About Brendan McGarry

I've been birding and exploring the natural world all my life. My education is in biology, but that doesn't stop me from writing about all the spinning facets of ecology, particularly in the city.

Pikes/Pines | A Capitol Hill Christmas tree story

I’m not going to pretend that every person who reads Pikes/Pines participates in the tradition of putting up a tree for the holidays. I generally see Christmas as wasteful, contributing to the consumer nightmare that is the contemporary United States. I’m also a solidly secular individual. However, it’s a time of year when I get to see distant friends and family, eat wonderful food, and I rather like getting thoughtful presents. The trees themselves are also a gift, of sorts, bringing a piece of forest life into Capitol Hill homes and neighborhood hangouts.

When I was in high school, I worked at a Christmas tree lot in Seattle. All our trees came from a family farm near Shelton, Washington and I got to know the different species intimately. We had Douglas fir, noble, and grand firs, the odd blue spruce, and a few pines.

According to a 2012 census by the USDA, Oregon and North Carolina produce 79% of the Christmas trees in the United States. Lewis and Mason Counties in Washington are our state’s largest producers, but are far behind counties like Ashe County, North Carolina and Clackamas County, Oregon. Only a small portion of real trees in the country are from u-cut operations, where you show up and cut your tree, or from non-agricultural sources, individually harvested on National Forest Service land. Most are grown as monocrops and shipped around the country. Fraser firs are the most-sold US tree, noble and Douglas firs second and third. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Time to give thanks — and put out a healthy spread — at Capitol Hill bird feeders

American Robins are common in our yards, but almost never come to feeders. Habitat is what attracts them. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

When I was eight years old, few things were more exciting than birds. This excitement may feel eccentric to certain folks. However I’m not unique in this. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that at least 47 million people in the U.S. watch birds, in one form or another. Few of these people probably match the fervor of my 12-year-old-self seeing “life birds” — species I’d never seen before — but I bet many feed birds.

There are likely more people on Capitol Hill who feed birds than identify themselves as birdwatchers. Bird feeding is a $5 billion industry. Inevitably, people on the Hill feed birds. I have been feeding birds most of my adult life. Not only do I get to enjoy feathered friends with morning coffee, but it gives me a sense of who is in the neighborhood, helping me feel less disconnected from the world.

So, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.

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Pikes/Pines | Wanna see something really scary? Meet the decomposers of Capitol Hill

A burying beetle species found on a deer carcass. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Most folks have an aversion to dead, rotting, and decaying things. They smell bad, they have a weird texture, they’re just simply gross. Most of us, if we had it our way, wouldn’t deal with the slime that forms in the bottom of the garbage can. However, in a strange way, this is the stuff of life: in the unmaking of things that once lived, the new foundations of life are found.

We are on the verge of a holiday in which we celebrate our fascination with death. Halloween mostly focuses on the spiritual side this. I thought we could think about what happens to the corporeal after life.

Things certainly don’t just fall apart by themselves. We can’t just throw our yard waste in a pile and expect it to turn to compost immediately. A whole host of organisms, we’ll broadly call decomposers, break them down. On a simplistic level, a decomposer picks apart the larger pieces in the process of getting sustenance, leaving divisions in its wake.

There are fungi, bacteria, insects, and even vertebrates that aid in decomposition. If we get into it, only fungi and bacteria really break things down enough to be considered fully “decomposed,” broken into essential ingredients of life like nitrogen or carbon. The rest are just detritivores that aid the process. No matter the role, they’re all important. So let’s consider some possibly familiar, and less familiar, decomposers that live on the Hill. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Northern Flickers, a surprising urban favorite around Capitol Hill

Northern Flicker wings, from the spread wing collections at the Burke Museum. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Growing up a birder, one tends to become the focus of bird questions. Frequently, people describe birds to you, hoping you can identify them. This has never bothered me and it serves as an entry into getting people to think about birds a little more with a series of questions: Where was it? What was it doing? How large was it compared to a bird you know? How did you know it was a he (as in, why do we assign “he” to animals without typically knowing their sex)? Lots of bird species surface in these queries. However, there’s one that tends to garner more attention than most: The Northern FlickerColaptes auratus.

I think what frequently catches the attention of people who see a flicker, is the intense color of their underwings and undertail. A reddish-orange flash greets the person who stumbles across a flicker, or as they are also called in our area, Red-shafted Flickers (a Yellow-shafted form of the same species exists east of the Rockies and they used to be considered different species). Of all the feathers I find, a good percentage are from flickers, their orange shafts acting as beacons, more than their feathers being more commonly dropped than other birds. Also noticed by observers is their white rump, or the body speckled with black dots. For being a bird that displays as predominantly gray and brown from afar, they are beautiful birds. An urban favorite. Continue reading

CHS Pikes/Pines | Capitol Hill’s invasive plants you love to hate


When we live in human altered spaces and inhabit a cultural space dominated by binaries, it’s incredibly easy to create a false dichotomy about the natural world. This stems from a troubling belief that if we are in place like the Hill, are not a part of nature. And, if we travel out to say, an alpine meadow in the Cascades, we’re in nature. We think of unkempt greenspaces on the edges of our urban landscape as awful, non-native, invaded landscapes, and idealize the seemingly natural, wild, or “untrammeled” spaces beyond our fold.

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Pikes/Pines | The great Capitol Hill eastern cottontail mystery of twenty eighteen

Has anyone else noticed the sudden appearance of rabbits on the Hill? Growing up in Seattle, I can’t recall many rabbits sightings. There were a few at Discovery Park, and there was the infamous colony in a rocky warren in Lower Woodland. Other sizable green spaces have rabbits as well, but it always seemed likely that the Hill and the rest of central Seattle wasn’t suitable. Turns out I was wrong.

Feral, domesticated rabbits are not unusual in cities overall. Often people assume they are easy pets, and disown them upon discovering otherwise. They hop about for awhile and I assume, are dispatched by cars or coyotes. But the bunnies we’re seeing aren’t domesticated, they’re eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus), and they’re suddenly everywhere. The real question is why? Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Let the mystery… bee

During my life as a naturalist, I’ve been thrown into fits of excitement. Maybe I saw a new bird I’d been lusting after, or connected the dots between a plant’s niche in a landscape and the adaptations that define its appearance. Rarely though, does it involve bursting my bubble about a whole family of creatures. This past week, I had that experience with native bees.

Now, I’d never call myself an expert on pollinators, let alone bees. However, I’ve previously felt I had a broad enough grasp on entomology, and even the Order Hymenoptera which encompasses ants, wasps, and bees. I even know a thing or two about the natural histories of bumblebees and the European honey bee. Yet, when I sat down to listen to naturalist and native bee expert Dr. Don Rolfs, my mind was truly blown.

First off, raise your hand if you knew that there are at least 600 or so native species of bees in Washington? Next, tell me if you knew that around 95% of those species are solitary and don’t live in colonies, And then, tell me, how many are smaller than the length of your pinky finger nail? In fact, at least half are so tiny you’d hardly notice them. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | A few local mothers we should admire

Sleeping Bandit

Sometimes I think we just need to slow down, and recognize that the organisms around us are just trying to survive. We may be self-centered as a species (which aren’t?), but we also have the ability to look beyond ourselves and have empathy. As I write this I have Vaux’s Swifts roosting in my chimney and to be quite honest, they are only partially welcome (imagine chirping birds in your bedroom wall in the middle of the night). This is exactly the point, these birds aren’t thinking about me or my need to wake up at five. They are just finding their own space, particularly where we’ve taken up far too much.

A good number of the frustrations and annoyances we have with other species relate to their style of rearing young. Often, they’re just being excellent mothers (and parents). So, in honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d talk about a few species I know can be trying to us as neighbors on the Hill.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) A female raccoon making a nest in your crawlspace or attic is an entirely unwelcome discovery. However, keep in mind that a mother raccoon is a single parent of two to five kits. Males play no part in raising young and for raccoons it’s not a simple wean them and kick them out situation. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | How to help nature stay in sync, phenologically speaking, on Capitol Hill and beyond

Salmon Berry phenology. Left to right: November 2017, January 2018, March 2018, April 2018. Credit: Brendan McGarry

Did you know you can go back in time easily? Give it try. Visit your local green space and admire the plants that have leafed out, the flowers that are blooming, the birds that are singing. Now, travel up into the hills, up the Snoqualmie or the Skykomish rivers maybe, and wend your way back into a cold deep valley. Stretch your legs, look around, listen. The same plants are there but whereas they were leafed out on the Hill, they may still be in bud along the rivers. This timing of the events in the lives of living things is called phenology. By taking this trip you’ll have effectively stepped back in phenological time. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Listen for the spring hum of the Rufous Hummingbird, drinking its way north

A female Rufous Hummingbird taking a break between gulping nectar. Credit: Brendan McGarry

This recent spell of unbelievably gorgeous weather followed by a chilly snap has done little to abet my craze for spring. Last month, I was thinking about early blooming natives, this month I’m focused on who will be the next migratory bird to show up on my door. With currants and indian plum blooming full bore, my ears have been perked for a familiar sound that graces the Hill, the delightful buzz of a male Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus).

We’ve talked about our resident Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna) on Pikes/Pines before, but Rufous Hummingbirds are also very worthy of our attention. They weigh only as much as a piece of paper (.2 oz), but they migrate here from Mexico. They make lots of stops along the way, but when we compare body length to the distance they travel each year, they are champion migrants. Some individuals go as far north as coastal Southeastern Alaska, which also makes them the most northerly breeding species of hummingbird in the world. Continue reading