CHS Pikes/Pines | A tale of three Capitol Hill wildflowers

For many decades of my life, when I thought of native wildflowers, I thought of the alpine wonderlands of the Cascades and the Olympics.

We may be able to spy these ecologically important places from our perch on Capitol Hill, but these distant alpine meadows have also become entwined in the zeitgeist of wilderness.

Untangling the concept of wilderness is not my goal here, but to say that I’ve spent far too many summers of my life wishing to frolic through alpine meadows while sitting in Seattle, (I still deeply appreciate being able to visit these places so close to home). This yearning for places exotic and difficult to reach obscured what was around my feet and out my front door. In a very strange way, I diminished my knowledge and in turn, care for the places I actually spent most of my life. I spared no time to consider native perennial wildflowers that might grow in the cracks of the pavement. In doing so, I missed out, and this my dear nature nerds, is my impetus for today’s topic.

While I’ve somewhat beaten the discussion of native vs nonnative plants into the ground, I still appreciate that there are native wildflowers lurking among the wild tangles of the novel ecosystems on Capitol Hill. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Splendor in the grass: The bees and — the what the heck is that-s! — you’ll find in the lawns of Capitol Hill

A yet to be identified bee found nesting in my lawn. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

 

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One of the major benefits of paying attention to the natural world is that no matter how long you’ve been doing it, there’s always more to learn. Within the last five years I’ve gone from knowing honey bees, bumblebees, and mason bees to devoting many hours to the breathtakingly nerdy pursuit of studying the wealth of Washington’s native bees.

The best thing about this real life Pokemon pursuit, (I’ll take running around like an idiot staring at zipping dots any day to chasing things that only exist on my phone), is that I don’t actually have to go that far to get stumped. I can just hang out on a lawn and be a lawn-chair melittologist.

With projects like Pollinator Pathways and Capitol Hill Connections it shouldn’t be surprising that you can find interesting insects on the Hill, let alone a bunch of cool bees. The thing about many invertebrate species is that while some require very specific conditions and host plants that are lacking in urban spaces, they also don’t need the same physical space that, say, a wolf does. Some scrubby ground, some flowers with sufficiently tasty nectar, and a dearth of pesticides and a lot of species make it work or even flourish on the Hill even if we don’t get the same diversity a native prairie would have. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The first song you hear on a Capitol Hill morning is probably an American Robin

American Robin eggs (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Do you ever wake up from an unsettling dream and lie awake, praying to fall back asleep? You sit there, trying to tell yourself that checking the time will do nothing for you, while simultaneously hoping that you have many hours before you have to wake up again. And then the robins start singing outside and suddenly you know that you’ve lost. Dawn is near. Until you check your phone and it’s 3:30 AM and now all you can focus on are those damn birds.

An American Robin through the haze of dawn. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

If I am not in the depths of sleep deprivation, I actually quite enjoy the melodious songs of American Robins. With a few exceptions they are the first birds to start singing at the first creeping bit of daylight. You have to appreciate their dedication, telling you that spring is here and that soon it’s time to get up.

You probably recognize American Robins, even if you don’t know their name. They are the birds that dash across the lawn, hunting in mad bursts and sudden stops with a cocked head, which often end in a lunge and a struggle with what looks to be a rubber band. Earthworms are a favorite food, whether or not robins know the idiom. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Like Broadway botanists with Capitol Hill cuttings, know thy buds and know thyself

A Red Edler cutting with buds about to burst. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

 

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Anticipation of spring makes life way harder for me than it should. I can’t focus because I am anxiously checking out the window to see if the plants in my garden are growing.

Already, flowers are popping open and leaves are starting to peak out. I am often in awe of the simple reality, borne in the sap of countless generations, that deciduous woody plants are able to withdraw and extend leaves annually. It got me thinking about how amazing, something we take for granted, a bud, demonstrates seasonal change and millions of years of evolution all wrapped up in a neat package.

Part of the reason I am so interested in buds as of late is that I have been propagating native plants and watching to see what cuttings I took this winter will take.

These cuttings, taken from responsible locations, were dipped in a homemade rooting hormone, (tea made from willow cuttings) and planted in individual pots and left to take. This is a time honored skill of humans the world over, a useful way to perpetuate useful plants without needing their seeds. It’s magical sticking a twig in soil and watching it grow. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Please stop planting these four plants on Capitol Hill — and use these native ones instead

Sure, you can’t see neighbors with a laurel hedge. But then you have to do this regularly to not have problems with them either. Or in this case pay someone to do it. Credit: Brendan McGarry

For people who regularly read Pike/Pines, you might find yourself experiencing some whiplash.

I regularly comment on how our views of plants as “invasive” or “non-native” are not particularly helpful in our drastically altered spaces.

It’s true we’ll never be rid of blackberries, clematis, holly, english ivy, and so forth. But we can stop planting them.

In his book, Nature’s Best Hope, Douglas W. Tallamy encourages us to use our urban and suburban spaces to create useful habitat for a variety of wild creatures. While I completely agree with his ideas, there are times when the book drifts into what sounds like it’s describing a wonderland of places improved by white saviors. However, the ultimate goal, of increasing habitat and using even miniscule spaces we get to manage ourselves is a worthy one. Plenty of non-native species provide food and shelter to the animals we love on the Hill, but the ones that were here before colonization have deeper, more profound and healthy relationships. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The Seahawks may be done but these Seattle waterfowl are worth watching

Cackling geese are visitors from the Arctic circle and show up around the Hill every winter (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Some of my most fond memories of birding as a child involve standing along Lake Washington on a frigid day. Out on the water, unnoticed by most who passed by, were rafts of beautiful fowl. They might have appeared to just be floating about, but those cormorants, grebes, coots, and ducks were doing interesting things. They were also beautiful, and much easier to observe (with the help of decent optical equipment) than zipping brown birds in bushes.

Winter may not be a time of year when our minds are trained on the profusion of biodiversity, but if you focused on waterbirds and even just birds that are strictly ducks you will be astonished by the colors and shapes you can find — even in months like January and February. And they aren’t just bobbing feathers, they are active and have very different life histories. This is why some of my earliest memories of birds revolve around those that float on the water. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | How to add some nature to your Capitol Hill-iday gifts

We’re here to help your search for holiday gift giving alternatives

It’s that time of year, when I devolve into a millennial shame spiral about being a consumer and wanting to give and receive gifts. To try to curb that nagging feeling that climate change is all my fault, I thought I’d suggest some fun gift ideas for the various holidays that round out the Julian calendar (and beyond). Just maybe there’s a way to turn the sin of consumerism into a win for connections to nature. And after all, there are so many ways to learn about nature, and gifts that encourage this are easy to find. And I’d argue that giving someone a bird book, or time out with an enthusiastic naturalist can lead to real and greater impacts than would result from me buying less for my loved ones.

So here are some ideas. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday with people who are deer dear to you.

Tools for learning
The Seattle Audubon Nature Shop has a variety of gifts for a nature lover and their expert staff and volunteers can help you pick out something special for almost anyone. But my favorite thing about their store is the selection of binoculars, the best in Seattle and most of Washington. And the skill to help you pick out a pair that will fit your budget and bring infinite joy in observing all nature with a gadget that won’t become obsolete until you have grandchildren. (I often think that if there was a fire, after I made sure my cat and partner were out the door with me, I’d grab my binoculars.) Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | The fungus among us — four of the mushrooms you’ll meet on Capitol Hill

Regardless of the species, mushrooms are simply captivating. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

In the last year, I’ve been building up my vegetable garden attempting to thwart capitalism, eat healthier food, and live a life more centered in place. This had me outside in all types of weather weeding, picking, and mulching. The latter in particular saw loads of wood chips, sourced from a local arborist, added to create paths, to reduce undesirable plant growth, and to build up the fertility of my beds. Along the way we had a profusion of mushrooms.

I suspect that some would have reacted with horror to see mushrooms everywhere. While I wasn’t in a place of knowledge to actively discern between potentially problematic and beneficial, I generally wasn’t worried. We are constantly surrounded by fungi. Their spores swirl through the air, they hold relationships with nearly every plant we lay eyes upon, and mostly we don’t see or worry about them. A mushroom popping up in my wood chips merely means that these chips were either a fertile medium for fungal colonies already present in the soil, or came pre-seasoned when the tree in question was chipped. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Four of the Hill’s spookiest critters that you need not fear

A species of jumping spider I found in my yard. Cute, but not, not spooky. (Image: Brendan McGarry)

October is a month of harvest, of decay, and of dreariness. Spookiness also pervades as Halloween looms near. A time when the dark afternoons start to crowd in and our human instincts tell us to be wary of the shadows.

Halloween is loaded with symbolism, some are reserved for the haunted corners of our imagination, and others are around us on a daily basis. Whether their connection to this most spooky of holidays make sense or not, the following few animals of the Hill are deeply ingrained in the popular culture that surrounds Halloween.

  • Spiders: Where humans gained a fear of spiders is much debated, partially because arachnophobia is not borne of rational thought. Then again, neither is my fear of zombies after watching a scary movie and spiders are actually real. The good news is that spiders are mostly scared or at least disinterested in humans and the rare bites that are medically significant don’t happen out of malice. Spiders have venom to help them hunt, immobilize, and even liquify their prey, not to run around biting people with. More people have died from cows than spiders. That being said, I would be lying if I said I wanted to snuggle up with a spider. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find them beautiful, because the approximately 50,000 species of spiders described by science represent tremendous diversity in size, shape, color, and life history. Some species, like jumping spiders, can be downright cute. Our cultural fear of spiders doesn’t leave room for the fact that spiders are natural pest control and are food for other animals like birds – just like bats and owls, they’re a part of the ecosystems we live in and share, even the indoor spaces where spiders help keep other unwelcome insects in check. Continue reading

Pikes/Pines | Social queens with bright, distinctive patterns, Capitol Hill’s bumble bees also have perfect hair

A bumble bee visiting a bigleaf maple bloom (Image: Brendan McGarry)

Every year I mark the start of spring when I see my first bumble bee. Birdsong and flowers are part of the cue, but I’m not filled up with vernal energy until a buzzing fluff passes by on some dreary spring day. That first bee is large. She’s always a queen who overwintered in some sheltered space. Her focus is on finding a suitable place to start her nest and getting on with the rest of her life.

Bumble bees are undoubtedly one of the most recognizable insects in our part of the world. It’s hard to miss these big insects, which are often brightly colored and noisily bounce from flower to flower. Sometimes our attention might be due to a misplaced worry that being bees, they might sting you and some bumble bees are indeed intimidatingly large. Thankfully, unless you accidentally squish a bumble bee or really disturb their nest, you’d have to work very hard to get stung by one.

Pikes/Pines has talked about native bees before, but bumble bees hold a particularly fascinating corner of the bee world. Not only are they obvious, with several species being relatively common on the Hill, their life histories are unique. One of the most noteworthy is that bumble bees are one of the few truly social native bee species in North America. Continue reading