Friday, April 18, 2014

Orcas Island Bird & Wildlife Festival: A Welcome New Island Tradition

"There he is!" cries our enthusiastic guide Natalie.  We all look skyward and see a sleek peregrine falcon zipping high overhead, silhouetted against the powder blue sky.

As part of the first annual Orcas Island Bird & Wildlife Festival, I'm on a marine bird watching boat tour with Deer Harbor Charters. We're in good hands with local naturalist Natalie Herner and Nate Averna, who grew up on Orcas and is working with his father Tom in the family business.

Here on the north side of the island, a pair of peregrines is building a nest on a cliff above the sea. While I've seen peregrines before, I've never seen a nest site.

But that's not all. Natalie points out lots of marine birds as our group scans the surrounding water and islands with binoculars glued to our hands and eyes. Surf scoters, pigeon guillemots, a few kinds of grebes, cormorants, showy harlequin ducks, lots of bald eagles, and more are spotted.

Naturalist Guide Natalie Herner points out a belted kingfisher in Deer Harbor.

When we pull away from Deer Harbor mid-morning on the southwest edge of Orcas Island, a marine cloud layer hangs low above. By the time we pass Jones Island to the west and are nearing Speiden Island, it's clearing to a sunny day. This is the San Juans after all, which are in a rain shadow and receive less than half the annual rainfall of Seattle to the south.

As we round to the west side of Speiden and slowly head back east, we're greeted by an unusual spring green.  This island is brown most of the year and grazed by exotic European deer and goats that were introduced for hunting decades ago by private owners, Natalie tells us.

Between soaring bald eagles and Bonaparte's gulls (pictured at the top of this post), we motor past clumps of sleek and shiny harbor seals sunning on rocky outcrops. They're checking us out, too.  Someone sees what looks like a pup, which is quite unusual this early in the season.

Harbor seals

I find these guys comical. Just look at those faces. :)

Rounding the easternmost tip of Speiden, a group of massive Steller sea lions are hanging out, with a couple big guys bellowing at each other. Although they are threatened up north in the Bering Sea, Natalie tells us this more southern (Eastern Distinct Population Segment) is doing okay and no longer listed as Threatened or Endangered.

Steller sea lions
After a couple hours, Nate picks up speed and we swing back to Deer Harbor through the Wasp Islands.  Natalie points out a few huge bald eagle nests and a big osprey nest on some of the islands we pass.

Sentinel Island, with British Columbia in the distance.

Osprey nest
Too soon our adventure is over, although we were out over 2 hours.  Nate expertly maneuvers the boat up to the dock back at Deer Harbor and we scramble off to the next adventure (another blog post soon!).  I've enjoyed sharing these few hours with several other birders, most more serious about birding than I am. 

Natalie and Nate, Deer Harbor Charters staff extraordinaire.
Many other naturalist led walks, lectures, and boat trips took place during the three-day festival.  Saturday evening we went to a lecture in Eastsound on Coastal Raptor Research, which was informative and sometimes funny (in a sweet science geek way:).

When You Go
After the first of the year or so, check the Birdfest website for details on next year's festival, which was sponsored this year by the friendly folks at the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce. In the meantime, you can go on trips with Deer Harbor Charters in the summer ahead. And thanks to John Green for letting me use some of his shots.


JoJo said...

I've been thru the San Juans on the way back to Anacortes from Sydney BC. Beautiful and relaxing journey.

jill said...

Thanks for the comment JoJo. Yes, beautiful trip, I did the same trip last July for the first time!

Happy spring!

Carol Owens said...

The lists of species seen by folks here on Orcas Island for the BirdFest was very long, and interesting...shore and water birds still here, spring migration, resident birds in full color courting, hummers aleady fledging their first hatchlings, and of course the magnificent raptors which are such attention hogs. The bird walks and marine trips filled up fast; the Farmers market enjoyed a sunny day for ramblers. Residents and registrants alike enjoyed the BirdFest--another reason to come to Orcas on the shoulder of the season. BirdFest II /2015 promises to be bigger and better; with the added advantage of having Dr. John Marzluff, UDub Corvid expert/researcher/author as keynote speaker. Friday, May 1 thru Sunday, may 3, 2015 are the dates for Orcas Island BirdFest II. sign up early!