Bike Touring San Juan Islands- Lopez Island

This summer I finally conquered a trip that had been on my bucket list for a decade: Bike Touring San Juan Islands. Sounds exotic, right?

Ferry Time

It was actually way easier and more familiar than I thought it would be. Though traveling by ferry was different, the ferry schedule was easy to follow. Like a bus on water, the trips between islands are short (about an hour), on schedule, and free after the first ticket purchase (a very reasonable $13.25/person + $2/bike). The most difficult part was awkwardly tying the loaded bikes in the slanted and sometimes crowded cargo area.

Go by Ferry

Tomas and I planned two nights on each island Lopez, San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw.

Lopez starts steep, but then levels out into one of the most bike-friendly of islands. Spencer Spit State Park with excellent bike-camping sites is only 4.5 miles from the ferry dock. And Lopez Village, full of supplies, beer, and ice-cream is 3 miles west of the park.

Spencer Spit State Park

Spencer Spit also has one of the best public beaches on the islands. And beaches bring birds. Gulls of course.

California Gull

California Gull – dark eye, long strait narrow bill with red/black gonys spot

Mew Gull - dark eye, small round "pigeon" head with petit bill

Mew Gull – small round “pigeon” head, yellow legs, petite bill

But there were a couple of small surprises. Like Least Sandpipers. They have greenish-yellow legs (poor light in this photo), and small slightly drooping bills.

Least Sandpiper

And they are usually seen in smaller numbers as compared to other peeps, like Western Sandpipers. Which were also present in larger flock style.

Western Sandpiper

They settled briefly and I could see the differences from the least. Westerns have black legs and a somewhat stouter slightly longer drooping bill.

Western Sandpiper

Practicing peeps. I need to remember to look at the legs. About this point it started raining. But before it started pouring I saw a pretty little Savannah Sparrow in the driftwood.

Savannah Sparrow

And its giant adopted relative, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbird and savannah

Then it poured and I saw two Caspian Terns, but I didn’t stay long to watch them before running for cover from the rain. And that is when I met the wettest chickadee ever.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

It cracked me up.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

So much so that I laughed out loud on the trail and a little girl came up to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the chickadee and asked, “Do you see him?” She laughed and said, “Yes, or her.” Good point.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Also in the flock were Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and Brown Creeper. None of which I got great photos of. So here’s a picture of bunnies by the bike lane.

Bunnies

So many rabbits on Lopez Island.

Rabbit sea

They’re cute, but the introduced European Rabbits wreck havoc on native grassland habitat for meadowlarks, voles, and butterflies. Especially on small island ecosystems. They’ve been a major problem on San Juan Island too, but controlling them is controversial because they are “charismatic cuddly fauna.” From this 2012 article:

“For years, nearly 500 toothy, grass-guzzling, invasive rabbits transformed San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie into what the National Park Service dubbed ‘a moonscape. But the agency two years ago backed off plans to shoot and trap the animals after a public outcry. The Park Service is conducting a more detailed environmental analysis.”

I wonder if we’ll ever learn. Here’s Rabbit Tales, an interesting read on the history of rabbits on San Juan Island.

Tomas and I made it to Shark Reef Sanctuary, a short hike along the coast, hoping for a whale or good pelagic bird sighting, but there were only harbor seals, an angry bee, and a nice view of our next island destination.

Shark Reef Sanctuary

Leaving Lopez the next day, I stopped at several ponds and waterways on the way and found Green-winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Pintail, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Lincoln’s, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and a Black-headed Grosbeak which was the most unexpected sighting.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lopez was a great start to our island adventure! I couldn’t wait to explore San Juan Island next.

Birding Lopez

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Alaska By Land – Denali Part II

We saw five grizzly bears from the shuttle bus on the way towards our unit.

Grizzly, Caribou carcass, Ravens!

Grizzly, Caribou carcass, Ravens!

Grizzly, devouring soap berries

Grizzly in the distance devouring soap berries

Two bears!

Two bears!

Luckily, viewed from shuttle

Too close! (View from the safety of the shuttle bus.)

Intimidating, much? We prepared for such encounters as best we could before setting off into the backcountry.

Hiking in Denali has a few requirements. Contrary to Pacific Northwest training to walk single file along trails, Denali hikers are to spread out, preventing new trails and minimizing impact. Hiking alone is not recommended. And when in areas with limited visibility, make noise. Talk loudly, sing, or call out, “Hey bear!” at regular intervals, so as not to startle any bears. No kidding. This tactic gives wildlife a heads-up of your approach so they’ll (presumably) scatter.

That last tip is probably the worst for birding. But, determined to survive (*and* see birds), we tromped through the thick, brushy alder, and repeatedly announced “Hey bear!,” spoke loudly, and sang silly songs like “99 Bottles of Bears,” “Alphabet-booze-bear-bird,” or anything else we could come up with. It’s a fun challenge to see where the mind goes when you’re hiking for miles over tundra, tired, and talking non-stop.

Despite the singing, I found a few new birds!

I feel pretty lucky to have glimpsed this Arctic Warbler, that was “solitary, secretive, and skulking” in vegetation. Phylloscopus borealis, Greek origin, Phyllon – leaf, scopio – seek, appropriately “spends much of it’s time feeding in the leafy canopies of trees.”  Amazingly, this little bird breeds in North America (Alaska), then migrates across the Bering Strait to winter in Asia.

Arctic Warbler

Another great find was this Northern WaterthrushParkesia noveboracensis – Latinized form of “Parkes’s” (named after the ornithologist, Kenneth Carroll Parkes) and “New York.” The Northern Waterthrush is a ground dweller that walks rather than hops, bobs its tail rapidly, and is a similar species to the Louisiana Waterthrush.

Northern Waterthrush

We saw what is sometimes called the “snowbird” in Alaska, the Dark-eyed Junco- Slate-colored model! (and juvenile below).

Dark-eyed Junco, Slate-colored

Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored), juvenile

Other birds found in Denali backcountry:

American Pipit, a species I once saw by the Columbia River near home, flocked along the Alaskan riverbars.

American Pipit

American Pipit

Gray Jays. Gregarious. And everywhere.

Gray Jay

Olive-sided Flycatcher. I totally recognized it.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Orange-crowned Warblers. Totally didn’t recognize them.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Nor did I recognize this Yellow Warbler, since it was wearing it’s “first-year buffy/brown” outfit. So tricky.

Yellow Warbler

Savannah Sparrow. 

Savannah Sparrow

Wilson’s Warbler (female).

Wilson's Warbler

And, everyone’s favorite, Yellow-rumped Warbler. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler

And because these pictures turned out the best, more yellow-rumped beauty.

Denali backcountry is amazing. I’m in love with the park for keeping it simple. There aren’t millions of RVs, cars, and people obscuring the view. We saw no signs of humans in the backcountry aside from footprints. It’s wild and beautiful (as national parks should be). Bears, snow, remote, and birds? It’s all worth it, keep exploring.

Grizzly prints

Hey bear!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Larch Mountain Part I

I hadn’t given up hope on finding a Hermit Warbler after my Johnson Road trip.

The following weekend, I conferred with BirdsEye and decided to try my luck at Larch Mountain. Funny thing about Larch Mountain, larch trees don’t actually grow there. Noble fir is the dominant species that was once marketed and sold by early loggers as the more profitable timber, “larch.” Hence, how the mountain got its name. Tsk, tsk.

Anyways, my love for abandoned logging roads is growing. I pulled over on the first one I could find.

There were Dark-eyed Juncos trilling.

Dark-eyed Juncos

And Orange-crowned Warblers trilling that sounded like Dark-eyed Juncos.

Orange-crowned Warbler

I got a better view of the MacGillivray’s Warbler.

MacGillivray's Warbler

And I saw some birds I didn’t recognize, like this one:

Western Kingbird (?)

Consensus on Whatbird was mixed, but the best guess (I think) is Myiarchus sp. possibly an Ash-throated Flycatcher (?), based on the pale yellow belly and dark upperparts. I didn’t get a look at its tail and didn’t hear a song. Western Kingbird was another consideration, however, to me the yellow on the above bird’s belly looks too pale in comparison with kingbirds. Toughie!

I was luckier with these flycatchers who identified themselves by song. I propose re-naming them according to their bird song to make their names easier to remember. I saw Fitz-bews, Quick THREE beers, and Tseet pwe-eet tsips – okay, maybe that one should remain Pacific-slope.

Willow Flycatcher

Willow Flycatcher

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Hidden in the trees, I’m glad this Pacific-slope Flycatcher sang!

Other lovely singers on the scene:

House Wren

House Wren

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

There were bugs, butterflies, and birds galore…it was just plain wonderful. Still though, no sign of the Hermit Warbler at this point, so I continued to the main parking lot area at the top of Larch Mountain, where…

Huzzah! The hermit finally came out of hiding.

Hermit Warbler

It’s funny how little effort it took once I got there. I exited my car, took two steps onto the trail, and bam – there it was, perched in the trees less than 5ft from my face (of course, I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to get that shot). I followed it as it flew back towards the parking lot area and I hung out for a while, listening to it’s chipper song, zee-zoo-zee-zoo-zeezee-zeet.

Hermit Warbler

What a sweet little bird!

Tweets and chirps!

Audrey