ISLAND BIRDING | Islanders should speak up now to protect important bird habitat areas

Yesterday I watched a cloud of several thousand shorebirds swirl and dance in the morning sunshine above Deer Lagoon.

At one point, while standing on the western dike, the flock flew low over my head. If only for an instant, the sounds of wings whirring and peep, peeping immersed me in their world, a moment of grace and joy engulfed in their flock.

Later I drove to the Coupeville dock and scanned with my binoculars across Penn Cove to admire the ducks and seabirds. Hundreds of wintering scoters, grebes, loons and other seabirds find food and protection here. Occasionally the endangered marbled murrelet frequents these waters.

Last week I stood at the bird-viewing platform at Crockett Lake while a northern harrier patrolled the edges of the marshy lake. I remembered seeing a pair of snow buntings on that very platform last winter.

Like happy finches, they fluttered around the platform gleaning seeds, then waltzed off to alight on driftwood near the shore of Admiralty Inlet. Will they return again this winter? Or, perhaps snowy owls will drop down this winter and feed on voles that scamper along their trails on the grassy spit?

What do Deer Lagoon, Penn Cove and Crockett Lake have in common? It’s no surprise that these areas, along with Crescent Harbor near Oak Harbor have been identified as Important Bird Areas (IBAs.)

In 2001 National Audubon designated 53 IBAs in Washington as part of a worldwide project to identify and protect key habitats to sustain healthy bird populations. Recently, the waters around Deception Pass were added to the list of Whidbey Island IBAs.

Audubon does not take this designation lightly. It’s not easy to have an area designated as an IBA. Years of bird census data, descriptions of plant life and the history of human impact of the area are a sampling of the extensive research that goes into an IBA application.

In August 2000, as part of Island County’s critical areas ordinance, members of Whidbey Audubon worked with Island County officials to identify “Habitats of Local Importance,” or HOLIs.

Along with Deer Lagoon, Penn Cove and Crocket Lake, the county identified six other HOLIs: Swan Lake, Hastie Lake, the Whidbey Island Game Farm, (now Au Sable Environmental Institute) the Newman Road Ponds (now owned by Earth Sanctuary), Useless Bay and Cultus Bay Flats. County maps show the boundaries of these HOLIs.

The acronym HOLI is pronounced “holy.” The allusion to a word of faith reminds me of our duty to be responsible stewards for the animals, birds, fish, amphibians, other critters and all the plants that live here.

Perhaps you enjoy walking, birding or just sitting at one of these special island places to connect more closely with nature. Wisely, the county has acknowledged our need to have access to nature by designating these special places as HOLIs.

Wanting to learn more about our HOLIs and to understand how they are managed and protected, I went to the county Web site to read through the critical-areas ordinance. Finally, on the last page the nine HOLIs are listed. Also listed are three protected bird species: the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and marbled murrelet. The great blue heron, common loon, osprey, pileated woodpecker and trumpeter swan are identified as species of local importance.

What surprised and alarmed me is that there are no requirements or even suggestions to help protect HOLIs. In contrast, San Juan County’s CAO includes at least 10 pages of descriptions of endangered birds, plants, animals and various regulations affecting the habitats.

But there is good news. Our county is in the process right now of revising the fish and wildlife portion of the CAO. With new faces on the board of county commissioners, there is an opportunity to update the CAO and add some protection to these “holy” places.

One place to start is to stop hunting in the HOLIs. All three of the areas I described at the beginning of this article allow hunting. Surely, Audubon’s designation of IBAs as “sites most essential for long-term conservation of birds” does not condone hunting where bird surveys show dramatic drops in bird populations and where endangered birds eke out a living.

Hunting of scoters is allowed on Penn Cove despite data showing those birds are in serious decline. Western grebe numbers have sunk to only 10 percent of their population of 20 years ago.

Those of you at Deer Lagoon who are angry about the hunting in your neighborhood, now is the time to act. Property owners around Penn Cove, let your voices be heard. Advocates for birds and nature, let our commissioners know that we care, that we want our HOLIs to have protection under the law.

I can’t imagine Deer Lagoon devoid of shorebirds, Penn Cove empty of wintering ducks and Crocket Lake without its harriers and the occasional sighting of snow buntings and snowy owls. Instead, right now we can envision the holy in our HOLIs and act.

Frances Wood can be reached at wood@whidbey.com. She is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West” (Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colo.) available at local bookstores.

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