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 | Even over Capitol Hill, bald eagles are assholes

There is a long list of things I take for granted. Some are deeply important like clean running water. Others are not, but make my life significantly better: good pizza and microbreweries, for example. To some degree, I could live without pizza and beer, but certainly not water. I’d argue that bald eagles fall somewhere in between this hierarchy of needs. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily love bald eagles. They feel more like an oil change.

Just under a year ago, my favorite undergraduate professor and dear friend passed away. His personality and impression on generations of ornithology students was so indelible I can’t help but quote him on a regular basis. One of my favorite statements during field outings was in relation to young eagles: “They look like they are rotting” — which summed up his feelings on bald eagles quite well.

I’m not quite to the point of accusing young, mottled individuals of being flying corpses, but I cannot call myself an eagle fanboy either. They are deeply aggressive bullies that scare other birds and alter their behavior. This can be impressive but also frustrating when you are birding and every other species in the vicinity is cowering under the frown of the big bald tyrants. Their presence soaring this late winter above Capitol Hill is, at best, a mixed bag of excitement and dread. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Hitting the pavement for a geological trip through the natural history and present day questions of the Capitol Hill streets and sidewalks beneath our feet

Ready for shipping from CalPortland’s Ready Mix and Pioneer Aggregates Plant in DuPont (Image: Cal Portland)

I don’t know about you, but I rarely consider the streets and sidewalks I travel over unless they’re an impediment. Biking around Seattle I know where to veer past a specific pothole. I’ve found myself in a groggy rage having spilled coffee down my sleeve, tripped by a tree root uplifted section of sidewalk. My car is old and I know when a road is equally as pocked by time.

And yet, it’s easy to just feel as if roads happen (if one ignores the traffic revisions that we endure for years). A good number of folks reading this do not remember a time when new roads were built on or adjacent to the Hill. They were just there and unless you are a civil engineer, an urban planner, or a mass transit or bicycling advocate, you might not have considered them either.

Sometimes roads take us in directions we hadn’t considered. When I first pondered the natural history of roads, I had this quaint idea of delving into what grows in the cracks of the concrete. There are surely compelling stories here, but really, you can figure it out: roads are made of earthly materials and plants grow in and wear at said medium with their roots, which combine forces with other types of weathering. We’ve all probably seen a bokeh image of a tree growing out of rock in some misty locale. Give some seeds a few years without any bother and our streets and sidewalks would quickly begin weathering away, all manner of vegetation sprouting from the cracks.

Ultimately, I realized I didn’t really know what roads are made of. Where did the material come from? What are the environmental costs of putting in and maintaining roads? How long does a road last? These are all questions I recently put forward to folks at the Seattle Department of Transportation who endured such infantile questions about our city streets with grace. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The Hill’s Pine Siskins also face an outbreak

A Pine Siskin (Image: Brendan McGarry)

As we go about our lives, the rest of the world keeps moving. Seasons change, animals and plants enact glorious revivals, tremendous gatherings and movements, that we take various approaches to noticing. All too often we miss great natural events in urban spaces, either because we are simply too distracted or don’t know where or when to look. Sometimes it’s simply that our spaces don’t support such events.

And sometimes we do notice, because they’re too hard to miss. The Eastern Cottontail Rabbit population explosion of the past couple years. Or this winter: the initial joy of Pine Siskin flocks at our bird feeders — a moment that quickly backpedaled into dismay.

If you don’t feed birds or don’t watch them as religiously as some, I wouldn’t put it past you to have missed the bevies of tiny finches. However, if during this dark winter, you were constantly at home you might have found new (or renewed) relief in bird feeding. It’s entirely likely that a few people reading started feeding birds for the first time in 2020, realizing how fun it can be to see our neighbors up close and personal. This isn’t just a posit: during the spring of 2020 Instacart searches for “Bird Food” rose by as much as 450%.

The birds
Pine Siskins are small, brownish finches with embellishments of yellow in their wings and tails. They are extremely gregarious, exploding into noisy flight, filling the tops of alder and conifers to find the winter seeds they subsist on. Siskins flocks are hard to miss once you know their intensity.

Though they are a northerly species, they are year-round residents on the Hill (though most head for the forest in summer) and mountainous areas of western North America all the way into northern Mexico enjoy them as such also. Siskin populations are deeply influenced by coniferous seed crops, so much so that in some years we have huge numbers and others they are entirely absent. Many finches have similar ways of responding to the variability of food and live irruptive, nomadic lives across much of their ranges.

Especially epic eruptions of finches are called “superflights.” Not only do Pine Siskins show up, but their enticing cousins do as well. Redpolls, crossbills, and grosbeaks, all are reliant on cone crops in winter. Only sometimes that food isn’t there. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Being grateful in 2021 with a walk through the Washington Park Arboretum

The other day I found myself aimless and waiting. Any other winter, I probably would have plopped down at a cafe with a book or journal. We’ve all had a bit more time and fewer options than we’re used to in this time-starved existence. It was time to dwell on how absolutely terrible 2020 was and then move on. Time to start baking bread. Time to finally clean out that storage closet. Time to get outside. I chose the latter, and found myself poking about in the Washington Park Arboretum.

As a sometime arborist who grew up installing garden designs for my mother’s business, I’ve always appreciated arboretums. They may be entirely contrived spaces, but they are also spaces for people who live urban existences to be in dialogue with trees and plants and everything they support (By the way, did you know that Bigleaf Maples in the Olympics can support upwards of 77 pounds of epiphytic organisms in their canopies?!). I found myself not only picking along paths gawking at specimen trees and in equal appreciation of unkempt corners, but spinning my head to watch Red Crossbill take off from the top of a Douglas Fir and noticing how well the layers of green muffled the external sounds of traffic and construction. And the internal noise of my angst about life, the world, and well, everything.

How lucky is it that this kind of place exists at all? I can say this without contradicting my sincere support of the LANDBACK movement (knowing I stood on Duwamish territory) and knowing that arboretums are not natural spaces. That people bothered to devote spaces in the city to growing plants, just for the sake of growing them, the same way that we house libraries, floors me. And while I know that arboretums are more than just tree libraries, I am deeply grateful that they exist. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Your squirrelly Capitol Hill neighbors might make you nuts but you’d miss them if they were gone

(Image: ERIK98122 via Flickr)

Capitol Hill squirrels. They’re amusing and cute to some. Considered hirsute rats by others. Ultimately they are one of the only non-domesticated mammals we see on a daily basis. So, if you feed birds you might have developed a bit of rage towards them. Every day they’re there, little tree climbing pigs, gulping down your birdseed, and hiding peanuts in your flower beds.

Though corners of greater Seattle have holdouts of our native tree squirrel, the Douglas Squirrel, the only squirrel on the Hill is the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Like many of our day to day urban species, they are not native. They hail instead from east of the Rocky Mountains. They are here because of us, which as I have continued to repeat, is not a real reason to hold grudges. (Though for people who feed birds all across this country, indigeneity matters not.) Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The Capitol Hill Connections Project

When I tell new acquaintances that I write a column about nature on Capitol Hill, I sometimes get a bit of a side eye. Though there’s much credit due to how we define nature and where we see it existing, many people still wonder why I would want to spend my time pondering one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Seattle. Why not dream over far off wild places instead of a place many might find lacking wildness? One of many answers can be found in the Capitol Hill Connections project.

The goal of this project, collaboratively spearheaded by Seattle’s Urban Bird Treaty City partners is to promote healthy urban habitats along a corridor on 11th Ave between Volunteer Park and Seattle University. This means making the pockets of greenspace in between, as connected as possible, which requires multimodal efforts to engage the public and private landowners in creating, connecting, and stewarding spaces for birds and nature. And often what’s good for them is of course good for people. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Canceling the Townsend’s Warbler

A Townsend’s Warbler in San Francisco (Image: Wikipedia)

I own dozens of field guides. Field guides to Pacific Northwest Flora and Fauna. Field Guides to the birds of South East Asia. Field guides to places I have yet to travel to. Field guides my partner sincerely wishes to never have to fill a box with and move ever again, except to a used bookstore or better yet, the dump. I love to peruse these satin paged compendiums of knowledge, these promises of where and when I can see a bird or a plant. Even the smallest of field guides — say, if there were a “Birds of Capitol Hill Seattle” — would be compelling.

They are more than mere guides to nature.

Opening field guides you see lots of things: descriptions, range maps, illustrations, and names, so many names. If you’re lucky, you might have a guide that shares colloquial names or indigenous names.

You might also notice a common thread.

While there are certainly a bulk of “Chestnut-backed” Chickadees and “Northern” Flickers, there’s also a lot of organisms named after people. And if you took a moment, you would find that the vast majority of these names are from dead white men. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Behold a Hill of Himalayan Blackberry, seeded by many experiences good and bad

(Image: Seattle.gov)

Growing up in Seattle, summers meant good things: weather warm enough for swimming, time to poke about on foot, and blackberries by the handful.

I gorged on the fruit wherever I wandered. There was never any worry I wouldn’t find them either, because Rubus armeniacus, the Himalayan Blackberry, was everywhere.

Those of us on the Hill who spare thought for plants likely have a complicated relationship with blackberries. As a former arborist, I can say they make working in overgrown areas of the Greater Duwamish hellish. As a gardener, there are few more unwelcome guests. As a human who doesn’t appreciate their skin being perforated and cares deeply for native flora and fauna, I’m increasingly less of a fan. And yet, I love their berries and I frequently have my eye on arcing, sundrenched patches both for birds and fruit.

But let’s back up a moment for the folks that are new to the area or have never considered this: Himalayan (also known as Armenian) Blackberries are an introduced species native to Armenia and Northern Iran. They were brought here for their heavy production of large, delicious berries that spill from hardy, fast growing stalks. Give them a moment anywhere on the Hill and they will take over. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | If you haven’t heard from your flock of friends, it’s not because they do not love you — It is because they are busy, busy birds

(Image: Eric Anderson with permission to CHS)

(Image: Eric Anderson with permission to CHS)

Every morning for the past several months I have opened my eyes at dawn to a combined joy and anxiety. I hear the dawn chorus of birds defending territory and displaying their sex appeal.

I also hear the voices shouting for change. Now waking up to bird song isn’t quite as simple and dreamy; and naturalizing needs to be examined more thoroughly. And yet, I am still present in it all — migratory songbirds are an ephemeral pleasure that buoy the spirits, lending the endurance needed to strike down hate and inequity. Appreciating birds has often been a practice in mindfulness, helpful in other aspects of life.

As a person who enjoys nature at home, the nearby wildness that melds with my everyday, I secretly dread summer near sea level. My better half finds this absurd. Typically this is the time of sun and beach and tans (or sunburns for me) and reprieve from the gray. However, as a birder I’ve enjoyed the slight extra space I had to meditate on backyard birds this spring. It’s brought a moment of peace to wake up with birdsong before the waves of despair flow in. And now it feels like it’s all over. Mornings are significantly quieter.

Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Don’t believe the ‘murder hornet’ hype

A pinned Asian giant hornet, one of two found in Washington State (Image: Washington State Department of Agriculture)

Alongside the very serious things happening in the world at this very moment, and with Capitol Hill being an epicenter, in particular, the natural world keeps churning. I am not writing this as a tone deaf naturalist, nor as someone who completely separates environmental harm from racial injustice (they often go hand in hand). I write this because the 24-hour news cycle can tend to drive us towards myopia, and in the worst cases can lead to serious misunderstandings about many things in the world, including nature. For the past month or so, the term “Murder Hornet” has kept drifting into my feed and it’s time to talk about this insect, and this term.

Let’s start off by dispelling the term “Murder Hornet.” The species in question is the Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia, the largest species of hornet in the world, native to much of East Asia. Nearly all species in the family Vespidae are predators and the Asian giant hornet is no different, with a taste for colonies of wasps as well as social bees, like honey bees. Asian giant hornets are no more murders than Bald Eagles are. They merely hunt prey and are good at what they do.

And they are here in Washington.

Continue reading