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 | December Dormancy: How Hill’s trees persist in winter

Tree, Light and Plane
In the Northern Hemisphere, people spend much of winter considering freezing weather, both out of practicality and for the fun of snow. In the Pacific Northwest, lowland rain may be more common than frost, but that doesn’t mean we never get freezing weather. Plants know this, otherwise our native forests would likely look very different. Have you ever considered how trees cope with frozen conditions?

When you are fifty percent water, and you can’t just eat food, go inside, or put on warmer clothes to keep from freezing, what do you do? Plants have methods of dormancy, similar to hibernation, which allow them to sit out the cold, dark days of the winter. Some produce new generations every year and die back, broadcasting a seed bank to overwinter and germinate when the time is right. Some die back to a rootstock, or have a low lying form that allows them to use the earth’s warmth to resist freezing. If a plant is deciduous, with soft, fleshy leaves, these are a weak point in freezing weather, full of moisture and unarmored against frost; these worth shedding. Evergreen plants have worked around this by developing thicker, waxy leaves (and needles), which allow them to take shelter against cold weather (as well as dry) and keep operating. Trees in general though, standing tall to catch all that sunlight, can’t escape freezing weather completely. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Capitol Hill woodpeckers fit right in — drumming, developing microhousing

A Pileated Woodpecker. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

When I was eight years old, my family and I took a trip to the Olympic Peninsula. We spent a week camping along that rugged coastline, falling asleep to the crash of waves beneath gale twisted trees. Of that trip, I remember very little. Only one thing stands out clearly. It was here I met the Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). At the base of a gnarled Western hemlock, I found a passion for birds that still burns deep.


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I used to have a hard time explaining why I liked woodpeckers so much. They’re no powerful birds of prey, nor are they elegant hummingbirds. Yet, woodpeckers play an integral role in forest ecosystems, even in the smaller patches we have on the Hill. They are built for a vertical world where their homes and food come from trees. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | An argument for deadwood and leaving Seattle’s nature messy

We like to keep things ship shape in our urban environment. We sneer at the cluttered yard of a neighbor. We are offended by the abandoned lot, overgrown with blackberries. We abhor unsightly blemishes on our trees, like deadwood. In short, we often don’t like habitat.

I’m writing to make a case for deadwood, a case for snags. Some of you just said to yourself, “what’s a snag?” A snag is term for a standing dead tree and unfortunately, we’ve been taught that snags are dangerous and that a tree isn’t pretty unless it’s clean of deadwood.

In a healthy and natural setting, dead and dying trees may make up to 20% of the forest, provide homes and food for many other species. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says that West of the Cascades, 39 species of birds and 14 species of mammals depend on tree cavities for their survival. The Hill doesn’t have quite that many, but we’ve got quite a few, including several species of woodpeckers, swallows, and chickadees, as well as Red-breasted Nuthatches, Bewick’s Wrens, and Barred Owls, who all need cavities to nest in. Mammal wise, several species of bats, raccoons, and non-native Eastern gray squirrels rely on cavities for various parts of their lives. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The how, when, and why of the Hill’s birdsong

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Male and female Marsh Wrens look alike, but when I find one singing along Portage Bay, it’s undoubtedly a male.

Despite knowing it happens annually, I’m always surprised when I hear birds begin to sing every year. I spend most of my days outside and I wake up early, so I notice subtle changes in the seasons acutely, and my ears are always pricked for avian voices. That’s how I detect many of the birds I watch. As a result, I noted that within the last week, more birds have been singing than a week earlier.

As days lengthen in the temperate world most organisms have physiological reactions, and birds are no different. One result is that male birds’ testes swell, and increased testosterone expands song volume and frequency. Many resident birds sing year round; I hear Song Sparrows and Pacific Wrens regularly throughout winter. But, when the daylength broadens, birds ramp up the energy they put into singing. The other morning in the vicinity of 17th and Roy I counted six species singing, not an impressive number. However, four out of the six I hadn’t heard since last summer.

Why do birds sing? Overall it’s a pretty simple answer. Birds generally sing either to impress the opposite sex or defend a territory. In the vast majority of cases, if you hear birdsong the vocalist is going to be a male bird.    Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Four trees native to Capitol Hill for four years of challenge ahead

What’s the best way to create environmental stewards? I think about this frequently, and more as the last week has dragged on. One of the goals of Pikes/Pines is to instill a sense of place. As we continue to urbanize in a global world, we can lose sight of place, a sense of belonging and caring for natural landscapes. I don’t blame people who moved here recently for not knowing much about our native flora and fauna, but they’re not off the hook. Will learning a couple native plants help a transplant care more about the place they live, or make them vote for the environment? I’d like to think so. Thus, I introduce, or re-introduce, four common, native trees that you can find on Capitol Hill.

Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) – We know forestry is big in the Pacific Northwest, but you probably didn’t know the first tree to have its genome sequenced was a black cottonwood. An unassuming female, Nisqually-1, named for the river where she is rooted, was sampled and sequenced in 2006. Black cottonwoods were chosen for this honor because they are economically important trees (mainly for lumber) and fast growing, both which make them an ideal model species for research. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Think you have it tough on a cold Capitol Hill? Try being an overwintering hummingbird

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A female Anna’s Hummingbird visiting a feeder. Photo Credit: Brendan McGarry

When winter weather hits, I am thankful I don’t have to be outside all the time. I marvel that there are any birds left flying around in the winter, let alone small birds like hummingbirds. No matter the weather, any day on the Hill can reveal Anna’s Hummingbirds going about their lives, while we hunker down inside.

Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna) weren’t here 40 years ago in winter. They were almost exclusively a summering species in the Puget Sound basin. It wasn’t until 1976 that they were first recorded breeding in our state.

Christmas Bird Count data shows that in 1981, birders recorded 11 individual Anna’s Hummingbirds in all of Washington’s counts. In 2015, they recorded 1,763 individuals. To call them successful appears to be an understatement. And it’s not as if they expanded here from Michigan either, during the first half of the 20th century they were only breeding in Baja and Southern California (I know, sheesh, more Californians). Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Rain, rain, don’t go away, but don’t wash crap in our waterways

Stormwater as it outlets in the Washington Park Arboretum. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Stormwater as it outlets in the Washington Park Arboretum. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

You’ve probably heard it pelting your windows, or felt it dripping down your neck, but in case you didn’t: it’s been raining an awful lot this fall. October 2016 brought a new record of rainfall (in recorded history) to Seattle. October is usually damp, but not typically torrential. This October had 10.05 inches, when our average is around 3.25 inches. In certain areas of Eastern Washington, they had 400% of their average rainfall. Washington no long has any areas that are in official drought (read more about it all here). How do we deal with all that extra water on Capitol Hill?

Water runs downhill and can do so in a hurry. That’s all well and fine, but when you put down lots of cement, have drains that overflow, or cut down trees that displace water, you have problems. Lucky for us (despite our state voting down a climate bill), we live in a relatively forward thinking region. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things — Six tools to make you a Capitol Hill natural historian

summer spangled

When I was eight years old, I stumbled out of my local library, teetering under a stack of bird field guides. At the time I didn’t know it, but this was luxury afforded me by the hard work of generations of ornithologists and artists, but I never took them for granted. Today, aside from my binoculars and camera, my field guides are probably my most prized possessions.

A good natural history field guide is stuffed with information about natural history information and awash with plate after plate of gorgeous paintings or photographs of the subject. They light up your imagination with the promise of exploration. The books I collected growing up are still in my library along side field guides on reptiles, mammals, butterflies, wildflowers, trees, minerals, and even animal skulls, to name a few. Wondering what a small mammal skull I found is, I find an answer sitting on my shelf. Enough said, field guides are essential to naturalists. However, lets say you don’t have the time, money, or debilitating obsession to find yourself hoarding thousands of pounds of books (oh how I hate moving)? What if you merely want to make a quick reference?

There are apps, and there is the library, but I’m thinking of an even simpler resource. The internet is great, but not any old website is reliable. Wikipedia is decent, but get down to the nuts and bolts of identification and falls short of regional information. So, this Pikes/Pines, I decided to provide you with a good list of websites for naturalizing on the hill (who knows, maybe I’ll talk favorite books sometime too). There are undoubtedly more but for brevity’s sake here’s my list. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Capitol Ant Hill

Leaf-cutter ants. They aren't from Washington even, but are an example of insect cultivation. They harvest leaves, to cultivate fungi, which they then eat. Pretty incredible! (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Leaf-cutter ants. They aren’t from Washington even, but are an example of insect cultivation. They harvest leaves, to cultivate fungi, which they then eat. Pretty incredible! (Image: Brendan McGarry)

I had just cut down an old rotten stump when I noticed them. As soon as the round of wood spun off the bar of my chainsaw, hundreds of ants were running around in seeming panic. Some cast about, mandibles open, for the source of the disturbance. Others held little white larvae aloft, running in frantic circles. I felt bad I’d just bisected their colony, but that rotten stump had to go. That’s how people are with ants, we see them, we step on them, and then we move on with our big world.

Ants are members of the order Hymenoptera, along with bees, wasps, and sawflies. This puts them up there with Coleoptera (beetles), Diptera (flies), Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), as four of the most speciose orders of animals in the world; there’s at least 150,000 hymenopterans. They have fascinating social systems, exist on every continent except for Antarctica and scientists estimate that they make up 15-20% of the world’s terrestrial biomass. Some species create massive underground colonies and others that weave together leaves for a home. Some cultivate fungi for food and others travel long distances to bring back all manner of food. You get it, they’re diverse.

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Pikes/Pines | What a Capitol Hill wild plant forager should look for

Ah, the bounty of summer. Fresh food is all around. It may be in your garden and it may be at a farmer’s market. However, it may also be out in the open, green spaces, free for the taking.

Urban foraging isn’t just for hippies. Across on Beacon Hill there’s a whole forest for it. Here on the Hill we’ll have to settle for finding good patches. There is still plenty to harvest from our wilds, the “empty” green spaces within a city.

Below is a list of native and introduced species readily found around Capitol Hill and which don’t take a lot of fuss to procure and prepare. A few of the things I mention here are past their best date for harvest, but you can take note and plan for next year. Finally, I’d also like to mention that I’m no authority and there’s risks involved in eating things you find in the wild, or, say, in a parking strip.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
I love blueberries. However, unless you are raiding someone’s yard, there aren’t any native ones in the city. There is however a relative. Salal is a common native shrub that grows in both sunny patches and shaded understory. Its berries are reminiscent of blueberries, but have a bit more skin involved. People commonly make jam, preserves, and pie from the berries. Aboriginal people in our region often dried the berries into cakes for later consumption; salal was traditionally a significant source of food and a common sweetener. Continue reading