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

Pikes/Pines | Spring is on the horizon, just check the Hill’s unassuming Indian Plums

The unassuming Indian Plum, blooming in Interlaken Park several springs ago (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Maybe it’s just me, but spring still feel miles away. I love winter, even in the Pacific Northwest, but in the end, I find myself anxious for spring just like everyone else. I’ve been noticing hints here and there. More birds are singing. I go to and from work in daylight now. Yet, nothing during these dreary grey months signals that sunnier days are on the horizon more than the first buds breaking on Indian Plum (Oemleria cercasiformis).

While other plants are still just thinking about breaking out of dormancy, our Indian Plums, or Osoberry, start making moves. First a bud begins to break and you can see a little bit of leaf unpeeling inside. Not long after, chains of greenish-white flowers unravel. Currently, Indian Plums are just beginning this process on the Hill, which is totally welcome when the rest of the understory in our local parks are still mostly a sea of bare sticks. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Capitol Hill winter holdover (and the name of your new band)

A Yellow-rumped Warlber (Audubon’s) flying between Black Cottonwoods at Montlake Park. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

As with most birders, my head is on a swivel, and my ears are always perked. Even on a walk in the middle of Broadway being attentive can reveal a Peregrine Falcon soaring overhead, or Dark-eyed Juncos flitting toward Cal Anderson Park. My friends know I’m frequently distracted. On a recent urban walkabout, one such friend noticed my focus on the tree-tops of the street trees overhead. He asked what I was looking for.

“A Yellow-rumped Warbler — there, flitting between the upper branches.” Continue reading

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