WHIDBEY BIRDING | Duck hunting puts migrating shorebirds at risk

“What has happened to the birds?” A caller asks.

I’m not alarmed. September is a quiet month for bird activity in the Puget Sound region. Summer breeding has closed down for the year, many of our summer songbirds have headed south and the wintering birds haven’t arrived yet.

I try to reassure the caller, “Don’t panic. This is normal. Just a quiet time of year.”

But the caller is unconvinced.

I carry my phone outside to talk. My husband Bill is carefully draping our small vineyard with netting to discourage the flocks of crows and Cedar Waxwings, which we know will materialize out of the vapors the moment the grapes ripen.

I notice swallows congregating on electrical wires in preparation for their thousand-mile journey south.

I hear the pterodactyl-sounding calls of two Great Blue Herons as they face off over feeding territory. One flies over my head showing matching open slots on both wings, reminding me that birds are molting wing feathers, as they do every September.

“Once the fall rains begin,” I tell the caller, “you’ll see more birds.” Large numbers of robins move through Whidbey in fall. They will hop and stop, hop and stop across the lawn with an eye for movement just under the surface. Or blanket the pyracantha bushes to pluck berries.

The caller doesn’t accept my platitudes. She reassures me that she tracks the birds and knows what she’s talking about.

“I haven’t seen any kingfishers this summer,” she declares. “The Pileated Woodpeckers didn’t nest in the forest behind our house.”

That gets my attention. This isn’t just a casual worrier.

I search my memory. She’s right. I, too, can’t remember hearing the once- common overhead rattle from a kingfisher as it flaps through the sky. When we moved here in 2000, seeing a Pileated Woodpecker was a ho-hum, everyday occurrence. Now I make a note of it and alert Bill.

Finally I get what she is saying: Her sense of place, the homeland that she cherishes, is being lost bit-by-bit, year-by-year. I tell the caller I think she’s right; many birds have just slipped away unnoticed; it is alarming; we should be distressed.

As I write this, I’m reminded of the tragedy of 9/11 when the United States was attacked in a new way and many of us felt our homeland being gravely wounded. My sons live in New York, and one of them watched the towers collapse. Since that life-changing day, our government has spent billions to bring back a sense of security, give us back our homeland.

Here on Whidbey, we enjoy a rich and peaceful homeland and a precious sense of personal security. Yet, beginning next month, we will knowingly allow snipers to fire holes into our homeland.

At Deer Lagoon, a few hunters — an informal count indicates there are four or five regulars — will disturb the quiet lives of those who live nearby and unwittingly disrupt some of the richest bird habitat in our county.

During duck-hunting season, it’s not just the ducks that die.

Most hunters don’t realize the migrating shorebirds are disturbed by gunshots and stop feeding. An ounce or two of fat becomes the difference between making it to the next feeding station or expiring on their trip south.

The kingfishers that depend on the fish in Deer Lagoon are frightened from their feeding grounds.

Scoters are hunted even though their populations are decreasing and no one eats them. Western Grebes, the most elegant of seabirds with long graceful necks that used to gather in large flocks of hundreds of birds, suffers also. Their numbers have dropped 97 percent.

The caller and I, and perhaps you, desire a secure home without the worry of stray bullets and a homeland with quiet, gunshot-free mornings.

How can we spend billions to protect our homeland from attack, and yet allow our landscape here on Whidbey to be destroyed gunshot-by-gunshot, bird-by-bird?

The statistics of the decrease in bird populations are grim. See for yourself at the Washington Audubon State of the Birds Report 2009. Click here.

Many of the solutions to the decline of birdlife are complex, difficult and expensive. But one thing is simple and can be done without cost: Stop hunting on Deer Lagoon.

The Island County commissioners are holding a public meeting on this issue at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21 in Freeland Hall. Please come.

Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” To visit her brand new Web site, click here.

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