Friday, August 26, 2016

This is not a whale blog.

I wish I saw enough whales that I required a whale blog.

Somehow, while back east visiting my family, I convinced everyone we should go whale-watching.  At lunch beforehand we tried to figure out when the last time the four of us had been on a boat together, and I think it was like 25 years ago in our Boston Whaler on Long Island Sound.  It was time to hit the water again.

 Sandy Neck Lighthouse

My parents had been on a whale watch boat before with Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises out of Barnstable Harbor, so that's the one we picked.  I was hoping for whales, but of course I was really hoping for birds.  Pelagic birds.  I had zero expectations until the morning of the whale watch when I looked at the website and realized the boat was heading to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a spot I recognized from eBird as being great for pelagic birds. 

We set sail with a hundred other people (or so it seemed) at 1:30 in the afternoon, cruising out of the harbor into Cape Cod Bay.  We picked up speed as we began to gun it straight for Stellwagen Bank, and after half an hour or so I saw my first shearwater and Wilson's Storm-Petrel.  I took terrible photos and hoped for better views. 

A Northern Gannet appeared in the distance, a bird I had forgotten about.

We made it to the bank and while everyone got pumped on whales I got pumped on a shearwater party beyond my wildest dreams.  The majority of the party consisted of Sooty and Great Shearwaters, neither of which were lifers.

My previous experience with Great Shearwater was brief as it flew by a boat out of Half Moon Bay a few years ago.  I had thought the bird was striking in its minimalist black and white and grey, but looking at the field guide later I decided I was silly for thinking it striking.  Now after spending hours with dozens of these birds I go back to my original sentiment:  this is a striking bird. 

Also present at the whale scene were Cory's and Manx Shearwaters, both life birds.  Cory's turned out to be bastards to photograph despite being slightly more numerous than Manx. 

The cinnamon brown in their wings is so pleasing

Manx Shearwaters were the least common shearwater, but surprisingly easy to pick out with their obvious black/white color scheme and spazzier flying style.  

Wilson's Storm-Petrels were always around, but rarely close. 

Know who the shearwaters like to party with?  Humpback whales.  

As you can see above, we were not alone out there.  A couple other whale-watching boats were in the area, and I imagine our boat looked as tourist-packed as this boat:

Zooming in on this photo just now I found a woman holding a baby more or less over the railing, as well as two yellow labs (?!). 

The only gulls I intentionally photographed on this trip were a couple of Laughing Gulls that flew by in breeding-ish plumage. 

That was about it from my family's Cape Cod whale watching adventure!  It was a short 3.5 hours but packed with so many great birds and about two dozen humpback whales.  Good times!!!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mount Rainier--Spray Park Trail.

On my weekend (not yours) I returned to Mount Rainier with Audrey to try once again to prove that White-tailed Ptarmigan exist.  We had a new location to try, the Spray Park Trail, on the northwest side of the mountain, and so we drove up there Tuesday afternoon.  The only campground nearby is on Mowich Lake, right at the trail head, and knowing there were only so many spots we were eager to arrive and claim some space.
Fairfax Bridge, one of two permitted stops

On the main dirt road into the park we caught sight of a flock of birds.  A quick scan turned up a couple of Evening Grosbeaks among a bunch of waxwings.  We gave in and got out to see what else was happening and found Townsend's and Black-throated Gray Warblers, a random Great Blue Heron flying high overhead, and other things I cannot recall.  Cars were passing us and we started to worry they were going to take all of the camp spots so we abandoned the birds and powered ahead.  We passed about four cars along the way, all of whom had no idea how to drive on a dirt road (hint: not 5 mph) and made it to the campground by 3:30.  There were plenty of spots and we nabbed a couple and made vague plans to take a hike by the lake.  But then George happened.

Ranger George, chatting with our camp neighbors

George appeared in the campground via the Spray Park Trail and Audrey ambushed him with questions about ptarmigan.  He told her he had just seen some.  By the time I caught up he was whipping out his camera and showing photos of a hen with three chicks.  HEN WITH CHICKS.  Screw the lake, we packed our bags and got on the trail by 4:30.  George said they had been at "the top" and that he would not have seen them if the chicks had not been calling.  

There was a misty rain thing going on, and in our determination to get to the top we decided on a "no stopping, no looking" rule.  Flowers shmowers, you're not ptarmigans.  I snuck a few photos here and there anyway.

The hike to Spray Park is three miles.  This means nothing when you don't what Spray Park looks like, and there are zero signs to indicate you have reached it.  We hiked beyond what must have been Spray Park (the last sign was .8 miles away and we went quite a bit further than that).  Up and up, up a million steps gaining over 1600 feet in elevation.  We reached what we thought was the top, an area that looked like fantastic ptarmigan habitat.

We searched all over this area before deciding we should head back down.  The last two miles of the hike were in the dark plus fog which is fantastic for headlamps.  At least there was a frog.

Pacific chorus frog (I think)
By 9:45 I was cozy inside my sleeping bag, ready for a sleepless night.  In the morning I made coffee and we were back on the trail to do it all again at 5:42 a.m.  The amazing thing was that the clouds and fog had cleared quite a bit and we were able to actually see the mountain all morning.  We also decided we were allowed to stop and look at flowers on the way up, and keep a slower pace in general.

Eagle Cliff Viewpoint

Up in the meadows we began to get fantastic views of wildflowers and the mountain and other cool cliffs and things that had been obscured by fog the day before.

Magenta paintbrush for days

We were treated to at least four species of Pedicularis, aka lousewort.

 Coiled beak lousewort (Pedicularis contorta)

 Mt. Rainier lousewort (Pedicularis rainierensis)

 Birds beak lousewort (Pedicularis ornithorhyncha)

Sickletop lousewort (Pedicularis racemosa)

ALL of the lousewort!  And some veronica:

We made it to the top yet again and spent hours scouring the area.  We split up a few times, and covered a hell of a lot of ground, but it was not meant to be.  The ptarmigan were never found.  The only bird I photographed on this trip was a Prairie Falcon that kept pissing off the pikas and marmots with its existence.

There is no shortage of good habitat for ptarmigans and those birds could have been anywhere.  Sigh.

A fog was rolling in and we eventually called it.  As we descended we heard many rumors of a bear (or two) and were excited for a potential sighting, but we missed it (or them).  The thickening fog did not help.

It did make the trees look cool, though, especially towering over a pleasant mossy waterfall.

The last couple of miles we had already hiked three times, though twice it was dark or dark-ish, and once we were not allowing ourselves to stop.  We hadn't noticed all the nifty parasitic plants!

 Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana)

Woodland pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea)

 Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora)

Eventually we made it back to camp to pack up, grateful we were leaving as my new next-door neighbors included two screaming kids.  I think we were back on the road by 4:30.  The day's 10-hour eBird checklist had less than ten species.  Despite the lack of chickens (and bears) and the endurance-testing hikes, it was super fun with lots of awesome plants and flowers.  Good times!!