Tow Orcas

 

My wife and I had celebrated a small weather break with a stroll along the top of sea cliffs after dinner.

Looking down below us we noticed three sea otters alongside a reef.

That wasn’t unusual, because we see them feeding there on almost every visit.

But this time they were absolutely still, not moving a muscle and within easy reach of the exposed rocks.

That was most certainly out of character!

A glance out to sea provided the answer.

A big, black triangular fin appeared followed by two smaller ones.

Orcas!

Popularly dubbed “killer whales,” orcas are aggressive predators with sea otters high on their menu.

The small pod of orcas cruised back and forth beyond the tip of the reef, clearly convinced their own supper lurked closer to shore, but unwilling to venture into the extreme shallows.

We’re treated to views of orcas several times each year, but this was our first sighting this spring. We enjoy watching them, even as the view sometimes includes successful quests for sea otters, harbor porpoises, seals and sea lions.

All creatures have to eat, after all. But the sight of such large predators in pursuit of the smaller animals leaves us rooting for the little guys.

Spring is a magical time for seeing wildlife, whether in the water, on land or in the air.

Migrants are returning for the summer or passing through on their way to more distant summer homes. Meanwhile the resident animals are busily feeding to recover from a long winter on slim rations.

Conditions are improving for human residents, too.

Kodiak’s brush is bare of leaves and the tall grass is beaten down so the animals are easier to see. Better yet, the weather is warming and it’s a lot more pleasant to be outdoors.

This week’s weather forecast calls for sunshine and at least one day topping 50 degrees.

Isn’t it time for you and your family to venture out to enjoy spring weather and wildlife viewing?

My experience is that spring jaunts always stretch longer than planned, however. You might intend to be gone a couple of hours and return home just in time for bed.

Especially with kids along, you have to make allowances for longer days than planned. Pack plenty of food and drink along with more warm clothes and waterproofing than you imagine you’ll need.

That’s especially true if you’re really looking for wildlife rather than simply going for a nice drive.

There’s a basic rule at work. The more often you stop, the more you will see. With the roads so short on Kodiak it’s awfully nice to drive and enjoy the road, but it’s easy to be lulled into putting miles on your car.

The trick to seeing lots of wildlife is visiting lots of habitat types and staying long enough for the animals to appear.

Their survival depends on their camouflage colors and secretive nature. It can take time for them to adjust to your presence and come into view, and you often have to really study the terrain to spot them.

Sunny hillsides with the first hints of green are the best places to spot deer and perhaps even a bear. If you’re intent on a bear spotting, pay special attention to the high mountain passes and the tops of the alder fields above the road. Mornings and evenings are best; their breeding season is approaching and they can move restlessly all day in search of food and company.

Many folks don’t recognize just how much vegetation bears eat, but they zero in on fresh greenery wherever they can find it.

It’s a bit early yet, but breeding season for foxes is approaching as well.They’re harder to spot if they’re merely resting on sunny hillsides, but they pop from the scenery while they’re moving.

As their breeding season gets into full swing later in May, your best clue to their whereabouts is their call. It sounds like something between a cat squall and a dog howl, high pitched and wavering as it echoes over the terrain.

My favorite terrain for animal watching involves water, whether lakes and rivers along the road or the ocean itself.

I stop at every river, pond, bay and lake to watch for waterfowl.May is the peak of their migration, and you can see them in startling numbers. You’ll also see species that only stop on Kodiak to rest and feed as they move toward breeding grounds further north.

By all means bring a bird book and binoculars.

You’ll see lots of smaller birds in the brush fields and meadows along the road, but they can be challenging to see and identify. The waterfowl are generally feeding and resting right out in the open, and they’re easy to identify with the help of a good bird book.

If I have to pick one place for wildlife viewing, I almost always head for the tops of cliffs along Kodiak’s coast.

You have to stay well back from the edges, however, especially with kids in attendance. The tops are crumbly and irregular and a close approach is fraught with danger.

The best part of the cliffs is the elevation they give you over the terrain and the ocean. You can see so much further when you’re higher, and all animals and birds are easier to spot from above.

Whales far offshore are usually first spotted by their spouts or “blows.” The white plumes can be next to impossible to see from sea level, where they’re viewed against a pale sky. But watch from up high and those white plumes flash like strobe lights against the darker water.

Narrow Cape and Pasagshak are especially recognized for the passage of thousands of gray whiles on their way to the Bering Sea.

They are easy to identify, even if you only see their spouts. Because gray whales have two blow holes rather than one, the plumes are very wide at the top, even heart-shaped when viewed from the right angle.

Closer to shore, watch for seals, sea lions and sea otters, especially around the kelp beds and reefs that characterize much of our coastline.

Given a choice, I usually opt for bluffs with an onshore wind along with the great views out to sea.

Eagles, ravens and seagulls love to ride the updrafts of wind along the bluffs. If you stay low and wear neutral colors they may glide by you at very close range as they study the waves beyond for food and fun.

Sunshine and 50 degree days? Gray whales, bears, foxes and eagles?

It sounds like spring to me, and prime time for wildlife viewing!

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