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Weekend Reading | July 2016 Edition

Welcome to the weekend and here’s another installment of weekend reading for you. It seems like every time I do this, the list of articles I want to include gets longer. What can I say? I like reading about natural history and current events surround nature. I hope you enjoy my curated list below.

Every May I (try to) go to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to visit old friends and a beautiful place. When it was under bombardment from a gaggle of morons this past winter my friend Dan Barton wrote three pieces about Malheur area, focusing on its personal significance and history. There’s three parts, read them in sequence and in one sitting. Much of the press about the area wasn’t from people very familiar with the location, this is very different and well done.

On that note, some people really want to get rid of public, federal land. They’re insane, greedy, and they have power. It’s scary as hell.

As we discuss federally held lands (ie OUR land), we should always keep in mind that we weren’t the first people here. This piece is worth a read, because horrible things have happened to make our federal lands (and not to cattle ranchers). While nothing new, it’s a good thing to consider in tandem with our celebration of the National Park Service centennial.

In Malaysia, they’ve created a new marine park, which presumably protects a million hectares of marine habitat. However, they’re still allowing commercial fish harvesting and there’s a lot unanswered in terms of real conservation efforts there. And along the lines of the piece above, I worry what it means for the people that have lived there traditionally. I never really got to see or meet the Bajau, or sea gypsies that live in this area of Sabah in Borneo, but I don’t know that tourism will help them. More than likely it will continue to marginalize their way of life. However some protection is probably better than none for our tropical seas, whose health the Bajau rely on.

While we worry about extinction, even tracking the extinction of birds we never really knew were there, an extremely rare bird was rediscovered; and found to be extremely rare.

It’s very difficult to cover all your bases in research. Many bird population studies don’t do a good job of looking at species across their seasonal gradients, most focus only on their breeding season. Two new studies, one looking at wintering birds, suggest that a third of all North America are in decline, and that without action they could face extinction. It’s scary to think I could witness the loss of so many species within my lifetime. (I was, however, proud to see a fellow I know quoted in the article).

I keep coming back to the notion that we need more general natural history study. What do we do with this? How do we fix it? We just don’t pay enough attention, especially to dragonflies.

As if in response to the outcry for more natural history studies, the National Science Foundation decided to not take away funding for natural history collections completely. They’re just taking some money away, you know, because studying dead animals doesn’t typically create billion dollar drugs.

We try to get rid of fat, which the weekends seem to bring more of. Birds need fat, and it seems that having excess fat when arriving on breeding grounds is beneficial and may be a tactic for success in songbirds.

As every new AOU supplement is passed lately, it seems I gain a life bird or two. This year is no different; I have now seen four species of scrub-jays. Do I get to count Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay even if it’s been a few years since I’ve seen one? I love this stuff, even if lumping and splitting can seem pedantic.

Have a great weekend everyone!

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Navigating the Nisqually

I’ve always appreciated the language we use to describe rivers. They bend and stretch. They have a reach and run. They carry things. Really, they’re alive.

Not too long ago it occurred to me I’d never seen a wild, major river. What a thought. Thinking about all the rivers I’ve sat beside, floated on, or dipped into, and I still can’t come up with one I can verify was unfettered by dams. People are good at making rivers lay down flat and giving them collars. Sit. Stay. Fetch.

For all the time I’ve spent at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, I’d never been on the water. I’ve found an interest in rivers lately and this prompted a day kayaking trip here with a good friend. We were looking for an alternative to a multi-day trip that injuries and work had postponed. He wanted to paddle and explore. I also wanted this, but I had an ulterior motive, I wanted to do some birding at the same time.

The refuge sits right up against Interstate 5, which, for those who don’t know, is the major freeway that runs between Canada and Mexico on the West Coast of the US. If you told me this as a first time visitor, I’d probably wrinkle my nose, as if you told me I had to spend the day at the mall. However, proximity to the freeway does surprisingly little to dampen the exciting things at Nisqually.

The main focus of the refuge is on the river delta, the estuary where 80 some mile long Nisqually hits the Puget Sound a few miles North of Olympia. I would never call this area wild, because it’s heavily altered, the site of a large farmstead which created a series of dikes to take advantage of the heavenly soil. Later, we “restored” the habitat by ripping out the dams. You’d think all this disturbance would deter wildlife, but boy does this place teem with life.

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The veiw from a boat on McAllister Creek.

We put in at Luhr Beach, a public water access and site of the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, facing the refuge from the South. Despite the gray day, it felt like spring with the constant chortling of Purple Martin and their smaller cousin Tree and Barn Swallows. As we headed out in our boats, I could hear more birds singing nearby and was happy to find that many of the neotropical migrants I wait expectantly for every year were back.

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My paddling companion.

McAllister Creek drains out on the South side of the Refuge and we decided that with the tide still coming in, we might as well explore its reaches. Immediately I was struck by the banks of mud that dropped three feet into the water, something I’d never seen from a boat in Western Washington. They were hollowed out, pock marked from a metropolis of tens of thousands of small crabs that live on the shoreline. More and more birdsong echoed from the forests cliffs to our right as we paddled. A few Spotted Sandpipers bobbed along the mud to our left, scattering with anxious calls as we came their way. Harbor seals popped up in the wider sections and a lone river otter played hide and seek with us as the creek narrowed.

I was fascinated by how far up the creek I saw evidence of the estuary. Where I’d expect only freshwater plants, the banks crowded with willows, rockweed, a common brown algae in the genus Fucus, drooped heavy from the banks. When we passed beneath the Interstate, it occurred to me that this must be one of the few places on the entire length of I-5 where barnacles grow on the supports of the overpasses.

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The interstate overpass. Note the distant Cliff Swallow in the image.

Besides the din that increased as we moved closer to the freeway, things started to change on the creek. It became channelized, with armored banks. The plants transitioned from mostly native to a profusion of weeds running up the bank. Fewer birds were nearby, except the Cliff Swallows, which nest in large colonies beneath the several places where roads cross over the creek. This proximity to constant disturbance I found odd. Paddling and thinking on it, I supposed that Cliff Swallows might nest in naturally noisy places anyway, like nearby a waterfall. Maybe the freeway might not be that bad? Yeah, right.

Equally at odds with the din of semi compression breaks and roaring engines was the history of the creek I was sitting on. In 1854, it was known as Medicine Creek by settlers, She-nah-num to the various tribes in the area, and it was the site of a historic treaty between the United States of America and nine tribes and bands of Native Americans in this part of the world. If it were not for this treaty, the land that was once farmed, later becoming the refuge I was here to visit, and the freeway, which was carrying travelers, commuters, and the like, might not have been. In an idyllic world, the Treaty of Medicine Creek would have cemented the rights of the tribes involved. Instead it sent them off to reservations on poor land, often away from the places they’d relied upon for livelihood. Despite the treaty (and many others like it across the West) offering to uphold traditional hunting and fishing grounds, these rights were almost universally ignored. The Nisqually and others like them, who’d lived lives moving through the landscape in response to seasons and available resources, were strongly encouraged to farm instead of relying on traditional resources, like salmon. The fish now belonged to the state. Some of the tribe did farm, and some were successful enough. Others, including the man who Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is now named for, Billy Frank, Jr. would not stand down in the face of opposition to their right to fish for salmon for survival.

Frank, a member of the Nisqually Tribe, was arrested over 50 times during the course of his activism on fishing rights. By activism, I merely mean exercising his right to fish in the estuary and fishery his ancestors used for thousands of year. Thankfully, by 1974, district court judge George Hugo Boldt ruled in favor of area tribes against the State of Washington. This gave 20 treaty tribes joint management of the salmon in Western Washington and reaffirming the right to harvest half of all the salmon that flow through our waters. Billy Frank, Jr. became the first Fisheries Manager for the Nisqually Tribe.

I’d never suggest that any of this makes up for the land grabbing, racism, and destruction of natural resources the tribes in Western Washington have endured. In my mind, all these things, add up to genocide. However, what we have today: a refuge renamed after a member of a tribe who fought for their rights, and won, well, I feel about as good as I can about that.

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More of the gray day and the delta.

We came out of the creek, feeling the water’s confusion of incoming tide mingling against perpetual outwash. Both of us wanted to drift into the flooded area that the farm dikes formerly held away from saltwater, but it was off limits. I may ignore some legal suggestions, but Fish and Wildlife officers have made it clear they aren’t worth messing around with, and I know my caring about birds more than the average person doesn’t give me to right to trample all about. Birds need space away from birders as much as other people. So, we headed toward the river.

Stretching for a moment on the outer mud banks, I peaked my head over the grassland sitting mere feet above the water. Even in a lonely little patch, an island away from the main, I could hear a Savanna Sparrow’s song, reminding me of a tiny sprinkler head. Caspian Terns screamed like pterodactyls over the flats, and I watched them dive out where the water was deeper, toward the former site of Fort Nisqually near DuPont, Washington.

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An immature Bald Eagle that was startled when we rounded a bend in the flats.

Fort Nisqually was the first European settlement descent along Puget Sound. The Hudson’s Bay Company needed a midway point between Fort Vancouver and Fort Langley and in 1833 Achibald McDonald came with Dr. William Fraser Tolmie to build a permanent fort there. The Hudson’s Bay Company may have been the leading edge of the storm of manifest destiny, but I enjoy thinking of Tolmie’s explorations in a largely unfettered Puget Sound. Those who enjoy plants in the Pacific Northwest will recognize the name, because Tolmie was not only the Chief Factor of the Fort and later a prominent politician in Victoria, BC, but a botanist whose name is affixed to several plants, including Tolmie’s onion.

Back in the present, we’d reached the mouth of the river and took another break. The grass grew thick on the banks, but the hint of saltwater was still there in the form of more rockweed. We watched swallows gathering in great clouds overhead and enjoyed a fantasy of being on a wild river delta away from it all.

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Rockweed growing well into the mouth of the Nisqually River.

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The high bank of the river and a Barn Swallow. I could have sat here all day.

Paddling upriver, into the noise of the interstate again, we hid in the shadows of the current and took breaks from the steady push of the Nisqually. The river is born from the flowing ice of the Nisqually glacier which creaks down from Mt. Rainier. When I was very little, I didn’t quite understand, that when we talk about river sources, that doesn’t mean the water in the river only comes from one place. Of course there are tributaries that make the Nisqually’s flow so substantial, but in my young mind this misunderstanding made the process of glacier to river seem even more outlandish. And when you see the Nisqually glacier, even in it’s diminished form today, it’s easy to believe that it could feed the delta on its own.

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Sea grass never stops moving.

I wondered what our paddle would have been like if the Nisqually wasn’t tamed at La Grande and Alder Dams upstream. As it was, we had to hide from the current in places. My boat was slightly less sleek, so I needed a few more breaks. A good excuse to drink in the sounds of newly arrived migrant songbirds and to watch a pair of Cinnamon Teal peel around a bend in the river.

As we moved along, the willows dotting the bank gave way to more and more venerable trees. First only Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) stuck tall above the banks. This was a tree I have given little time to over the years and which I’ve only just started to notice. I suppose this is a result of growing up in a place dominated by conifers. This blinded me to many interesting trees over the years, including these ash trees, here at the Northern end of their range. Oregon ashes are dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. According to my meticulous research (ahem *wikipedia*), only 6 percent of flowering plants are thus divided, which means this system of reproduction is fairly uncommon.

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Cottonwood, maple, alder, ash, willow. A nice array of the deciduous trees that grow on the Nisqually.

Another dioecious tree started to tower over all else as we got closer still to the freeway. Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) stood tall and beautiful above the big leaf maples and red alders in the midstory. Somewhere back in there was a female tree called “Nisqually-1,” the first Black Cottonwood to have its genome sequenced. She didn’t do this out of vanity, black cottonwoods are an ideal a model species because of their quick growth and economic worth. So some folks took a sample and had it sequenced, hoping to better understand it’s genetics. This was the first time any tree, individual or species, had its genome sequenced.

We didn’t make it much further beyond where the green bridge of I-5 crossed over the river. At a sand bar just on the other side we took a break. I found the delicate paw prints of mink that had coursed the bank and the larger, oddly human like tracks of a raccoon. We’d seen one swim across the entire width of the river earlier, presumably startled by our presence. We were just as startled to see one swimming hard against the pull of the river.

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Mink tracks.

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Looking downstream to the green bridge, where I-5 crosses the Nisqually.

Pushing just around the bend, the current got too tough and we had to turn. As we did, a father and son come by in a speeding boat, zipping upriver. If I had to guess they were members of the Nisqually tribe, which now calls large sections of the river home (after being pushed off their land a second time in 1915 by the army, making way for Fort Lewis). They’d obviously been out fishing and I thought of Billy Frank, Jr and his legacy as we turned and followed the current out.

I’d known the mud flats of the Nisqually delta, teeming with life and a vital part of the ecosystem, were not far beneath the water when we’d passed by the first time. Now I saw that they were just inches below the surface. An entire sand bar we’d not seen before was exposed and covered in dozens of harbor seals, unsure about our sudden appearance, glancing nervously our way. Somehow Dan managed to skirt over the veneer of water, but I was too heavy and had to get out and walk. At the end of a 14 mile paddle, it wasn’t my first choice to slog across a mud flat.

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The outer reaches of land at the refuge. Also where I had to get out and walk.

After I finally got back in my boat, I was ready to be done. Still only a few inches above the mud, our boats startled some small starry flounder, presumably trying to escape the shadow they expected was a predator. Instead they bonked into our boats, flipping across our bows and even smacking into us a few times. This made me chuckle all the way back to the landing, even if it probably wasn’t very funny for the fish.

We got out, stretched out legs, and looked back at where we’d been. The Nisqually has always been a place I admired, but seeing it from the water gave me a new understanding. Now, thinking back to this paddle, I realize I need to go again and see more and explore as many angles as possible. Though I’m always raring to get out and explore new lands and see new birds, every local excursion these days seems to bring me round to an important notion: there’s no place like home.

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A happy naturalist.

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Adventure in the Olympic Wilderness

I stare across at the mountains often; seeing adventure, seeing wilderness, seeing an escape from traffic. The jagged horizon of the high places, seen from the East, looks pasted up, a green screen across the water. Crossing the inland see between us, the surreal aspect doesn’t abate, instead intensifying the further you go. I don’t know every parkland nor stretch of coastline, but I know the Olympic Peninsula holds untold treasures. If I’m so lucky as to spend the rest of my life in Washington, I plan to see a great deal more.

My girlfriend, Caitlin, and I made a bucket list about a year ago. A haphazard list jotted in one of my many simultaneously running notebooks. I added permanence by recreating it on nicer paper, inked with illustrations of the modest goals we set for exploration as a couple. She framed it, and it sits by the windowsill in our bedroom, with the Olympics and their nearly permanent layer of clouds floating in the background.Brendan_McGarry_160209_00003

I’m very familiar with bucket lists; mine mostly involve birds or nature. I’ve been making them all my life, as I assume most other birders, naturalists, and outdoors people do. Some are grandiose. Some are simplistic. Very rarely do you get to simultaneously plunk several in the proverbial bucket. By heading to the Pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula on an opportunistically rain free weekend, we kicked a few of these coupled goals off the list.

In many ways the Olympics are a wilderness surrounded by enemies. Humanity gobbles greedily from all angles, while the elements fling off anything not properly secured. In David Moskowitz’s book Wolves in the Land of Salmon, he describes what it would take for wolves to reestablish in the Olympics. Unlike other of the wild spaces they’ve found their way back into, welcomed or not, the Olympics are distinctly shut off. Water, major highways, and miles and miles of quiet, but not empty rural farmland and stagnant factory forests stand in the way. It seems essentially impossible and was a reminder for me how isolated the Olympics are, no matter their size.

This is also what makes them so special, that we didn’t stride up into the mountains and cut everything. The Olympics, of scraped together marine rock, pushed up by colliding plates, and mangled together by time and pressure, have stood against many a test. When I look across at the Olympics, I not only see National Forest, but a National Park which is 95% designated Wilderness, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a United Nation’s Biosphere Reserve. Glaciation, the sculptor that has further chiseled the Olympics, also molded its flora and fauna. Thousands of years in isolation, a sky island above water and ice, the Olympics had species that held on that in evolutionarily short, but strikingly cold isolation. They became endemic, stranded from relatives across on Vancouver Island and in the Cascades.

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A dark grey day on the coast.

Not every one of my trips has to be about endemic species though; we merely wanted to visit the park and camp by the beach away from people. A pretty short order, considering it was April in the wettest place in the Lower 48. If we saw gray whales or sea otters or the odd seabird, great. If we saw few people, even better.

The journey to Third Beach from Seattle was made by car, the only way we could make full use of a three day weekend. Driving there, you curve through endless Douglas firs, monocropping interspersed with former resource towns being revitalized by tourism and a renewed urban interest in rural traditions. Regardless, the trees and water are beautiful and by the time you slip through the rainshadow land of Sequim and Port Angeles, you’re used to beauty paired with destruction. Almost enough to stomach the former clear-cuts on publicly owned forest land between you and the coast. Until the very last moment, regardless of the signs directing you there, there’s few clues of your adjacency from virgin old-growth forest and National Park land.

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A Pacific trillium along the trail.

Trotting down to Third Beach doesn’t feel like you’re entering a wilderness area, which you are. Nor does it feel like an epic adventure waits at the other end, which I blame on the digital world. There you would be led to understand that adventure is only for gopro adorned athletes screaming through chartreuse rainforest or climbing vast peaks. The Sitka spruce and Western hemlock forest is beautiful, if slightly unremarkable from the perspective of a mossybacked local. We walked past lots of banana slugs, all an off-putting yellow, the color you’ve had to pull out of grass with an inside out plastic bag after a dog. We stopped to admire trilliums, brilliant white blooms against a backdrop of brown and green. We plodded down the gentle trail to until we could first hear, and then smell the ocean. This was a quiet weekend adventure, and indeed we were entering the wilderness.

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Our first camp site at Third Beach.

I really wanted to see gray whales. As the first wild cetacean I remember seeing, they hold a special place in my heart. Setting up camp at Third Beach, crowded in with other people above the high tide line, I kept glancing out to sea. The number of people around, both day hikers and campers, made it feel like we were car camping with a gaggle of idiots in a state park; everyone seemed ill-prepared and had garbage strewn about their spots. Trying to ignore this by looking out to sea, I spotted sea otters and a Steller sea lion, and thankfully the constant noise of the waves drowned out our neighbors. Settling into our little camp, we snuggled down for an evening of the restless ocean crashing against the sand and the tree tops brushing together in the breeze.

According to the Wilderness Act, the definition of said designated areas is as follows:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

I bring this up because Olympic National Park has 1369.9 square miles of Wilderness Area. Mt. Rainier National Park has 357. The North Cascades, second largest in Washington has 991.5. Many Wilderness Areas abut one another, so in reality, the complex of various lands in the North Cascades really is the largest spread. But Olympic, with six other such spaces abutting it, makes up one of the largest wild spaces left in the state, including the only significant marine wilderness as well. Where we camped, we looked from Olympic Wilderness, here a narrow band along the coast, roughly between the Makah and the Hoh Reservations, into the Washington Islands Wilderness, which spans from Cape Flattery South to Kalaloch.

Part of me wondered how much we were fooling ourselves with this designation here on the coast, or anywhere else. Largely inaccessible, of course it makes sense that we’d put it aside as such. I’m not arguing against Wilderness Areas. Instead, considering where these places are and why. We were in one of the few that didn’t begin after climbing several thousand feet into the mountains. The Olympics, with their constant rain meant that the land wasn’t gobbled quite as quickly by civilization, so one can hike large swathes of river bed, like along the Queets to the South and not be constantly reminded of people. However, things are missing and that makes me wonder about our definition of wilderness, it’s not completely wild. The gray wolf is gone. Other predators are much diminished. We introduced mountain goats. Countless invasive plants are here. The lakes are stocked with non-native trout, which diminish riparian diversity. The big trees aren’t as widespread as they should be.

When we woke up, it was to a gray morning with a lot of campers nearby. At 10pm, a group had stumbled mere feet from us and set up shop, talking loudly and clinking beer bottles. These neighbors and others had even more trash from the previous revelries strewn about the shoreline. This didn’t feel much like adventure, nor much like wilderness. It was time to get going.

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“You said there wasn’t much elevation gain.”

Heading South we had to first summit Taylor Point, which involved a series of rope ladders and steep steps. We felt fortunate to find ourselves here on a dry weekend, because the climb wouldn’t have been nearly as pleasant in the mud. At the top, we found ourselves in a pleasant Sitka spruce forest, glowing green, sprinkled with the songs of elfin Pacific Wrens. We didn’t see another soul until we reached the other side and descended to beach once more.

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Heading toward Strawberry Point.

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This purple ochre sea star looked like it was taking a dip in a hot tub.

Being a Sunday, we expected to see people mostly leaving and after jumping about slippery rocks, looking at the low tide’s offerings, people started trickling by. By the time we’d crossed several more beaches, crawled around a boulder strewn cape barely above the tide line, and made it to Strawberry Point, the movement had slowed. Everyone wanted out at low tide, and we expected to see almost no one else.

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The typical view of the coast here.

This section of coast is rugged. Hundreds of craggy islands with tufts of vegetation and barely exposed reefs span the shoreline. As a result, there’s always something catching your eye out in the water, and I continued to think I was seeing something other than a wash rock below the surface. As we hiked, my head was constantly on swivel for exciting developments.

Bird life was surprisingly sparse. Only a few gulls, cormorants, and the odd scoter or grebe were off shore. This was a bit of a birding shoulder season, before the Pacific Flyway heats up with travelers, and after many wintering seabirds have sped off to breed elsewhere. I am always listening for birds, so the constant din of the ocean made that difficult. American Robins were the only species not in short supply, and they seemed to have the beach divided in territories, foraging for tasty marine invertebrates in the tide wracks. Northwestern Crows (or American, I’m not here to argue), in small family groups were also busily flipping things about and hopping away from objects of uncertainty.

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Hauling garbage around.

The notion of being in wilderness was again challenged by the amount of garbage. I know this has little to do with the visitors, and much more to do with the way the Northern Pacific currents work, but it still felt a bit strange when the beach is half covered in fishing floats and other boating refuse. Being a bit of a hoarder and a hound for free stuff, I had picked my way down the coast, wondering what bits were from Japan and what were merely from irresponsible locals.

Where we ended up stopping for the night was a camp that seemed to have been built by various visitors over the years. Leaving no trace was a distant concet, with various amenities fashioned from beach detritus and drift wood. We walked up a promenade from the beach to the woods, which was lined with with logs stuck vertically in the sand and adorned with floats. In the forest, a series of benches surrounded a fire pit. Every camp site was like this, so there was no point in seeking a spot that seemed untouched. Besides, this one had a large cutting board that obviously had come from a fishing boat.

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Entry to our campsite the second night.

After a nice lunch in a sun break, I sat looking out to sea, watching for animals, and thinking about what this place really was. Two hundred years ago, the only immediately obvious difference would been the lack of garbage on the beach. The trees and islands would have been about the same. I could imagine a duggout war canoe cruising the coastline filled with Quileutte or Makah Warriors. I wondered if there would have been more animals, perhaps wolves walking the beach in search of food, or many more whales migrating the coastline. Looking around again, the future seemed to be inheriting nothing but plastic, between the garbage on the beach and the outdoor gear we’d hauled out for our “adventure.”

Adventure is a funny thing, and like wilderness, I tend to question it. My personal idea of adventure, like wilderness, isn’t bound by strict definitions. I think people can have adventures within the bounds of their imagination or at a local park. I think adventure isn’t always about extreme athletes, hokey Instagram photos bragging about distant locales, nor about brands trying convince you their objects will breed new experiences in their purchase. The concept and the simple word are used far too often and they make me cringe sometimes, especially after working in the world of tourism. Adventure is getting dirty, its immersive, and most of all, it’s about learning place. People leave their homes, their local ecosystems, to fly off to distant lands to find adventure, when it’s really right there in front of them. At the forefront of any adventure should be a goal to come away with a better understanding of the world and your place in it, which is why I tend to gag when it’s used as a sales pitch or in branding. Adventures are also about respect for what encounter and bringing that home with you.

As we sat, enjoying the solitude, Caitlin saw a lone kayak out on the water. The boat looked cumbersome, the user inexperienced. They also looked to be taking a b-line for our camp. I grumbled something about hoping they weren’t coming to camp nearby and we both agreed this seemed almost laughable. There were miles of empty camp sites nearby. Besides, this was probably someone out for the day from elsewhere.

As I read my book, the boat edged closer, until it met the shore and a soggy figure hauled out of the cockpit. Pulling his boat just out of the waves, he rushed to the bushes to relieve himself. I figured this was reason for stopping, but was horror struck when he started unloading his boat. Now, I don’t hate people, but I just couldn’t believe that this fellow was aiming to camp next to the only other people for miles around. I know a kayaker getting ready to stay awhile, so I ambled down to have a chat, wishing I had the gall to tell him to go somewhere else.

His name was Lief, and he immediately told me he was kayaking to Costa Rica. I took this in stride, despite his lack of a PFD, an extra paddle, his all cotton clothing, and no marine radio. However I was flabbergasted when he told me he was taking it slow because this was his first day kayaking, ever. In my astonishment, I didn’t even think to tell him to turn around, I just nodded dumbly as he said:

“It’ll be an adventure. I figure if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it big.”

I helped Lief haul his boat above the tideline and left him to his unpacking. He had no dry bags, so all his gear was soaked. His boat was enormously heavy, which I later realized was because it was weighed down with a pulaski, a machete, two liters of lighter fluid, and a lot of water from improperly secured hatches. Leaving him to set up his camp, which was fifty feet from where we’d set up on a previously deserted beach, I walked back and related the story to Caitlin. A good portion of our evening involved watching Lief pull sodden garments from his boat and wondering aloud if he’d be a body washed up on shore in the next few weeks. He didn’t attempt to socialize that evening, which was even more strange, but we were fine with this facade of solitude.

My second night of sleep was fitful, unlike most second nights under the stars; peaceful slumbers of acclimatization. Sometime before bed I’d realized that Leif could be out of his mind, and I imagined waking up with a pulaski blade lodged in my skull. Adding to my paranoid nocturnal starts was the wind changing direction and blowing into our shelter from the North. When dawn finally broke, I was excited and happy to find Caitlin and I unharmed.

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Heading back to Third Beach we noticed the lines of thousands of dead Velella or By the Wind Sailors.

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Climbing back down off Taylor Point.

We left early, making breakfast to the songs of Varied Thrushes. Our spot on the beach had transitioned from beach paradise to an oddly distopic slum, the new day showed us the undug feces of previous visitors, and still more garbage tucked into the salal behind camp. While squatting by the camp-stove, I looked into a bucket of seawater I’d collected for dishes and found a deer mouse floating dead. I left it for the crows, who were having breakfast on the beach. We wrote a quick note to Leif with a piece of charcoal on a piece of wood, wishing him the best of luck, but also quietly wondering how far he’d get before he faced his mortality in the Pacific. Then we booked it.

Who were we to judge Leif? I felt a bit guilty for thinking that his lack of skill or proper equipment made him ineligible for adventure. He could have been better prepared, because he was bound to capsize, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t make an adventurous undertaking and be proud of it. The rich and elite who can afford gear aren’t the only ones who can have adventures; this was exactly what I’d railed against earlier here. As we slogged up the beach, peering around at the wilderness and poking at rocks and other beach detritus we found on the shore, I silently wished him luck and vowed to tell the park rangers.

Back at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles, stinking of woodsmoke and perspiration, I mentioned Leif to a ranger. While she seemed concerned, I could also tell there was little to be done. Still, I felt I was washing my hands of responsibility by telling someone.

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What the rain brings.

If I could wish anything on Leif in his personal adventure, besides his bodily safety, it’s that he learns something along the way. He’ll pass through wilderness, but he’ll likely find his learning or experiences have little to do with who owns the land or how it’s governed. This being the Centennial of the National Parks system, I hope everyone remembers our impermanence as species and individuals, our impact on the landscape, and in turn appreciate what we’ve got no matter what we call it.  Best of luck Leif, and happy adventuring.

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Weekend Reading | April 2016 Edition

Happy Earth Week! I hope you found a moment this week to think about the planet we are fortunate enough to inhabit. Here’s some reading for you this weekend!

While I am most passionate about the more  visible array of flora and fauna, I find this “new” tree of life pretty cool. It puts things into perspective for us on our high horses, visualizing something we already knew; vertebrates aren’t the top of the heap.

Droughts and fire are a reality in the Western United States. Although the increased frequency is depressing, they need to be part of our consciousness as we move forward.

However, even scarier than above is this: there are people in congress who don’t think we should have parks run by the government. I’m not saying the feds, the state, nor any other smaller bureaucratic entity gets it right all the time…..but this is fucking scary and needs to be stopped; especially considering that the constituents of these elected officials don’t universally agree with the movement.

Birds are more vocal during nocturnal migration when confronted by anthropogenic light sources. Or at least one study suggests that. I’m not surprised, but the research is interesting.

A survey of professional scientists suggests that more Natural History training is needed in high education. You won’t hear me arguing with that. But will it get me into graduate school?

Now I don’t know how I really feel about this. As the article states, introduced animals can wreak havoc on ecosystems. The idea to reintroduce beavers to improve water retention in parts of California is compelling and could work. However, beavers can have extraordinary influences on a riparian environment and that’s not to be taken lightly.

Evolution astounds: a snake that uses its tail to catch birds? What!? (Also I think this is awesome because it was headed by people who actually live in the place of discovery, this is too uncommon.)

I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of casting appropriate birds for the locale of a film or television show. This explains why Hollywood gets it wrong, but it doesn’t let them off the hook for soundtracks. I shouldn’t be hearing Cactus Wrens in a movie set in Australia.

I’m a birder. Do you think I’m creepy?

This is supposed to be tongue and cheek, but it’s kinda scary how we use public land. Keep that in mind as you explore this spring.

Last but not least, this isn’t reading, but it’s certainly art. Art and environmentalism come together in this piece by a favorite street artist of mine, Blu.

And again, Happy Earth Week!

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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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Weekend Reading | March 2016 Edition

I read a lot of things. And I’ve always thought of sharing the best of what I read here on Wingtrip and now I’m finally doing it. Below are a collection of articles I read this past week. I’m not endorsing every opinion, but instead shared them because I found them thought provoking, noteworthy, or simply fun. I plan to make a habit of this. Have a good weekend and enjoy!

An E.O. Wilson essay where he makes some interesting points, and at times, goes a little too far away from how I’d like to see the future of Nature and Humanity combining. Who knows, maybe we need radicalism?

The rebuttal to the above article. I tend to agree with their measured opinions.

A discussion of saving ecosystems, not just individual species. Some crazy stuff going on in Siberia in this one.

I’ve always found the search for animal language fascinating. A new study suggesting syntax from a Japanese bird researcher.

While a bit dense in discussion of management plans, this lays out issues with grazing on Malheur Wildlife Refuge (and why the Bundy’s weren’t the first intruders on the landscape). I’m not anti food production, but I am anti habitat destruction.

Why identification of plants and animals is a vital skill in biologists and not a bottom rung ability. I couldn’t agree more with this one.

And finally some light-hearted stuff about an old man and a penguin. 

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Wandering at Discovery

Discovery Park is a place I visit when I want a slice of nature and solitude but don’t have time nor energy to get to higher up or farther out. At any time of year I can go birding, get some exercise, and maybe get enough off the beaten path to hear myself think.

However, when the sun shines in Seattle, you know you’re going to have trouble finding quiet space outside. The parking lot full, and it took three full loops before I found a spot. I felt a bit guilty about not biking, knowing full well it would have been the perfect day to get out on my neglected, 3000 mpg steed. I’m pretty good a guilt in general, but lately I’ve been feeling especially so, guilty about where I stand, my work ethic, projects half finished, promises not kept, and innumerable other things. It’s a worthless emotion, and that’s why I was at the park.

Days before this I’d discovered I’d not gotten into a Master’s Program in Wildlife Sciences. While I didn’t explicitly expect to get in, I’d hoped I would. Hopes dashed, I realized I’d put a lot of things on hold while waiting. It seemed like a last chance for a career that might lead towards stability. As I sat in that rubble I realized it was time to get outside, make some art, and get back on the horse. Being in academia after all isn’t a tell all of intelligence and ability, nor the only means of making a living. As many academics tell me, it’s not a good way to make a living at the moment either (but for god sakes, that’s almost everything that’s both fun and legal). So, I bundled up a long neglected camera, journal, binoculars, and stuffed it all into a backpack with my self-pity and headed to the park.

There’s another reason I often seek out Discovery. It’s fantastic. At 534 acres, it’s the largest green-space in Seattle, with forest, wetlands, meadows, and shoreline all open for exploration. From the sandy bluffs one looks down on Puget Sound, across to the Olympics, and south to that bulk of all bulks, Mt. Rainier. On soggy winter days I’ve looked out on innumerable seabirds from the shoreline. In the depths of the forest I’ve found secret hideaways and come face to face with Barred Owls and coyotes. Despite a full parking lot, Discovery is the sort of place that even on a busy day, you can find a corner to yourself.

When a seasoned birder neglects birding, even the most mundane of afternoons can summon up thoughtful reflections and realizations of species not seen for months. It also takes you a moment to calibrate what you should and shouldn’t be seeing. With indian plum and salmonberry blooming and the mercury at 60, I felt I should be seeing neotropical migrants. But, it was only early March. Wishful thinking aside, Hairy Woodpeckers were making nuptial rackets through the second-growth and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were singing their chuckling songs, practice boasting before their exodus to breeding grounds. The twinklings of Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and even a few Hutton’s Vireos kept me company as I wended through packs of joggers, dogs, and families towards the water.

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Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Discovery is far from pristine and unaltered. Crumbling roads course through the trees at seeming random. Overgrown orchards barely peak out from the creeping scrub. Yet, until you see the houses, those beautiful turn of the century houses, standing at the top of the meadow, does it dawn on you that this wasn’t always a park.

The officers’ housing, the decrepit old church, and several other buildings are most of what still stands of the previously sprawling Fort Lawton, established in 1900. The City of Seattle gave the original 1100 acres to the Army in 1898, but by 1938 was offered it back for the low price of a dollar. They refused at the time, facing the depression and having no extra money to throw at a thing as paltry as a park. By 1970 the land was being prepared for surplussing and the plan was to sell it back to the city for the creation of future Discovery Park (which finally opened in 1973). However, this tidily overlooked US. – Indian treaties that promised surplussed military land to the people who lived there first.

Looking at the Wikipedia page on Discovery, I find it fascinating that this last bit is left out. More recent turmoil, over the creation of low-income housing in the Northeast corner of the old Fort, is cited as the largest issue at the park. Ignored, and far more consequential, was a clash between the United Indian People’s Council (now the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation) and sympathizers (including Jane Fonda) who arrived to sit peacefully on their promised land. Their intention was to create an Indian University to teach and celebrate culture on the acreage; instead they were hauled off to military jail. Leonard Peltier, who later became a leader in the American Indian Movement, was among those present and this protest launched a career working with AIM to fight for native rights across the country.

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Seattle PI coverage of the “Invasion”

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Seattle PI coverage of the “Invasion”

The scuffle at Fort Lawton may have been brief and largely non-violent, but it ultimately required congressional intervention. A compromise brought about the creation of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center on a small section of the land. One of the original protestors, Bernie Whitebear (of the Colville Tribes), ran the center till his death in 2000. The center is still going strong. I remember visiting as a kid, listening to fantastic stories, and staring at wonder at the art on display.

I digress a bit, but minds wander when you’re alone on a walk. I found this being left out of Wikipedia astounding (despite being a sometimes vacuous source of information). As I walked, I wondered who would have been better stewards of former Ft. Lawton.

Fort Lawton closed in 2012, but there’s still buildings sprawling about an area of the park overlooking the South Meadows and Bluff. So far as I know, only the old Naval Officer’s housing, built in the early 1900s, are in use as private residences. The rest stand memorial in a Historic District, as old buildings that were utilitarian from their onset. The rather decrepit WWII era Chapel, used to stand outside this district and was set to be destroyed, until locals pushed to have the district expanded and the chapel made a city landmark. Now I suppose the only real use these uninhabited buildings get are from the local animals.

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The Sound from the Bluff.

Pondering the notion of land ownership, parkland, and wild-space, I bent under the long arbor of crabapples that sits at the top of a stairway near the South Parking Lot. The rasping song of an Anna’s Hummingbird brought me back to earth. There’s always one on the edge of this old orchard, abutting the houses and meadow below. It’s an ideal spot for Anna’s Hummingbirds to set up shop, and I could only assume there was a female nearby either sitting on eggs or young already. In 1970, before the park was a park (let alone when it was an active base), Anna’s Hummingbirds wouldn’t have been here at this time of year, not yet having become year-round residents of Puget Sound.

People were everywhere I looked. A regatta was in motion out on the Sound, and the Olympics were their usual gleaming, sublime selves across the water. Originally I’d planned to hike to the Westpoint Lighthouse, but midway through the meadow, I turned and disappeared down into a eroding cleft in the Bluff. The miasma of people gabbing loudly about their lives and the bright vomit of neon spandex was suddenly too much.

Then it was quiet. Or at least it seemed so. Then the other noise, the noise of non-people, the noise of nature was there. The buzz of a female hummingbird collecting spiderwebs mixed with the wind rustle of not yet leafed out big leaf maples and red alders. Water dominated the soundscape. Freshwater slid out of the hillside, picking at the layers of deep time from one side, breaking saltwater lapped at it from the other.

 

An off-limits area, this treadmill of deciduous trees atop landslides is used by high schoolers looking for a place to do illicit things, homeless folks to creeping away from judgement, and people like me looking for momentary solitude. It’s not really a secret spot but it feels like one. The steepness of the bluff and the prohibitory signs are enough to keep most away. I felt that twinge of guilt again, because I was being selfish in this expedition. Just because erosion is a natural process that builds land elsewhere, doesn’t mean one should speed it up.

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Looking back uphill at Esperance Sand and the top of the Bluff.

Walking down the bluff is like sliding through time and away from the city. If it wasn’t for the distant boats and planes, I could have expected a black bear or a coyote (the former being a recent one time visitor, the later a full time resident). And as you head downhill, you see evidence of twenty or so thousand years past, displayed in layers, demonstrating what just one (of at least five) push of the Puget Lope of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet could do. This sedimentary sandwich is what Seattle is built over, but Discovery’s Bluffs put them on display.

Glacial till is a term most Seattlites have heard. This till is the youngest and highest sitting sedimentary layer, the ground up material that was pushed around by the glacier itself. Scaling from finer grain, cement like material, to striated granite boulders, it’s what most of our houses are built on and what we struggle with in our gardens. This ground up material is practically non-existent at the South Bluffs, as it’s mostly fallen away under time and the heavy human foot.

What is immediately obvious here is sand, called the Esperance Sand, and older than the till above. At 200 feet deep, it’s what preceded the glacier, an outwash from the melting foot of the advancing glacial lobe. We see this layer all over Puget Sound, where islands are slowly melting into the water and exposed tan cliffs drop precipitously to the shoreline.

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Lawton Clay being washed away in a creek.

Below and yet older, is Lawton Clay. It’s my favorite because it stands out so starkly gray in comparison to the Esperance. I feel like I could bag it up and sell it to art schools around the city. This clay was formed when a massive lake sat over the region, dammed by the glacier. Rivers and streams deposited fine sediment into it, forming a solid strip of clay and silt. In many places it isn’t obvious because the Esperance Sand has slid over the top of it. Water running between these layers and over the clay makes a nice slip and slide for the sand and anything riding atop, be they trees or houses. Of this, the surrounding cliff-side homes of the Magnolia neighborhood are no stranger.

The final layer you can’t see unless you get down right on the shoreline in certain spots. It’s called the Olympia Beds, old condensed mud flats of river valleys and wetlands that would have spread out over the area before the last glacial advance. Even though this is the layer bearing extinct mammalian fossils, these beds represent what we probably would view as a norm; the climate and landscape when the beds weren’t covered would have been relatively similar to today. Because there’s more organic material here too, it’s easy to date, the oldest wood material found is from over 20,000 years ago.

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Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)

I may have been walking down through time, but really I was just looking around, thinking little of geology beyond the patterns it made. Stopping to admire more salmonberry blooms, I watched a flock of Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees flutter down into a stream bed made up of Lawton Clay. At first they were nervous to bathe, but I stood still and they eventually began to flutter around in the silty water. I enjoy seeing animals let their guard down slightly in my presence, it makes me feel like less of a monster.

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Looking to the Sound from just above the shoreline.

Down on the beach, hulking queen bumble bees, fresh from a winter underground thumped into the blooms dangling from the bank above. Clay spilled in great chunks onto the amalgam of worn rock, smoothed bricks, discarded metal, and bits of organic and inorganic detritus. I wasn’t the only person who’d had this grand idea, but I found a cove to steal away to, set up my spotting scope, and absentmindedly set to eating.

I thought about what exactly I was doing with my life, why I wasn’t having the success I wanted, why I couldn’t manage to support myself doing what I love, and why it felt like I couldn’t get anyone but my closest friends and family to buy into my ideas. I wondered momentarily if maybe I didn’t have any talent whatsoever and I should just settle into a rewarding career hawking outdoor equipment. Even with talent, any failures must all be my fault, because I can’t follow through. And why am I worrying about this when the natural world is collapsing around my ears? I wallowed a bit more in this slippery slope, lazily scanning the Horned Grebes and Surf Scoters on the flat water.

Somehow, looking at them preening and displaying to one another, snapped me out of it. The sun was shining, I was healthy, I was privileged, I had loving friends and family, and no matter what a college committee, an editor, nor anyone else, I knew what I wanted to be doing was important. Feeling sorry about it wasn’t going to help anything, nor get me to higher ground.

So I shouldered my bag and turned to huff up the literal hill to my back. En route  to the car, I ran into a fellow birder.

“There’s a Long-eared Owl back over there, might still be roosting in sight” he said.

“Nice find!” I replied, and thought to myself: Good thing I have my binoculars and camera.

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A Long-eared Owl (Asio otis), not a typical species for the park.

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Some Days You Just Need to Look Out

(Please note that the videos here are not supposed to be professional: 1) I’m not a pro. 2) It’s about the idea not the polish. 3) I’m lazy. I recommend reading and then watching.)

Outside my window I wouldn’t expect to see much. Outside my window it’s never truly dark and the screams of sirens and tall boats hailing low bridge attendants pierce the air. Outside my window I see the city, and even if it is my city, the emerald city, it’s still a whole lot of mess outside my window.

Yet when I wake up, the first thing I see outside my window are clouds and sky. If I sit up, blinking off sleep and don glasses, I can see more outside my window than blocks and cranes. Because outside my window there are also mountains and waterways and islands. Outside my window the crests bloom and contract with the light of the day; in fact outside my window right this very instant a band of light is a rose wash on a wilderness of peaks and snow.

So, outside my window the world is not just hard lines of the grid. Outside my window there’s more than noise and light pollution. Outside my window there’s more alive than people. Outside my window I don’t have to look or listen as far as those dark and light layers of water and trees and mountains.

Outside my window I can hear things stirring, things that aren’t morning commuters or garbage trucks. Outside my window I can hear crows cawing as they head to their territories; just as I’ll see them head home at night. Outside my window I can hear the complaining of gulls, circling overhead out of sight, who rest on my building while they keep an eye out for food. Outside my window I hear a flock of bushtits twitter between shrubs and trees that line the streets, calling to one another so they don’t stray too far or miss out on a particular invertebrate infested shrub.

Of course outside my window there are also squirrels, seen and rats, unseen. Outside my window I know there are dogs and cats. But outside my window, there are not lions roaming the streets, although I can hear them sometimes. Not far outside my window is a zoo, and the menagerie of exotic and rare animals there is somehow a comforting thought, a reminder that I have more to do than contemplate the things outside my window in spare moments as a city dweller.

Birds and trees are mostly what’s outside my window. A crow’s nest, scraggly, possibly waiting for the next year, sits outside the window in the bare trees between the wilderness of peaks and I. Anna’s Hummingbirds will surely be building a nest outside my window soon because I hear the aggressive rasps and twitters of a male. He calls this block his. Sometimes I see him outside my window, hovering high over those peaks, before diving deep and pulling out with a squeal of feathers though air. Outside my window jet fighters that could fit in in my palm duel for sovereignty and break the sound barrier. Outside my window conniving corvids have built tree houses out of found materials, snapping sticks just here, collecting rootlets just right.

Outside my window there are many other birds, robins and finches, falcons and hawks. Outside my window I’ve seen or heard 36 species in total. Outside my window I was surprised to hear an Evening Grosbeak calling as it passed by. Outside my window I wasn’t in the least surprised to see a Cooper’s Hawk lurking in the dawn.

And that reminds me, it’s not all fun and beauty outside my window. That Cooper’s Hawk, she’s around outside my window often. Sometimes, outside my window I see her preening, unconcerned by the crows stooping on her. Sometimes outside my window I see her crouched on a hidden branch, tail quaking back and forth, before she jumps low into the half-light, tilting through the foliage. I’ve never seen her pluck a bird outside my window, but surely she does.

Outside my window there are storms and sunlight. Outside my window great gusts seems to shake the hill my window looks from. Outside my window rain pelts and I can see nothing but a sheet of water. Outside my window the sun renews and drys and glints across the landscape. Outside my window I can watch the clouds come from the Southwest and know I’ll be warm and wet, or watch them trundle from the North and know a jacket will necessary.

There’s a lot of things outside my window.

The reason I’ve told you about what’s outside my window, is that sometimes, that’s about all we have: a moment glancing out the window. I look to the outside my window often; I crave what’s there. Outside my window there’s a whole world of excitement and nature even if much is just on the edges of the city. I know that when I get outside my window, good things happen.

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A River Out of Exile

From where we stood, the wide valley opened into the nothingness of low slung clouds. If brought here blindfolded, aside from a couple hints, I would’ve not known the location, other than a river valley in the Pacific Northwest. The give away was the river below, rushing through a thin cut in a breached concrete damn, the former Glines Canyon Dam. We stood above a point of major significance to National Park and environmental history: a free Elwha River.

I wish I could say I’d been up to see the two reservoirs, Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell, before the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams were removed. Of course, growing up adjacent to many a hydroelectric dam, I’ve seen the reservoirs that form behind them. Simply, it would have had more impact to see the before and after for historical perspective. By March 2012 and August 2014, both lakes broke through the blasted remains of formerly held them. I had never spared a thought to see them before that point, despite the bureaucratic process commencing in the 1980s and the entire process spanning my lifetime.

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Looking down into Glines Canyon.

 

The dams were relics of the Olympic Power Company, which finished the Elwha Dam by 1913 and the Glines Canyon Dam by 1927, providing power to a pulp mill in Port Angeles. This was good for local economies, but not good for local fish. Ignoring the law, the dams were constructed without fish ladders and shut off all but around 5 miles of river habitat to the anadromous fish that had historically spawned in the river (FYI: “An anadromous fish, born in fresh water, spends most of its life in the sea and returns to fresh water to spawn,” NOAA’s succinct explanation).

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Caitlin looking into the former Lake Mills basin.

We’d driven up in a light drizzle through the lower valley, where I expected Elk to pop out at any moment. The corpse of Glines Canyon Dam was something my partner in crime Caitlin and I had discussed for some time. As the largest dam removal project in US history and the largest restoration project the National Park System has ever undertaken, it was worth seeing. The summer when we met, we’d watched the independent documentary Damnation, which specifically highlighted the removal of the dams here.

The site was quite pleasing on a gray misty day, a blanket of dark green conifers above, highlighted with the lingering yellow of a few deciduous trees. With no historical perspective whatsoever, it would seem to many just another pretty valley. Upon closer inspection, we could see where revegetation was progressing up the former lake bed. The river was already starting to wend in the manner of a braided river, a course set by the upheavals of regular flooding. It was hard to imagine a salmon making it up the steep, narrow section of the Elwha that rushed through Glines Canyon, but according to the experts, upwards of 70 miles of habitat, including tributaries above the canyon will be opened up to the five pacific salmon and two trout that historically spawned here.

In reading about this whole process, I was slightly shocked to hear the National Park’s discussion of fish returning suggest that within 20 to 30 years the river could be back to historic runs of these fish. While I am no expert, I found this hard to believe, primarily because the river is just one small (but admittedly vital) part of their lives. How the species in the upper river already, brook, rainbow, and bull trout, will compete is not yet known. The estuary downstream is not perfect and the deep ocean waters are highly impacted and far from pristine. While sediments will decrease over time with the help of two water treatment facilities, we can again only model how we expect things to happen. To me, the slightly educated lay person, it seems optimistic to suggest that a river reopened will be sole driver in population increases. However, looking at a map of the potential spawning ranges with the dams removed is pretty exciting, so much habitat is again available and it appeared the fish aren’t dithering about in the bottom 5 miles.

After over a century of being excluded, in September 2014 Chinook were found in the Upper Elwha. This is testament to the plasticity of Salmonids. In the time that these species have evolved in the Eastern Pacific, countless floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes have required these species to be flexible. While we’ve brought a tidal wave of seemingly permanent changes and impacts on these species and strive try to fix a few, we sometimes fail to have perspective that we’re just a blip on the geological scale; if still a very very bloody, extinction prone, blip. I hope and suspect salmon could be around longer than us.

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Looking down at the former Glines Canyon Dam.

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Taking a brief moment to enjoy the ferns and mossy maples along the way.

Salmon have the power to connect many different people to the land, something well known by many a forward thinking conservationist, but that’s not the only reason they’ve been the figurehead for the dam removal. Salmon are one of a few major vectors for carrying rich marine nutrients across many ecosystems. In the length of their lives they travel through riparian areas, estuaries, and into the Pacific Ocean. Upon death they end up fueling plant growth as corporeal packets of fertilizer and filling the guts of predators, scavengers, and detritivores alike. The Elwha has been a shadow of its former self without salmon.

Caitlin and I were of course convinced of the value of all this of course, as most people were. As we climbed the gravel road towards elevated viewpoints, we twisted around an increasing amount of old growth and dodged dozens of Varied Thrush which seemed to be the only birds about. It was wet and mushrooms were everywhere, a nice thing to see after a very dry fall. We paused, peering down through clouds to think about the good things people can do for places and imagined what the upper Elwha will look like in the future. A might bit healthier it would seem.

At a spot where the bridge crosses the river below Glines Canyon, we stopped to enjoy the view. Sliding down a muddy bank, I got onto the river bed, where great rounded rocks stood testament to the power of water and the diverse geology of the Olympics. Hopping about, I looked downstream to the large stands of Black Cottonwood, sublimely golden on the mist and thought about where this river coursed: below various bridges, through former Lake Aldwell’s basin, and lower still through the Lower Elwha Klallam’s reservation. If anyone, these people have something to be thankful for. All my mutterings about how vital salmon are, about healthy ecosystems, are valid and necessary sentiments, but at the end of the day, these people have had a real reliance on this river and its fish.

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A panorama of the Elwha River mouth before the dam removals.

I’ve only been through the Nation of the Lower Elwha once, helping scope out an expansion of sites for the Seattle Audubon’s Puget Sound Seabird Survey. I don’t claim any true experience here, I don’t know the people’s history well, nor anyone from the tribe personally. I say this because I wish I could speak to the town of Lower Elwha’s beauty, with a river that stretches through it from deep in the mountains, flowing into the wide Strait of Juan de Fuca to the North, but it felt like most reservations I’ve been through. Decay and apathy were the pervasive tone. This isn’t a judgement on the people who call it home either. I’m fairly aware of the circumstances of reservations and I am also aware from perusing the Nation’s website that many of the tribe have pride for the place and its people. No one called the Strong People could be completely without pride. In some ways, it seems silly to think that a free river could bring the Lower Elwha better a economic and cultural climate, but I certainly hope that it does. Unlike many reservations, which in themselves are unrealistic ideas for the indigenous people of our region, many of the tribes on the Olympic Peninsula benefit from being on land that still offers them much. Casinos, gas stations with cheap gas, and still cheaper cigarettes and booze persist, and these lifesblood aren’t likely to disappear. Maybe in the future, they won’t be the only thing outsiders relate to the Nation.

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Harlequin Ducks at the Elwha mouth.

Across on the West side of the Elwha’s mouth there’s access to the beach. I’d been there birding several times before the dams were out and again never given it all that much thought to the site. Embarrassingly, it was just a small river running into a strait, and I didn’t think of the estuary that should be there. That’s slightly scary considering I am a person that should probably have some semblance of a clue, but also not surprising. I don’t know many “free” rivers. There are almost none in the Pacific Northwest anymore, most altered for power production or water management well before I was born.

The last time I saw the mouth was also during the expansion for the Seabird Survey. It was remarkable how much it had changed. Here was the beginnings of an estuary, an estuary everyone expected but not nearly so soon. Even I was able to see a significant change based on my briefest of impressions; this was not change brought merely by storms and tides. Here was a new beach, according to the reports, 80-100 acres not there before, built of silt trapped behind the dams. In all an estimated 60 percent of the 34 million cubic yards have washed out of the former lake beds so far, building the grounds (3 million cubic meters deposited at the mouth so far), for an estuary reborn.

In this estuary researchers have found large numbers of juvenile salmon and trout, which will use this as a safe jumping off point during their journey to adulthood. Two species of adult bait fish have been found here too, species near the foundation for many a marine food-chain, surely looking for places to lay eggs. Birds were everywhere, where before gulls had few places to rest as the sea washed right into the cobbles on the banks of river.

Watch above how the Elwha has changed over time, how it lost an outlet, how it built and destroyed beaches, and eventually rebuilt an estuary. Beginning in 1939; even a damed river changes significantly.

This all seems a grand rebirth, but I’m both hopeful and guarded. Likely, all we need to do is stand out of the way and not meddle any longer (once the restoration plan is finished). East of the mouth, there’s further testament to what a river delta can do, held back or not, and what happens when sediments carried by a river accumulate.

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Waves on Dungeness Spit, throwing pebbles in the air on impact.

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Looking West towards the Olympics and Port Angeles from the base of Dungeness Spit.

The Dungeness Spit, a relic from the Vashon Glacial advance, is growing. This isn’t news to anyone, yet still amazing; the spit growing at around 4 meters a year. Estuaries are complicated and change over time but where the spit sits, it collects sediments from the West and from the mouth of the Dungeness River which empties onto the Eastern tip. Historically sediments drifted from the Elwha too. Off Port Angeles, Ediz Hook, a similar spit is no longer growing because the bluffs around the Elwha are armored against erosion. This slows the inevitable process of soil sloughing into the sea. Over the previous hundred years the Elwha hasn’t had the sediments to build up Ediz Hook. Now, we could be seeing things start to change (as if they aren’t always), and scientists for the Department of Natural Resources are gathering data to have a complete geologic story of how erosion and rivers influence near shore habitats in this region.

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Playing in the surf and drifts.

Stopping at Dungeness Spit, a familiar spot for me as a birder, it was hard to see a connection between the narrow dam far away in that river valley and this 5.5 mile long, drift wood strewn beach jutting into the strait. The day had cleared and we walked out onto the beach, seeing erosion in effect as powerful waves slammed into the bluffs stretching West. We played with the waves, clambered about the old growth drift, watched Dunlin scouring the shore on the bayside, hoped for distant whales on the strait, and looked to the distant San Juan Islands. As day had cleared, it all seem a bit more connected.

There is much to be happy, thankful, and excited for in the releasing of the Elwha. I plan to see its headwaters someday soon, at the Elwha snowfield between Mount Barnes and Mount Queets, deep in the middle of the Olympics. Maybe when I do, I’ll see salmon not far below. It’s an exciting time to be alive if you love rivers because we’re realizing not all have to do our bidding. And after-all, besides a flood or two, what’s not to like about a free and wild river?

Footnote: If you want to learn more watch these wonderful series of short videos about the Elwha’s restoration, the film Damnation (currently on Netflix), and read the documentation of plans and the science behind it through the National Park Service.

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Debriefing with Dolphins

I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye, to mull over a summer past, until I saw it from the air. A great dark mass bulging from the water, narrated by the strong white noise of a purring engine and spinning propeller. I gesticulated wildly at the two other passengers, thrusting my hand down, far below us, somewhere between Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula. The mass thrust up again, this time I saw the trail of mist spreading out behind as it sunk below the surface. This was a whale, a very big whale.

During the summer of 2015, I worked as whale watching Naturalist and a Kayak Guide in the San Juan Islands. However, I wouldn’t call myself an expert at either activity because I respect the patina that time burnishes on your person, and to call myself an expert at whale identification or at kayaking despite having been paid for it, seems to be a disservice to those things I am truly expert at. Birding is one I can solidly stand by. Artistic expression is another. But equally so I’m unwilling to say I’m an expert writer or photographer just yet. Of course, expert or not, this was a formative experience.

The whale below us was probably a Humpback Whale (Megatera novaeangliea), but it’s identity wasn’t important. Simply seeing this massive animal, a sleek form breaking the gleaming surface was an unmatched sight. From the air I managed two more glimpses of it amidst the contrast of clouds and sunshine. The float plane was bound for Seattle, taking me home after spending two days as “talent” for a short video that my summer employer was creating. We followed the sound South, away from my old home, as it narrowed between strait, inlet, and bay.

I felt an immense sense of place in that plane. The land below me was familiar. This was home. Even if I’d never lived on the Olympic Peninsula, which floated by on my right, nor sped the length of Admiralty Inlet shimmering below. Even if I wasn’t born here, nor had roots beyond growing up in Seattle. Globalization is upon us, so if you feel a pull to a landscape, stick to it and cherish it, because few of us are from anywhere anymore. This thought struck me as the dark and light of land and water played past as we jostled South. I was finally saying goodbye to the San Juans Islands as my home for the past two years.

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Southern Resident, L92 with Orcas Island and Mt Baker in the Background.

Just as I don’t think I can rightly say I’m a whale expert, nor a kayaking pro, I’d be lying if I said I was intimately familiar with the San Juans despite my sojourn there. I know a few islands fairly well, but they still hold mystery and surprise along their shores and in among their mossy hills. There are some 400 islands and rocks in the chain and while I know their placement and could be tossed into them blindly and still find my baring, I’ve only set foot on a scant few (only 11 by my count). Embarrassingly I’ve even neglected visiting one of the largest, Lopez, in my entire life living in the Pacific Northwest. I left with a feeling of familiarity, but as always, a thirst to know more. There are more peculiarities of tidelines and high ridges to pick across, and more creatures hopping between islands and slipping between them to observe.

There were many things to say goodbye to when leaving the San Juans. The most special thing was living in a place where nature wasn’t a half-forgotten subtlety while plodding over concrete, but the entire tapestry of daily existence. You are so enveloped in trees and rock and water that you almost begin to take it for granted. Thank the gods I left before I did, because that would have been a sad day indeed. Of course there were friends and farms to leave behind, but it’s not as if I won’t see them again. None of the things that are there are gone forever, but I still miss waking up to the sounds of birdlife outside my window, watching the islands slide by as I took the ferry to work, and even spying a distant puff of exhalation as my boat of eager tourists unknowingly approached a group of black and whites.

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A member of L Pod surfaces way closer than expected near the boat.

Orcas, killer whales, grampus, blackfish, Orcinus orca, or whatever you wish to call them (as cosmopolitan species they have many names) are the apex predator of the Salish Sea. They are also largely what bring people flocking to the San Juan Islands, and why I was able to employ myself doing “fun” jobs for the past two summers there. No matter the fact that kayaking in the San Juans is fun regardless of seeing them, nor that a summer cruise between the stunning layers of spinning water, jutting islands, and looming mountain ranges, people want their whales.

What always surprises me however, in being a naturalist and a guide, is how little people knew coming on board or getting into a kayak. I don’t suggest I know all before I visit a place, but I do due diligence in arriving somewhat informed about the thing I wish to see. These charismatic animals are well worth seeing, taking the breath away regardless of your knowledge of them, but if I spent over $100 on a trip to see them I’d like to come with a baseline of appreciation beyond the outward appearance.

As it goes, killer whales are pretty fascinating species: wide ranging, highly intelligent, long lived, extremely social, masterful predators and yet still full of much mystery. They inspire and draw amazing scientists to obscure corners of the world to study them. They are the banner for many an animal rights campaign. Their image alone is stamped in the public mind as a creature of great worth, never to be forgotten.

On the average day on the water, I talked endlessly of these dolphins, because indeed they are the largest member of the dolphin family. This statement is a frustrating one to a scientist interpreting to the public, especially when it’s a key part of your introductory speech to a crowd of excited participants there to see “whales.” Saying “All dolphins are whales, but not all whales are dolphins,” doesn’t generally aid the concept, but I’ll let you, the insightful, intelligent reader, figure out what that means. There is of course more to these dolphins.

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A member of J Pod breaches in Rosario Strait with Mt. Baker in the background.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), as they are recognized federally, are an endangered population that spend most of their summer in the greater San Juan Islands. This in particular is the reason there is a flourishing whale watching industry (around $100 million a year); this population specializes in salmon, focusing mostly on the largest species of Pacific Salmon, Chinook, which pass through the San Juans en route to spawning grounds up the Fraser River in annual regularity between May and September. This specificity is great for viewing but is problematic for the species.

Salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest are much diminished from historic numbers, with four runs of Chinook Salmon between the Sacramento River and The Fraser classified as Endangered as well. This ultimately means not as much food for the SRKWs. When you are large (bulls weighing in excess of 14000 lbs) and spend all your life in very cold water (averaging 47 degrees Fahrenheit in the San Juans), you eat a lot of salmon. An adult male may eat 400lbs of salmon in a day (a fact I often used to demonstrate why we can’t effectively keep orcas in captivity).

Many people want to blame salmon numbers on over-fishing, which is a factor, but this is a very simplistic view. This fall I’ve been working as a naturalist teaching kids about Pacific Salmon and the ultimate take away is that the life of a salmon is hard enough without us tossing our challenges in the mix. If you ignore the fact that in natural and ideal conditions, out of 3-5,000 eggs laid only around 3 salmon survive to spawning adults; it’s no wonder pollution, dams, estuary disturbances, and the complexities of ocean acidification have caused runs to plummet. Salmon conservationists and orca conservationists have only recently started to work together, and their current largest push is breaching the Snake River Dam in Idaho. (Ultimately I think salmon are a far more compelling species to propel conservation efforts than orcas).

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J Pod near Victoria Harbor, Vancouver Island.

Things aren’t easy for the Southern Residents either of course and the struggles aren’t just lack of prey. There’s strong evidence that the chemicals from our waste water have major effects on their health and fecundity. Blubber that keeps a killer whale insulated also is excellent at storing chemicals, which vent in high concentrations when animals aren’t eating enough and use up fat storage between good meals. Imagine all that birth control’s ability to alter fertility in females and the potential of heavy metals to sterilize males. Vancouver and Seattle are growing, the San Juans are becoming an even more popular boating destination, and whale watching thrives, thus sound pollution from boat motors (quite evident while listening to Lime Kiln State Park’s Hydrophone), has become a serious problem too. For animals that derive much of their social well-being and predatorial skill from the aural world it’s not just unpleasant for them, it’s detrimental. To top this all off, in 1970, a huge group of individuals were snatched from the wild (dead and alive) on Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove and sold to what became a billion dollar industry of marine parks centered on orcas (Thankfully as I write this, Sea World is phasing out these programs). Today, we have a small population fragmented directly and indirectly by anthropogenic means.

This is a heavy weight to hold while you are trying to show people a good time and you can’t dump it all over your guests immediately. Some already come to the boat with grudges against Sea World and human greed, but others are often willfully ignorant or don’t feel the same. There isn’t a naturalist aboard a whale watching boat that doesn’t wish we could shout at the top of our lungs about how messed up things are, but we remain measured because this is not our sole role on board.

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Calf, J51 pokes up near Active Pass in the Gulf Islands, Canada.

Besides the fact, it’s hard to feel grim when you’ve seen the resident population increase. When I started, there had not been a baby since 2012, but by this October in 2015 six calves were bounding about their mothers’ flanks joyously. There are few things more fun to watch than a playful baby orca, the embodiment of happiness.

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J Pod off of Discovery Island, Canada.

One of the things that few people know about the Southern Residents (and their cousin’s the Northern Residents), is that they are strongly matriarchal. So strong, with long lived females like J1 or Granny, (who scientists believe is 104), that we can track family trees quite readily through observations. Regardless of gender, a SRKW stays with its mother as long as it’s alive. By using their life histories and the fact that saddle patches (conveniently positioned on their back behind the dorsal fine) are uniquely pigmented per individual, we know all the 82 individuals and can organize them into three pods which divided into smaller groups we call matrilines (the nuclear family of the resident world). J Pod currently has 29 individuals, K Pod 19, and L Pod 35. (We started studying resident whales in the Eastern Pacific near Northern British Columbia and started there with A Pod and went on alphabetically).

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Male Steller’s sea lions on Whale Rocks near Cattle Pass. At upwards of 2500 pounds, males are still on the menu for transients but probably less so than smaller females.

Besides the SRKWs, there’s another ecotype in the San Juans, the transients. When we say ecotype we mean a genetically distinct population, but not a sometimes interbreeding, slightly differently looking sub-species (I am not here to discuss species theory). In this case, transients appear one a b-line for speciation, and are doing so despite the fact that they may share the same waters as resident populations. Worldwide we distinguish between transients and resident populations as a baseline describing behavior, revolving around food preference and site fidelity. Southern Residents come back practically every summer to the San Juans and surround waters to hunt salmon. Transients in the Eastern Pacific could show a certain degree of fidelity to an area, as several groups of them in the San Juans do. However, they prefer to wander further and could show from Southern California to Alaska, which probably relates to their food preference: marine mammals. This has ultimately led to a divergence that’s driven not by geography but instead dictated by culture that’s centered on prey choice.

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Harbor porpoise lungs floating on the Haro Strait.

While I loved getting to know the individuals of the Southern Residents, their hunting style is lackluster in comparison to transients. Because they hunt seals, sea lions, porpoise, and even small whales, they tend to travel widely, live in smaller groups, be very unpredictable in movement, and put on amazing displays while hunting. I may have frequently told guests I wanted to see carnage when coming on scene with transients. And sometimes you do, like when I saw a bull breach with a seal in its mouth and slam it back into the water. Or the time I watched Harbor Porpoise lungs floating by on the surface as blood bloomed in the water column below us.

 

 

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A younger transient porpoises near the Cactus Islands.

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Transients sometimes play with birds. This pigeon guillemot was repeatedly swallowed and dragged underwater. For whatever reason it didn’t fly away but instead screamed at the orcas bothering it for over five minutes.

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A transient surfaces in New Channel with Spieden Island behind it.

I’ve left out a third ecotype in the Pacific Norhtwest, offshores, because we hardly see them. They may be the fish eating ancestors of Residents in our region but some evidence points to them specializing in sharks (along with other fish). The fact that we know almost nothing about them means very little in the grand scheme of things). In comparison to residents and transients, some of the most heavily studied wild marine mammals in the world, we still have much to learn and no doubt many surprises. And of course, that’s what makes every encounter so exciting.

I can’t possibly provide a synopsis of all there is to know about killer whales and all the questions yet unanswered. For being just one species, there’s a ton of great research on them. There’s also a lot of misinformation and discrepancies in popular accounts. What I’ve said above may not correlate with some information you’ll find online.

As I write about this sitting in Seattle, I’ve largely forgotten about the blustery, wet, bumpy, grumpy days on the water. I’ve forgotten about the bad tips on incredible days (and the spectacular tips on the worst days). The questions that left me searching for a hole in the head of the querier. The almost willful ignorance of others who were self-described “dorcas”. The questions of “can we get closer,” and “when do they breach,” and “are we there yet?” Ok, I really haven’t, but I’ve also not forgotten the many thoughtful people and what should really shine through: which was educating the public, learning a lot myself, and having a damn good time geeking out on nature in the process.

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A humpback whale shows its fluke pigmentation as it dives. This is primarily how we identify individual humpbacks.

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Dall’s porpoise, ones of the fastest and charismatic marine mammals in the San Juans.

I had days where we saw almost nothing. I had days where I stopped counting breaches at 54. I had days where we were surprised by orcas surfacing right next to us when they were last over 300 yards away. I had days where Dall’s porpoise were bow riding our boat to the delight of all involved. I had days where we were stuck, unable to motor away because transients were busy killing stuff all around us. I had days were I looked down at the murky image of an orca crossing beneath our boat. I had days where I could see the follicles around the blow hole of a young humbpack whale. I had days where I saw thousands of seabirds spread out over the open water and realized how little I really knew about their lives despite being a birder. I had days where the sun was shining, the birds were noisy, and everyone was smiling. I had days I hope to repeat in the future.

Being on a whale watching boat is challenging for so many reasons, but ultimately it’s because every naturalist cares so much about what they are doing and about the whales. We got upset when people willfully break the rules and get too close. We got frustrated by the amount of boats that chase around these spectacular animals just trying to survive and realizing in some ways, we were just one of those boats. We got frustrated by how immensely complicated it is to protect and help a group of wild orcas; it being so very conceited of us to think we can control everything, yet that we need to control much to lessen the problems we’ve created. We got frustrated by the people who wanted a sea world show and didn’t care about anything beyond breaches and babies.

Having spent five days a week for four months doing this job, I’d be lying if I said I was thirsty to do it again. I miss the water and the whales and the islands. The changing conditions of the water, learning to crew a boat, and the differences of each day made it truly exciting. Ultimately I’ve lengthened my chain of knowledge about Pacific Northwest natural history. I now have a much stronger desire to see more marine mammals in other parts of the world. And I have an unhealthy desire to own a boat and travel the intricacies of coastline between Seattle and Anchorage.

The-Flight

Coming down into Lake Union.

Back in Seattle, I’m applying for graduate school and trying to get back into the swing of writing and taking photos (that aren’t of orcas), consistently. Flying back, after a final few days working on the water with the whales was a perfect debrief and final goodbye to a formative couple years. So I spent it mesmerized by the play of the water below, just as I would have on a boat, thinking about the scales of our world and giving thanks to the San Juans, my previous employer, my friends and family new and old, and of course to the whales.