yellow island

The First Signs of Fall

Written & photographed by Phill Green, Yellow Island Land Steward

At last, the frantic pace of summer is over. Once again the islands return to what they are known for, ISLAND TIME. You’ll find many locals in the San Juans expressing the same thoughts and breathing huge sighs of relief. One of the first things I notice is that sailboats are actually sailing. During much of the summer I watch countless sailboats of all sizes motor up and down San Juan Channel. But something about September brings out the true sailors.  

Every Labor Day weekend there is a wooden boat festival in Deer Harbor. A sailboat race around Yellow Island is one of the fun events I get to witness. The following photo is of the leaders passing Yellow this year.

September is also a month of beautiful light. From the colorful sunrises, to the midday fluffy clouds and deep blue water, to the spectacular sunsets, September can be a photographers dream.

September is also a special time for both plants and wildlife. With the return of the fall rains after a usually very dry summers, Yellow along with the other San Juan Islands starts greening up. The mosses and lichens that were bone dry all summer are taking on various hues of green while plants like licorice fern and yarrow are adding their own shades of green as they re-sprout.

In the area of the control burn done on August 28, plant life is already returning as buttercup re-sprouts and fescue starts showing new growth emerging from charred clumps.

In the above photo there is a small pile of crab shells mixed in with the buttercup. Areas of the island that are burned often have many such midden sites. But these are not native American middens; these are where mink have enjoyed a meal of fresh crab. 

The bird life is in transition too. A couple of the early fall arrivals include red-necked grebes and golden-crowned sparrows. Yellow-rumped warblers that nested here are actively foraging in groups of up to eight as they “beef-up” for their migration. Savannah sparrows stop in for the month before moving on. Harlequin ducks can be seen year round but late August, early September is when their numbers start to build and they are seen on a more regular basis. The transition on Yellow is from seeing more land based birds to more marine species. Species already gone until next spring include the rufous hummingbirds and various swallow species.

September weather has a noticeably fall feel to it; the days seems crisper, the breezes cooler, and the occasional rains makes everything seem fresher. I, for one, would enjoy September weather year round. 

Ending with a question: if you don’t know the location, would you be able to tell if a photo was a sunrise or sunset?

Controlled Burn on Yellow Island

Photos & video by Chris Teren

The Nature Conservancy’s Yellow Island lies between Orcas and San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound. For the last 30 years, this 11-acre island has been the site of extensive research and repeated controlled burning to help maintain the diversity of species that require frequent fires to survive in healthy Puget Sound prairies.

This year, for the first time, we had a new dimension to this ongoing research. Volunteer Chris Teren brought in his drone photography and video skills to help document the burn. Watch his drone video below. 

It’s important to note that Chris worked closely with our team, including Island steward Phil Green and the fire team from Center for Natural Lands Management, to safely document this event. Drones have posed real safety hazards to crews fighting wildfires and house fires in Washington, and no one should ever send a drone in to a fire when it’s not part of a planned exercise.

Read more about the use of prescribed fire on Yellow Island here.

See more of Chris Teren’s photography here:

Baby Seals on Yellow Island

Written & photographed by Phil Green, Yellow Island Land Steward

July, the seal pupping month.The flowers are mostly gone, the meadows mostly brown and the east spit is closed to boat landings. So why would anyone want to come to Yellow at this time of year. Well, the weather is generally warm (not hot) and dry and the views are amazing. But the real attraction in July is seeing baby seals.

I generally walk the spits every morning looking for signs of a birth. This can take a couple forms. If I see a pile of fur on the beach, this is lanugo, a body hair that all mammals have in the womb. If it doesn't come off in the womb, then it sometimes gets rubbed off in the birthing process and a sure sign a seal was born here the previous night.

Lanugo and amniotic sac

Another way is to find an entire placenta. It may look a little gross but it's actually a sign of new life, (100% guarantee there's a new pup out there somewhere) not to mention the placenta will be food for eagles, vultures, crows and ravens.

Seal Placenta

This is my eighteenth pupping season and I have only witnessed one birth. Luck was with me and I actually had a camera with me. The whole process lasted maybe 20 seconds from starting to contract to the pup being fully out.

Seal Birth 

I watched the pup grow over the next month as the mom and pup always used the same haulout rock. 

Other seal births I just missed like the following where the pup is still 'wearing' it's amniotic sac. 

There are times when up to half a dozen mom and pup pairs are swimming around like this and something many visitors get to see. And the reason the spits are closed: even when the birthing time is over the spits are still used as haulout sites and nurseries. And just because a pup is alone on the rocks or beach, leave them be. Mom still has to eat, so she's off fishing. The pup stands a much better chance of survival if humans just stay clear.

All photos for this blog were taken over the past dozen years. But I can guarantee any one of these photos could have been taken this year. It's what makes summer special on Yellow!

June on Yellow Island

Written & Recorded by Phil Green, Yellow Island Steward

The meadows are looking very brown with just scattered splotches of color other than a large patch of fireweed above the east spit, small groupings of harvest Brodiaea, nodding onion, and Puget Sound gumweed provide color here and there. A few cactus (<20) did their 24 bloom thing before withering. Seaside rein-orchid adds its white flowers to the flower mix scattered across the island.

Most days on Yellow Island, I upload a bird list to eBird and there are now more than 3000 Yellow Island daily checklists online! Recently eBird allowed uploading audio files with the checklists and the audio will become part of the Macaulay Library of natural sounds. This inspired me to get serious about recording bird songs and calls. I upgraded my recorder and signed up for Cornell’s Bird Recording Workshop held at San Francisco University Field Station located at an elevation of 6000’ in the Sierras June 11-18. The director of the Macaulay Library, Greg Budney, was the lead instructor for the class. For seven days we got up at 0430 and went out to various sites to record birds. It was a fabulous vacation!

The following are some of the recordings of Yellow Island birds that I wake up to every morning. Enjoy! (One of the recordings is from San Juan Island. Can you guess which one?)

Yellow Island Time: Third ‘Peak Bloom’

Written and Photographed by Phil Green, Yellow Island Steward

Early May saw the rapid disappearance of camas across the island but even as the camas was fading new species were blooming across the meadows and rocky balds.

Oregon sunshine, aka wooly sunflower, (Eriophyllum lanatum) finally came into its own after a couple false starts in mid March and mid April. There are now large patches of what may be the brightest yellow flower Yellow Island has to offer.

Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) is about tied with the Eriophyllum for brightest yellow flower. My absolute favorite place on the island is the rocky area atop Hummingbird Hill that is covered with frilly reindeer lichen that forms a nice bed for the stonecrop. The combination of colors and textures cannot be beat.

A third bright yellow flower is Puget Sound gumweed. It appears across the meadows and rocky outcrops but is particularly thick on the south side of Hummingbird Hill.

Three non-yellow species that occur individually or in small groups are California broomrape (Orobanche californica), Hooker’s onion (Allium acuminatum) and harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria). These cheery spots of color brighten an otherwise meadow that is rapidly turning to brown.

When all these species start fading, there are at least three species that have will bloom in June into July. Can you name them?



Yellow Island Time: Mid-April Flower Report

Written and Photographed by Phil Green, Yellow Island Steward

It's been over a month since the last post and a lot has changed. The early individual blooms of fawn lilies (Erythronum oregonum) exploded into large patches of stunning white flowers. This species peaked around April 1 and as of today there are just scattered blooms on the north side of the island. Shooting star, (Dodecatheon pulchellum), also peaked around April 1 and is now mostly going to seed. This is a normal bloom pattern for fawn lilies and shooting stars.

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida), western buttercup (Ranunculus occidentalis), and chocolate lilies (Fritillaria lanceolata) were also blooming a month ago. However, these species have persisted and now cover large areas of the island with their reds, yellows and shades of brown. Again, this is a normal pattern for these species which should persist into May.

One species that isn't showing a normal pattern is great camas (Camasia leichtlinii). Camas first bloomed March 24. The earliest bloom date over 30 years of record keeping was March 10, the latest April 20, with an average of April 4. March 24 is well within the normal range.  However, instead of showing a normal bell shaped curve of a gradually increasing bloom, peaking in late April, within ten days camas covered the island. Already many are starting to go to seed. We have had a stretch of unseasonably warm weather so this may be why.

One other major surprise was the first bloom on Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). The average for Nootka rose is May 10. The previous earliest date was April 26. This year it was a week earlier, April 19. It should also be noted that Nootka rose was one of the species fooled last fall. About a quarter of the roses bloomed in the fall of 2015 due to unseasonably warm weather.

People always ask, well, how does this compare to other years. All years are different but for me, this was/is another five star year. Spectacular! Here's a sampling from the past week. Enjoy!



Mid March Yellow Island Flower Report

Written and Photographed by Phil Green, Yellow Island Steward

It’s been several weeks since the last update so what has changed? While the red flowering currant and blue-eyed Mary may be at their peak now, several other species are just beginning. The first rufous hummingbird found the flowering currant on March 11.

The next species to flower was buttercup, Ranunculus occidentalis. It bloomed on February 14. While this is early for buttercup, the earliest first bloom date in over thirty years of recording was January 16 in 2009. However, that was a lone plant and the next individual to flower that year was two months later in mid March. This points out one of the problems of looking at first bloom dates. Do they indicate the start of the species blooming that year or are they reporting an anomaly? The latest first bloom date for buttercup is April 3, 1990.

February 21 had two species show their first flowers of the year: harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) and desert parsley (Lomatium nudicale). This is the earliest recorded date for both species. For paintbrush, it was six days earlier than last year February 27, 2015 that was the previous earliest bloom date. For the desert parsley, this was off the charts early. The previous earliest date was March 22, 2015, 31 days later! And this wasn’t just one plant. Three individual plants in the same general area all bloomed with in a day or two of each other.

Pacific sanicle (Sanicula crassicalis) bloomed two days later on February 23. This was also a week ahead of the previous earliest first bloom, March 3, 2015. Similar to the desert parsley and paintbrush, the previous record was in 2015. The latest first bloom for sanicle was April 14, 2000.

It’s a leap year and two species celebrated by blooming on February 29: fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) and prairie saxifrage (Saxifraga integrifolia). The earliest and latest bloom dates for fawn lilies is February 14, 2015 and March 25, 1985. For the saxifrage the corresponding dates are February 27, 2010 and April 15, 1982.

As of this writing, only two other native species have bloomed: chocolate lily (Fritillaria lanceolata) on March 7 and shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) on March 11. Earliest and latest for these two species are: Chocolate lily March 5, 1992 and April 10, 2008 and shooting star February 28, 2010 and April 3, 2009. For the shooting star it is interesting the extremes occurred in back to back years. Also for those two species I’ve only found two plants of each in bloom so far.

While there are several hundred fawn lilies and several dozen paintbrush and buttercups, the island is far from colorful. The flowering currant and blue-eyed Mary still provide the majority of the color with fawn lily a distant third. But how patriotic: red currants, white fawn lilies and blue-eyed Marys.

(Unlike the last post, all photos are from 2016.)



Early Blooms on Yellow Island

Written and Photographed by Phil Green, Yellow Island Steward

Early February and what’s happening on Yellow? Are the flowers getting ready to bloom? Amazingly we have a couple species that have been blooming since last November. The strange fall weather that closely mimics spring weather definitely fooled two very different species.


Red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) was found in bloom in mid November. Because I don’t look for first bloom dates in November, the exact date is a mystery. Ribes is a shrub so it is easy to follow individual plants. Those that flowered in in November, perhaps 10% of those on the island, have lost their flowers now. But of those that didn’t bloom in 2015, the first bloom I noted this year was January 30. And here we are on February 13 with most of the individual plants showing some flowers. I always think of the rufous hummingbirds arriving to take advantage of the early currant blooms. However, this year the blooms are too early and the hummer taking advantage is an Anna’s hummingbird that over wintered on Yellow. (That is another first for Yellow Island.) 

Within a month or so the lilies that have already broken ground will start to bloom, tourists will start arriving, and the flowering season will begin exploding in earnest for another year. 



Working in a Dream Called Yellow Island


Experiencing our work on Yellow Island up close

Written and Photographed by Dennis and Stephanie Burgart, Contracts and Conservation Programs Coordinator

I got to experience firsthand our gem tucked away in the island chains of Puget Sound, our Yellow Island Preserve.

On one glorious sunny day I was easily transported to a dream with the whirl of hummingbirds, rustling of the madrone leaves, and the plethora of wildflowers. The trail, which is really a bucolic footpath that Elizabeth Bennett would adore, transported me from one rocky spit to another, while providing salt water views that healed the soul. Nature Conservancy members were definitely treated to this experience the first weekend of May, and I had the pleasure of joining them.

I gave my directions on eating and bathrooms (there are none), and then enjoyed the boat ride. Captain Matt was superb at piloting the brand new craft (Black Fish III), and even gave insight into the names of islands we passed, or a fun fact about them. The flowers were in full bloom under the rays of a gorgeous spring sun, and after disembarking on the beach all of the members and staff strolled the path and enjoyed the spoils of nature. This was truly a day that displayed the meaning behind our mission.

I wanted to get out to this tiny preserve to better educate myself on the diversity of lands we work to conserve, because it is a personal mission to see my organization’s mission in action, and to share it with my husband. We both adore the outside world, and I knew he would love coming out to Yellow Island to show off his photography skills. I love my job!

Exploring the Gem of the San Juan Islands


Our Membership Trip to Yellow Island Preserve - Day 2

Photography by Cameron Karsten, Northwest Photographer

Set amidst Washington’s scenic San Juan Islands, Yellow Island is a one-of-a kind location. Owned by The Nature Conservancy, the island offers unique beauty, an example of conservation in action and an escape from everyday life. Each spring it is bathed in fields of wildflowers, tumbling down hillsides towards the water.

We traveled by charter boat from Anacortes to the island, while learning about the ecology of the region from Nature Conservancy scientists. Members were able to roam the island, take photos and ask questions. 

Yellow Island may be a crown jewel in the work we do in Washington, as evidenced by this mesmerizing slideshow! It’s certainly a spectacular example of the beauty of nature and an inspiration to keep up our hard work around the state.

See the slideshow from Day one of the trip!

Not yet a member? Join the Nature Conservancy today!

Cameron Karsten is a coldwater surfer, cultural traveler, professional photographer/videographer, amateur craft brewer. Looking for the new, the unique and the challenging, having been raised in the Pacific Northwest, where cold water and wet mountains converge. Began a career as a travel writer, from the age of 19 to 25 backpacking around the world, beginning in SE Asia, thru Europe, down East Africa, into the Creeks of Nigeria, and along the beaches of Central America. View more of Cameron Karsten’s work:

Lasting Memories on Yellow Island


Our Membership Trip to the Gem of the San Juans - Day 1

Photography by Tomas Corsini, Northwest Photographer

What a spectacular weekend to visit Yellow Island! The weather and wildflowers both cooperated and we had so much fun showing our members this treasure! The pictures are remarkable and the memories even better. Enjoy this slideshow of Day 1 of a two day trip to the gem of the San Juan Islands: Our Yellow Island Preserve!

Not yet a member? Join the Nature Conservancy today!

G. Tomas Corsini Sr. is a freelance Northwest based photographer working on projects in Digital Media to include: Photography, Video Productions, Video Editing, Web Content Management, Motion Graphics, Graphics Illustration, and more. Learn more about his work here.

Yellow Island Wildflowers


Story By Robin Stanton, Media Relations Manager
Photographs by Phil Green, Yellow Island Preserve Manager

Yellow Island is one of the Conservancy’s smallest preserves in Washington, yet one that is familiar to thousands of people who pass by it on their ferry cruises to the San Juan Islands.

On Yellow Island we can see a San Juan Island prairie system that is largely undisturbed and still bursts forth with astonishing wildflower displays in the spring. We’re just entering wildflower season, and Yellow Island Steward Phil Green has captured some of the early blooms.

Flowers from Left to Right

  1. Chocolate Lily
  2. Harsh Paintbrush
  3. Shooting Star
  4. Fawn Lily

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