Orcas and Birds: A Morning to Remember on Yellow Island

By Phil Green, Yellow Island Steward

It's 3:55 a.m., my usual get-up time to record birds. As I lie in bed listening to the beginnings of the dawn chorus, I hear the pitter patter of rain on the roof. Not a good day for recording. I roll over and look to the west. There's a beautiful full moon dropping below the clouds just above the horizon. Clear skies are on the way!

I get up, make coffee and sit in the west cabin doorway with the audio equipment under the cover of the roof line. I'm listening to house finches and a host of other birds when I hear a loud "whoosh!" Then another "whoosh" and another. A small pod of orcas are passing 20 to 30 yards offshore on the west side. Three minutes of recording and it's over. The whales continue north with the flooding tide. I continue recording.

This is the recording from 5:06 a.m. that morning. Enjoy, then read the rest of the story.

I like the recording because it combines a couple branches of natural history that fascinate me: birds and marine mammals. In this recording there are 11 species of birds according to my naturalist friend Monika. I came up with 10. I find it fun to know that even on tiny Yellow Island in a 3-minute period you can see/hear this many species from one location.

For those who follow birds, here's Monika's list: house finch, olive-sided flycatcher, rufous hummingbird, glaucous-winged gull, white-crowned sparrow, dark-eyed junco, black oystercatcher, song sparrow, orange-crowned warbler, Northwestern crow and house wren. Nine of those species nest on Yellow Island and one nests on neighboring Low Island.

Yellow Island in spring. Photo © Sean Galvin.

A day later I was talking to my naturalist friend Traci who told me the whales going by Yellow were the T2C family of Bigg's (transient) killer whales. Traci and Monika both sent me links to an article on the family history — and an amazing history it is. In 1970, T2 and others were captured in Pender Bay near Victoria. At the time, no one knew there were different kinds of orcas — fish-eating and marine-mammal eating. In captivity, they refused to eat the salmon being fed them; they were mammal eaters. After 75 days, one of the orcas died. On the 79th day, T2 finally ate half a salmon offered by another orca in the pen. After that, they continued to eat salmon, and the health of the remaining orcas improved.

T2 and another orca were scheduled to be sent to Seven Seas, but a miracle of sorts occurred. On Oct. 27, 1970, someone loosened the net, threw a weight over it, and after nearly eight months of captivity the two orcas were free again. They returned to their mammal-eating ways. T2 gave birth to several offspring including Tasu (T2C). T2 went missing in 2009 and is presumed dead. However, Tasu has had several offspring, including Tumbo (T2C2). These are two of the orcas that passed Yellow Island on June 9.

T2C2 is recognizable because he has scoliosis of the spine. So Tumbo cannot actively partake in hunting nor can he swim against the tidal currents. The family can be seen slowly swimming with the currents with Tumbo lagging behind. When a kill is made, the family group waits for Tumbo to catch up and shares the meal with him.

We were fortunate to have this family group in San Juan Channel for just under a week, swimming back and forth with the tides. Their home area is near Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Without the "great escape" back in 1970, this family group would not exist. And without the strong family bond we see in orca pods, Tumbo would likely not be able to survive. I find this all quite amazing.

The following photos taken from Yellow Island are of an unknown family of Bigg's killer whales hunting harbor seals in the same area that the T2C family swam by on June 9.

Photo © Phil Green/TNC

Photo © Phil Green/TNC

Photo © Phil Green/TNC