Of Douglas Firs and Bald Eagles

My wife and I bought our house for a simple reason: the massive Douglas firs in the backyards. We had been looking at houses for about two months when we came across the tree-rich yard and the nondescript house. We knew immediately that this was the place. Where else would be find such trees, the biggest of which we couldn’t put our arms around? Now, nearly 15 years later, we know that we made the right decision.

Recently, I have been reminded of our correct choice. For the past couple of weeks, an adult and an immature bald eagle have regularly visited our trees. My first not-so-subtle hint was an adult eagle flying about 30 feet over our heads in our front yard. The bird then turned abruptly and landed in a Douglas fir in our neighbors. And then every few mornings, at about 6:30, I heard two eagles calling in our back yard.

An eagle’s call is surprisingly squeaky, sort of a higher pitched call of a gull. The calls make me think of two pieces of hardwood being screwed together. In my mind, I see a wooden bolt being threaded into a wooden opening. (You can hear it at the the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site; just play the recording for typical voice.) The sound is not what I expected. For some reason, I figured that our national symbol should have a more majestic call. I guess I was being a typical citizen of the USA thinking that if it stands for our country, it must be mighty. Oh well, wrong again. Still the bald eagle’s unctuous call is a pretty cool sound to hear as a wake up alarm.

But eagles are not the only exciting animal in our big Doug firs. I often find owl pellets at the base of the trees; I have heard an owl but have never seen who coughs up the boluses of fur, bone, and feather. In contrast, I have seen Coopers hawks sitting on the trees’ branches ripping apart unidentified birds. My wife and I once saw three of the hawks sitting in the trees. And, then there are the less sexy but equally intriguing avian visitors, such as red-breasted nuthatches, red-breasted sapsuckers, varied thrushes, and brown creepers. This doesn’t include the two mallards that I saw one day paddling around the top of our garage, which regularly floods. The garage is directly under the firs so I decided that I can connect the ducks to the Dougs.

We in Seattle are fortunate that we have so many big native trees in the urban environment. Seeing the effects of having Douglas firs in our backyard reiterates why we need to protect as many of them as we can. And not just tall native trees but big trees of any kind, even if they do block the views of retired baseball players. The trees are essential as habitat for a wide array of life, and a wonderful asset for an urban naturalist.

(This piece originally appeared at the Seattle P-I Urban Naturalist Reader’s Blog.)


The Street-Smart Naturalist Blog

Recently, I was asked by a friend to contribute a regular blog post to the Urban Naturalist reader blog at the Seattle P-I. The post below is my first post for that blog. In addition to the P-I postings, I will also be posting other thoughts and observations on urban natural history to this site.

I didn’t set out to be an urban naturalist. After graduating from college with a degree in geology, I moved to Moab, Utah, paradise for geologists. I spent most of my time out in the red rock canyons hiking, biking, canoeing, and teaching. During my final years in Moab, I worked as an interpretive ranger at Arches National Park. I thought I would stay and be a naturalist in Moab for many years but when my wife decided to go to graduate school, I followed her to Boston.

Initially, Beantown was not a good fit for me. All I knew about the geology of Massachusetts was that a group of renegades had supposedly landed on some piece of stone we now call Plymouth Rock. One day though I was walking across the Harvard campus when I stopped to look at Harvard Hall, a stately Georgian structure built in 1766.

I distinctly remember walking up to the stairs to look at the stone work, which had begun to erode. Making sure that no one was looking, I stroked the crumbling stone. Sand grains accumulated in my hand. They immediately transported me back to my beloved Utah.

I had looked at these sandstones around Boston for months but it wasn’t until the sand grains of Harvard Hall nested in my hand that I made the connection: what I had known as red rock in Utah, easterners calledbrownstone. Both are sandstone colored by iron, which in an oxygen-rich environment rusts and coats individual sand grains like the skin of an apple.

From that point on, I began to focus intently on the geology of Boston’s building stones. I found buildings made of the same stone as Plymouth Rock, which I learned was a 610-million-year old granite; churches fabricated of a purple hued, cobblestone-rich sedimentary rock known as puddingstone; and rooftops covered in slate, formed by a chain of islands crashing into North America. I had found the geologic stories that could provide the connection I had lost to wildness I had treasured in Utah.

I have continued to seek out such stories around Seattle. I learned that the reason it’s generally easier to bike north/south than east/west is the region’s recent glacial history. When I bike from the my house around Licton Springs to Lake Washington, I have to travel up and down the trough and ridge system carved by a 3,000-foot-thick glacier. When I bike to downtown, I am riding in one of the troughs.

I also discovered the rich diversity of life in the city. It is not unusual for me to see bald eagles in the city; I have even seen and heard them in the towering Douglas firs in our backyard. Speaking of trees, we are unusual as a city in that our dominant tree cover consists of our native Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, and red alders. And, of course, I have found building stones galore, ranging in age from 100,000 to 3,500,000,000 years old.

These stories have revealed to me the rich textures that make up the urban landscape. They have made my chosen home of Seattle a more interesting and more enjoyable place to live. I still love to get out in the wild places and see the grand scenery and the grand stories but I have found that living in Seattle still allows me to connect to wildness. It may take a little more effort to find the stories but they have more deeply rooted me in place.

So my goal with this blog is to explore not just the geologic stories but all aspects of the natural history of the urban landscape. In doing I so, I like to believe that we can learn from these stories of urban wildness not only about the land and its inhabitants but about ourselves and our place in this place we call home. I look forward to sharing this journey with you.