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 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

Pikes/Pines: Capitol Hill Quarantine Nature Bingo

Not a rare bird

Remember lhe previous Pikes/Pines when I talked about redefining our sense of “being in nature?” — there are opportunities to enjoy nature, properly socially distanced, just about anywhere. If you are bored, why not take some time to observe something?

Here is a way to practice.

I created this bingo to get you outside, looking around, and observing the beautiful sights around Capitol Hill.

Grab some supplies (Binoculars? A notebook? Your phone to take pictures and for reference?), challenge yourself to be a hyper-local naturalist in your yard, and or make a full day of it and go for a long walk. Don’t just rely on the info below, you’ll need to do some of your own sleuthing as well. And remember to stay safe and following social distancing guidelines while participating.

  1. Native Tree – Bigleaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum
      1. Bigleaf maples just finished flowering and have spread their gigantic leaves. They have the largest leaves of any maple and are our largest native maple on the West Coast. Maples cut back to a stump grow back vigorously and left to their own devices will become a many stemmed tree that start low to the ground. A healthy stump can grow shoots up to ten feet long in the first year! Hint: look leaves with lightly-toothed edges, 5 obvious lobes that are 9” or more in length.

    Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Beyond Cal Anderson and Volunteer Park, plenty of outside to safely explore around Capitol Hill

Interlaken Park (Image: City of Seattle)

April has been gorgeous. And that’s felt slightly frustrating. The vast majority of us are staying home, mostly inside. For relief, those of us who can, probably have been trying to turn towards the sun. Some of us have gardens, or feel comfortable going on a walk. And there is always parks right? Well, what happens when the big parks close near and far? How do I access nature?

I love Seattle’s parks and the idea of not being able to visit Cal Anderson, Volunteer Park, and the Arboretum was initially alarming last weekend. However, this is the reality we have, one thing on a long list of frustrations of which closed parks and beaches is probably fairly low, but still on our minds on glorious spring days. I can understand the bitter disappointment of finding parks closed last weekend, (and I also would very much like to go look at wildflowers in Eastern Washington).

However, last week’s closure still gave Seattleites access to 479 other parks with both tiny, local haunts like Broadway Hill Park and social distancing worthy Interlaken open to us on the Hill. That’s not to mention the de facto green spaces that exist in the margins, green but not manicured or official. I am not suggesting flooding those spaces or ignoring the guidelines. However, as is typical of this landing pad for nature enthusiasm within the human built realm, I would invite us all to shift our perspective. As I have said before, nature isn’t just in big parks and green spaces. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Your Capitol Hill buds: a promise of warmth, beauty, shade, and food

Bigleaf Maple, Acer Macrophyllum, buds are very large and contain huge pendulous flowers. They are an important source of early food for insects. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Last week, I was walking down the street, doing something I pretend I am above: staring into the depths of my phone, and walking. I know better. I swear. And yet, there I was, having a discussion with a friend about someone who didn’t know about the Wu-Tang Clan. And then the universe struck back at my pettiness, in the form of a tree branch, which smacked me right in the face. Conveniently, it also gave me the idea for this post. There I was, a bit stunned, staring at the bare branch’s buds.

Unlike the often cryptic lexicon of natural history nerds, I think everyone knows what a “bud” is. Go ahead and imagine it. I think of a smooth, oblong capsule on a bare branch. Maybe you’re thinking of a sticky green inebriant, which is fine, it’s still a bud. However, let’s consider the buds that are already, or on the verge of bursting: the buds of deciduous trees and shrubs, woody plants that don’t die back to rootstock or reestablish from seeds annually.

What is a bud?

In their most general form, buds house undeveloped leaves and flowers, a place for them to overwinter (and yes, there are many exceptions to this generalization). In late summer and fall, before a plant goes dormant, they put on buds for the following spring. Such buds develop into leaves replaced annually, promote outward growth on stem endings, or burst into flowers. Buds are important, because for the deciduous trees and shrubs of our region (native or otherwise), they are the means of being ready for spring after a season without actively making food. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Cal Anderson Park in winter

Our concepts of space and what fills it are heavily reliant on where we live and our relationship to the place. For some of us, seven or so acres of urban parkland may sound like a lot of space. Surely there are many wild things one can find in such an expanse. Yet, standing at one end of Cal Anderson Park, I could easily see the trees that lined the far end of the park. My personal challenge, to see what “nature” I could draw up in this intensely urban park, was daunting.

Urban parks aren’t typically known for their biodiversity. They often contain big expanses of grass lawns, neatly tended, and often sprayed to control unwelcome species. Enjoyable for people, less for more than a handful of species we try to select. Cal Anderson has a good amount of that space, not to mention a lot of fake turf, all of which I was staring out across. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The Seattle Cooper’s Hawk Project is tracking a bird on the rise despite window strikes and rat poison

Cooper's Hawk

A steel gray bolt slashes across the blue of dusk. Rolling around corners, it disappears into darkening trees, apparating with a scrape of feathers through branches, and vanishes below the horizon. As it passes robins in the nearby holly tree squeal in alarm. They know twilight is trouble: the killing hour. If you’re a Cooper’s Hawk, it’s the time to make hay.

My first love of birds sprung from a woodpecker, but I’ve always loved raptors. As enchanting aerialists, they live long, interesting lives, and they are relatively easy to observe if you know to pay attention. Some of my best memories involve unwittingly getting too close to breeding Northern Goshawks and hearing the screaming rush of Peregrine Falcons in a dog fight over my Eastlake apartment building. I especially love Cooper’s Hawks. They occupy an ephemeral realm, wild, impressive creatures that permit our presence.

Cooper’s Hawks are the most common North American members of the Accipiter family, a group of hawks known for short wings, long tails, and a specialization for hunting other birds.  According to Ed Deal, President of Urban Raptor Conservancy, a Seattle area nonprofit focusing on research, education, and conservation of urban raptors, Cooper’s Hawks have become increasingly common in our area over the past several decades. They have been able to not only endure but flourish amidst our rising human density. Continue reading