I recently returned from a short trip to Arizona, and found my suet feeders empty. My feathered friends evidently took notice as I put out new suet cakes, for as soon as I returned inside to my desk, they swarmed toward the fatty buffet.
A Chestnut-backed Chickadee arrived first. It was joined by two Northern Flickers, a single Song Sparrow, a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers and seven Bushtits. A small male Downy Woodpecker clung to the cord holding one of the feeders, awaiting a break in the feeding frenzy. A Spotted Towhee picked up bits from the ground.
It was cold, threatening to rain, and I missed the warm desert climate.
My Arizona trip had included one gloriously sunny day birdwatching at an Audubon Preserve located east of Phoenix, in the town of Gilbert. The preserve, although surrounded by suburban sprawl, still held some remnant Sonora Desert habitat.
I’m a Western Washingtonian through and through, but I’m also enchanted by the saguaro cactus ecology. The gray- green foliage of ocotillo, jojoba, mesquite and prickly pear cactus stood out against the reddish Superstition Mountains on the horizon. The dry sun shining in the harsh cobalt-blue sky warmed and soothed me.
This desert is home to many unique bird species, and I particularly enjoyed watching three relatives of some familiar Whidbey birds. The Abert’s Towhee is gray-brown, the plain-Jane cousin of our flashy Spotted Towhee. The Gambel’s Quail is duller, but just as social and topknot-adorned as our California Quail. The desert’s Gila Woodpecker excavates holes in saguaro cactus as readily as our Northern Flicker attacks a dead alder.
Those three Sonora Desert species are endemics, meaning they live only in a limited geographic area. Typically endemics are found on remote islands, where forced isolation evolves new species. The Sonora Desert is their “island.”
That island of native habitat is shrinking and fragmenting as development marches over the dry landscape.
Here on Whidbey, we don’t have endemics, since there are no barriers to birds spreading up and down the West Coast. Even our two Western Washington specialties, the Chestnut-backed Chickadee and the Red-breasted Sapsucker, have strong populations from Alaska to California.
Gilbert is frequently cited as the fastest-growing city in the country, and I was shocked to learn that in the last 30 years, the town has grown from a population of 5,000 to 217,000. That’s like cramming nearly half of Seattle into the present population of the Clinton zip code. Heaven save us!
Looking out at the seven different bird species either feeding on my suet or waiting in line, I want to lock the doors of Whidbey Island at both ferry terminals and the Deception Pass Bridge.
In spite of the gray skies, this island will grow. Change will happen. But we can control how much of our native habitat we lose in the process.
Let’s landscape with native plants to keep our local bird, butterfly and insect species fed and happy. We can plant veggie gardens to decrease the carbon footprint of our food supply. When possible, we can buy local, stay local and think local.
The rain comes down hard, pounds on the roof and I’m tempted to moan my displeasure. But today I’ll hold my tongue and bless good fortune that I am a bird of the rain forest, not the sun- soaked desert. I’ll remember the desert’s different quails, towhees and woodpeckers, as well as different tastes and values.
I am of the rain by choice, and yearn to protect the rich natural beauty of our Whidbey Island.
Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” For more bird information and to contact Frances, visit her website, click here.