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 | Bird sounds of the city on Capitol Hill

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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.
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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?
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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

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

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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