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 | The five creepiest crawlies you’ve never heard of that live with you on Capitol Hill

From: The Habitats Humans Provide: Factors affecting the diversity and composition of arthropods in houses

Have you ever been home alone, watching Stranger Things or listening to My Favorite Murder, and started jumping at the sudden hum of the refrigerator, brandishing your ice-cream spoon down the dark hallway to the bathroom? I have good news for you. We are never, ever alone in our homes. We all have other creatures living in our homes, no matter how scrubbed, swept, and sterilized our apartments and houses on the Hill may appear.

From the time that people began living inside dwellings, we’ve had other creatures alongside us. Some are imperceptible, bacteria, viruses, archaea, and fungi. Others, like insects and arachnids, are decidedly more noticeable. In 2016, a press worthy study by North Carolina State University researchers was published, reporting findings from an exhaustive, purportedly first-ever survey of the arthropods (invertebrates of the phylum that includes spiders, insects, and crustaceans) in our homes. Of the 50 houses the authors surveyed in the Raleigh, North Carolina, 100% had arthropods living in them. In fact, they had far more than anyone guessed, and they collected over 10,000 individual specimens representing nearly 600 species of arthropods, with homes hosting an average of 93 species, from 62 families.

Though I doubt this revelation eases your movie induced paranoia, below are five common house guests that you may or may not have even heard of, but may have been living inches from all your life.

Psocoptera (Image: Wikipedia)

1) Booklice (Order Psocoptera) — Unlike their blood sucking cousins, booklice like to chew rather than suck. Mostly they like to munch on fungus, food bits, and other detritus but they will also happily chew on the glue of our book bindings and wall paper and can in some instances infest food. Seeing a few of these opaque flattened creatures is nothing to be alarmed about, but if you happen to collect old books in damp places, be mindful.  People often confuse book lice with bed bug nymphs or termites which are far more alarming.  Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The City of Seattle signed an Urban Bird Treaty so why are birds still bonking their heads on your home?

A male Varied Thrush killed by a window strike (all the photos of dead birds are from one troublesome, big windowed building). (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Have you ever walked or run into something unexpectedly, like a truck mirror or a sign-post you didn’t see? It’s unpleasant at best. I vividly remember walking out a sliding door at party to visit a keg, turning to go back in after filling my cup, only to collide face-first with the glass door conscientiously slid shut behind me. I got away with a bloody nose. A lot of birds in our mirror-finished built landscape aren’t so lucky (and can’t blame beers on the incident).

According to a study released in 2014, scientists at the Smithsonian and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, found that between 365 and 988 million birds are killed each year by collisions with buildings. While this range is large, even the conservative end is startling. With this mind, think if you’ve ever found a dead bird on the Hill? No doubt the majority of us have, at our home, work, or simply walking down the street.

I don’t bring this up to be alarmist, but because there are options available to reduce impacts, even on an individual level. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The trash trees of Capitol Hill

A canopy of red alders in winter. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

A friend of mine calls alders “trash trees.” He is an arborist, and as a pragmatic person who maintenances trees to fit into the grid, alders aren’t “good” trees. They are fairly weak, short lived, are rot prone, and pop up unwanted. They are also native, and as a result host loads of other species, and possesses a subtle seasonal variability I find a beautiful part of our landscape.

These differences of opinion are well reflected in the blocked up properties of dense, urban Capitol Hill. Based on my observations, some people care dearly about managing every last inch of space, others are willing to let things go wild, and some seem entirely oblivious to the world outside their indoor spaces. (Landscaping is also a privileged act, not simply about “caring” or “not caring”). I wonder how the red alder, Alnus rubra, the common and unassuming tree, fits into our world on the Hill?

There are certainly plenty of alder trees growing around Capitol Hill. They are in the Arboretum, in St. Mark’s  Greenbelt, in Interlaken Park. However, few yards appear to purposefully invite red alders into their limited spaces. Why is this? Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Sign of Capitol Hill summer: Dragonflies in ankle tattoos — and the air

Eight-spotted Skimmer

One of the things that signal summer to me are dragonflies. One day I look up and suddenly they’re there: jeweled, colorful insects, jetting through the air and changing direction on a dime to scoop up unsuspecting prey. Maybe this isn’t your idea of summer but I think dragonflies are worth your attention this season.

I’ve been feeling a little blue about the state of insects lately (to put it lightly). I am convinced that I belong to a generation with a shifting baseline, unknowingly living through a major decline in insects because I grew up without massive amounts of insects around (see the link above for why this matters). But despite this feeling of dread, I have to remind myself that while some humans have seriously destructive and potentially irreversible tendencies, many insects have been around a long, long time too.  Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Queer as nature — Capitol Hill roses are gender-fluid

Your Capitol Hill lawn is gender-fluid, too. Bobby Morris? That’s a different essay.

Pride month is here and I have something to tell you: Nature is queer. I don’t mean strange (though it is that too), but that the natural diversity of gender and sexuality in the Hill’s nature is part of its beauty. Culture can blind us, sometimes presenting facts that are actually fiction, particularly about the more than human world. Let’s bust that up a bit.

I write this as a white, straight, cisgendered man inexperienced in getting into the weeds on the subject of the LGBTQ world. Pride is easily co-opted as social capital, something I’d like to avoid. I am writing this not to co-opt but in an attempt to offer a few clumsy words to uplift some stories of natural diversity (and hopefully not inadvertently perpetuate violence or my privilege).

The complexities of gender and sexuality in nature (you may need to be reminded that this includes us), are fathomless. Despite being trained as an environmental educator, I am not a people expert; we will speak here about the more than human world, possibly as lessons for being human. The version of nature we are often given, of male and female organisms on an endless trail of sexual reproduction is a far cry from reality. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Stop giggling and consider the urban beaver on the shores of Lake Washington

Beavers have a way of getting under our skin. Some people despise them, others think they are panacea, and cute as a button to boot. Beliefs and feelings often intermingle inextricably with facts, which is why I believe beavers are amazing creatures, and a landowner with a flooded yard might have different thoughts. And yet, we’re all talking about the same creature.

Now you’re reading this, thinking to yourself: “There aren’t any beavers on Capitol Hill.” On top of it, certainly you are right. However, a quick trip down to the water nearby yields obvious signs of their presence, regardless of our actually seeing a beaver. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Bird sounds of the city on Capitol Hill

DSC01879

Have you ever learned about something and suddenly start noticing it everywhere? For instance, I had never really paid much attention to how many late 90s Honda civics are still on the road until I was driving one. There’s a switch in our heads for recall. This is an ideal time of year to train that human ability for recognition towards bird songs.

I’ve talked about why birds sing in various articles on CHS, but to review: birds vocalize to communicate. That could be a drawn-out daily song to tell a neighbor this is that a territory has occupants. Or a raucous screech to tell everyone in the vicinity that there’s a cat roaming nearby. I find that by paying attention to bird song I see more birds, so much so that I’ll stop mid-stride when I hear a particular song or call.

If you are interested in trying to see birds, a helpful skill is being able to find them by their vocalizations first. An early job of mine was as a point counter, walking transects in Northern California, recording bird abundance. You’d think I would just walk around looking for birds, but mostly I was walking around listening. I liken learning bird calls to learning a language, though undoubtedly humans fall short of fluency. I had a step up by learning at an early age, but anyone can learn a few songs. You might already know the sound, even if you don’t know who is making it.

Below are a few birds I hear all over urban Puget Sound and that are common and readily found on the Hill. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | A natural reason to not spring forward

Morning Commute

Happy daylight savings! You woke up this morning, all your devices are set an hour forward, you get on with your day. Seems pretty simple right? We get a bit more daylight out of the day and we move on with our lives. Not quite.

All vertebrates need to sleep. Physiologies differ between species, individuals, and is related to age or other endogenous factors — meaning we (as in vertebrates) all need different amounts of sleep depending on who we are. A famous example of a seemingly aberrant model is that of dolphins, who go on autopilot to sleep, turning off half their brains to rest but continue traveling to the surface to breath via their blowholes. We have it easy, we just have to not smother ourselves with our pillows.

We humans all need to get to sleep a good amount of successive hours and our bodies know this. If your body is functioning fairly well, it knows when it’s time to go to sleep. We have specific circadian rhythms, dictated mainly by the pineal gland, which sends out the message in the form of melatonin. When your eyes don’t see light for awhile, it’s bedtime. Melatonin, is neurohormone that initiates sleepiness. When daylight hits those eyelids, your body stops the melatonin rush, and you start to wake up.
Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Fat, sleep, and death — How the Hill’s rabbits, rats, and squirrels are dealing with Snowbruary 2019

As I write this, we’re getting ready for another round of snow, and while I don’t know how much will fall, I do know that it’s hard to be outside in cold weather. The warm-blooded wild creatures that live on the hill have to continue to find food, or at least not waste energy, despite the conditions. Unlike some species, which can shut their entire bodies down, even to the point of freezing solid, most birds and mammals need to maintain bodily functions through the coldest months. Birds don’t exactly have it easy, they can’t layer on fat with high metabolisms and the need to be light enough to fly, but they do have the benefit of being able to migrate away.

What do squirrels, raccoons, or even rats do in a cold spell?
Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Capitol Hill not the frostiest — but still pretty cool

St. Mark's Greenway hoar frost

I haven’t seen frost in quite a while. And yet, even if we don’t get much snow on the Hill, I know every winter I can count on some frost. Mundane? Well, you may or may not know that there are several kinds of frost, brought on by a variety of conditions. Frost is fascinating.

You mostly know when to expect it. After that clear, cold night, you wake up, ready to scrape the windows or watch your step as you walk down the block. In its simplest form frost is moisture in the air, gaseous water, that has settled into a liquid state, and frozen, on a surface. For this to happen, the air temperature needs to get below dew point, the temperature where gaseous water turns to liquid (why we get dew on our lawns overnight in cool temperatures). Frost mostly happens when the air is saturated with moisture.

When we do get cold, clear weather in our area, we see a lot of frost because we have moisture to spare. In a more dry place, even on the other side of the Cascades, frigid temps don’t always mean an accumulation of frost on the available substrates. Less moisture, less frost.   Continue reading