammals. A favorite was watching Common Murres and their young start to show up in Late August, enjoying the ease of warm weather and rich waters away from their breeding ground on the outer coast of Washington.

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The flying football, the most common seabird in the San Juans (aside from gulls), the Rhinoceros Auklet.

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Bull kelp beds can be quite beautiful as well. I spent a lot of time sitting in them as a guide, but I never got tired of it. There’s so much life here, an ecosystem to themselves. Plus they’re spectacular plants, sturdy yet ephemeral.

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A tiny, tiny jelly in Friday Harbor. I enjoy marine invertebrates about as much as I do whales.

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These are Velella velella, a free-floating hydrozoan (relatives of jellyfish), that float around the ocean driven only by the wind. There are regular mass strandings on the Pacific Coast of North America, but 2015 had a record stranding of billions. I’m standing in thousands here.

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Here they’re stretching down the beach at Ocean Shores, Washington.

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One night last spring, I waded out into the eel grass off Shaw Island and found myself surrounded by hundreds of hooded nudibranch! I managed to get some halfway decent photos using a speedlight and a flashlight, while inches from flooding my hip waders. It was an awesome way to spend a night.

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I went to Oregon once in 2015. It was to Lincoln City and Newport with my parents for a quick family trip. A highlight were the California sea lions that have taken up residence along the waterfront of Newport.

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Of course no year is complete without bird photos. This is one of a pair of Barn Swallows that nested in the pump house on the farm during the summer of 2015. They became relatively tolerant of us, but we constantly came in and out of the small room they decided to nest in. I was surprised that they were successful parents.

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I set up my camera with a remote trigger and sat in wait for an opportunity for a photo of a parent coming to to feed almost fledged nestlings. It took forever, but I finally managed this shot.

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Speaking of babies, check out these Barred Owl fledglings on the farm. They were so loud and obvious and we saw them for a couple weeks during the summer. Read more about it here.

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One of the parents taking a break from screaming babies.

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Migration is one of the most magical natural wonders. I love that anyone who cares to, can witness it, and notice the movement of animals about the planet. I got this shot of Greater Yellowlegs on Willapa Bay, Washington during the spring.

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Shaw figured big in my year and I spent a lot of time looking at the species that lived on the farm. Pacific chorus frogs were the most common amphibian by far; the forest rings with their calls and you don’t have to work hard to find one in the undergrowth.

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Part of my week was involved in supporting the farm, which happens to be damn hard work. I’m proud of my friends and their endeavors. These are seedling cabbage in the greenhouse on Old Copper Farm.

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The San Juan Islands are an incredibly romantic place and over the years I’ve taken many artistic photos of them. Double exposures have become something of a specialty of mine.

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A double exposure of sunset over San Juan Channel.

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Mt. Baker was for a coupe years my replacement Mt. Rainier. I love the water, the mountains, and being in the Pacific Northwest. 2015 saw me ever more intimate with them. What more could I ask for?

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