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: 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.

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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

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Hungry ducks

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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

Pikes/Pines | Two Turtle Doves

Eurasian collared dove (Image: Rovdyr via Wikipedia)

The music finally got through to me the other day. Either through stubborn denial or mere chance avoidance, I hadn’t heard any Christmas music. I know people love it, and as a person who celebrates the holiday, I feel it’s appropriate in the week of. But not in November. Not before Thanksgiving.

Holidays can be equally as trying as they are happy and uplifting. However, in an attempt to dig deep into curiosity I had to ask: what’s this music talking about? Gritting my teeth, I cast across one of the songs that got stuck in my head. I started thinking about “The 12 days of Christmas” and its birds. Specifically, those “turtle doves.” Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | For Capitol Hill trees, beauty is being comfortable and confident in your own bark

Ponderosa Pine bark (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Dry winds brought down the leaves. Rain is currently making them slick hazards as we walk under an increasingly bare canopy on Capitol Hill. We enter a time of year when you can look up and fully appreciate the magnificent spread of a massive oak and the bright papery bark of a silver birch. I particularly enjoy this opportunity to engage with the barks of plants in winter, both because they pose interesting points about survival, and because they are simply artistically captivating, (especially without those gaudy distractions, leaves).

While it’s likely we all know this, it’s worth saying: Bark exists to protect woody plants, which grow year after year, from harm. Trees, shrubs, and some vines grow bark as a shield from fire, insects, and fungi as well as from freezing temperatures or moisture loss. When that delivery truck mangles the bark of an ash tree on Broadway, it opens up the tree to potential pathogens, gives it less protection from freezing weather, and can even stop it from transferring nutrients if badly damaged. Trees, our main focus here, need bark like we need our skin. Continue reading

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