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A 2016 (Photographic) Year in Review

Truth be told, I’ve been having a difficult time writing lately. I’ve felt spectacularly prosaic, and without anything worth discussing. I’ve been remarkably unsatisfied with the process and the outcome. There’s excuses coming out of my ears. But, mainly it boils down to depression about the state of the natural world, my prospects as a contributor to a better planet, and a demanding job to pay Seattle housing rates. I stare at my phone a lot. And look at objects I don’t need online. And scroll through the screaming vacuum of Facebook. The other day I shook my head, realized I hadn’t posted on Wingtrip for 6 months, and discovered I couldn’t read five pages of anything without getting side-tracked. The year past, 2016, seems to have been a really rough one.

As always, in my vigil of reflection, I looked back through my photos. As always, I found that I did a lot, learned a lot, and took way too many photos. Even now I am including almost twice as many images as I did in years past, as a reconnaissance mission for the good things that copper wiring and gold-plated whatsits zapped from my noggin. And as a reminder that a president I didn’t vote for won’t shadow over the coming year unless I let him. These are the things I need to be present for and fight for. This practice in reflection is a reminder to be present, with an eye on the future by looking into the past.

A few quick facts:

I backpacked more this year that any other year in my past. There’s no impressive number here, I estimate around 75 miles of trail, but it felt good to explore places where the only visitors were on foot. Besides distance doesn’t equal quality.

I saved about 2600 photos this year, which is significantly less than years past. This is partially due to lack of activity. I also like to think it’s also due to a refined sensibility, I take less pictures and get rid of more, I know what’s good and what’s not. If I factor in my smart-phone photos, I’d probably triple the number of images, but they include snapshots as records of information, cats, work, and other moments not worth digging through nor worth posting on Wingtrip.

The farthest I traveled from Seattle in 2016 was a quick trip to San Diego. I pretend that I need to travel to feel whole, but the truth is, I’ve never felt more attached to the Pacific Northwest than this year. Yes, I still have grand travel plans, but no, I don’t have to travel to feel a complete naturalist. (Unfortunately, much of my future travel plans involve trying to see what’s left of the world).

And last but not least, I should give myself a break. For the first half of 2016 I worked a full time job doing tree work, and part time at REI. For the second half, I was still working full time at that very demanding, 40 plus hour a week job, and applying to graduate programs, (ie pouring my heart out to people who don’t know me and being almost universally ignored or dismissed.) I had a full year and I now even more respect the people who write on the side of their full time jobs, because I realize I had no idea how to make it work while still functioning as a human being. But enough about that, you care about the photos, not my fits and starts.

So, finally, below are my favorite images from the year, culled down from around 300. This year I’ve chosen to break the exposition down into four categories: animals, plants, places, and people. These images represent the natural beauty of the places I explored, many of the things I value in the world, and a record of what I saw in 2016.

Animals

I didn’t go birding nearly as much as normal, but I was acutely aware of birds and other animals around me in the urban setting and when I was out and about. I got out when I could and the Long-eared Owl below is testament to what you find when you strike out blindly. A little walk at Discovery Park to try out a new backpack turned into a photoshoot with an off-course owl trying to take a nap right by a path.

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A day at Mt. Rainier, just looking for snow, not birds, still afforded me the beauty of the Common Raven. If I were to choose “desert island” birds the way one chooses records, the raven would undoubtedly be among my ark.

Every year I try to go to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and this year it was more important than ever to visit. As people try to chip away at wild-spaces for profit, places like Malheur are even more important (even if it is a heavily altered riparian system today). The pictures below were taken in the space of 24 hours poking around the refuge. Seriously, we don’t need the hate and awfulness of the Bundy crowd. I don’t care if you are conservative or liberal, you should see the value of this place for future generations, not present day resource hoarders.

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A Burrowing Owl standing on a post right above its burrow near Malheur NWR. The only other place I have witnessed these wonderful diurnal owls in such profusion is in the Salton Sea.

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The cleanup crew. Roadkill is common on the refuge but it feeds many. Turkey Vultures are a common species, but they aren’t boring.

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Pronghorn are more frequent on adjacent refuges like Hart Mountain, but they are still present.

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Eastern Oregon is undoubtedly dry, but the snow that melts off Steens Mountain creates a lush wetland. Marsh Wrens are a continuous part of the soundscape in the low wet places.

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In general, owl diversity seems high on the refuge, likely because of the rodent, insect, and reptile profusion. I remember climbing into a deep cut in a basalt flow and accidentally flushing both a Barn and Great-horned Owl that were roosting there. Though I doubt a Short-eared Owl has much interest in Red-winged Blackbird nestlings, that doesn’t stop pumped up males from chasing away a predatory bird.

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Coyotes are all over the West, and I see them in Seattle fairly frequently, but usually they are harrowed, creeping canids there. On Malheur you can actually observe behavior that isn’t merely their skulking. We sat and watched these two yap and howl in tandem in the middle of a field in broad daylight.

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Migratory songbirds find this oasis in the desert compelling enough to come down in droves during May. Yellow Warblers stay to nest and again, they’re a favorite, lemon-drops in a world of brown, green, and blue.

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Meso-carnivores are around, but often not detected. We watched this Long-tailed Weasel hunting around Paige Spring Campground, wisely investigating a camper for rodent attendants. Moments later, after it disappeared into the bushes, it reappeared carrying a vole half its size.

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Too good to not add a second image of this little monster.

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Death comes from above too and this Ferruginous Hawk was one of several we saw driving around the refuge. Note the symmetrical molting in the primary feathers. And the dour frown on the land-bound visitor.

Even without huge exotic trips, I still managed to see some pretty cool birds.

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This Snow Bunting appeared at Discovery Park during the winter and stuck around long enough for many birders to go see it. Not that I care about county listing, but this was a first for me in King County.

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I visited San Diego for the second time in my life in September. Caitlin and her family, who were were visiting, were gracious enough to let me get out birding a little bit. I hadn’t seen many of the birds of Southern California in years and especially enjoyed the California Thrashers in their backyard.

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Camping above the John Day Fossil Beds in Ochoco National Forest, I took some time at dusk to creep over to this Hermit Thrush singing into the sunset. This isn’t the best picture ever, but it was a lovely moment to capture.

I gave time to invertebrates this year too. As you’ll see later on, some of that time was given to as to consume them. Other times it was merely to marvel at these aliens that are integral to our planet’s ecosystems.

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Not that I should be surprised, but I had never heard of Parnassian butterflies before finding this cold, immobile one in Goat Rocks Wilderness. This is a Mountain Parnassian (Parnassius smintheus) and they live almost exclusively in the montane landscape, this being probably one of the last of their single flight in late Summer.

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Caitlin worked a good portion of the year on the Pinto Abablone project of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. Declines and extirpation of these algal browsers have led to changes in the intertidal and near-shore ecosystems of the Salish Sea. Her job was to keep a captive population healthy and happy to support a reintroduction program. Because these marine snails are really good at holding on, she uses their main predator, sunflower stars, or Pycnopodia to get them loose. I helped with a little photoshoot of her animals.

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Many people know abalone shells. Few people know their face. Now you do!

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A tiny, baby Pinto Abalone, one of the hopefuls for the reintroduction program.

People

Simply put, part of Wingtrip is exploration of people in nature, our place in the world. I do that on many levels with many people throughout the year.

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That’s me. I’m dirty from four days of camping in the desert. I’m also very happy and relaxed.

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Caitlin is the first girlfriend I’ve ever talked about on Wingtrip, and that’s because she’s down for almost any adventure. She took the photo of me above, and here we are at Paradise on Mt. Rainier.

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She camps!

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She climbs trees!

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She jumps off cliffs!

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She also does pretty bad ass things, like try to set up a small, personal oyster farm in the San Juan Islands with a good friend of ours. Here’s the finished product. Each bag is filled with hundreds of small oysters.

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Here we are getting them ready to bag.

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I enjoyed eating other marine invertebrates in 2016 as well. Dungeness Crab are part of our heritage and I fully support sustainable harvest. On this day we limited out with one pot off Shaw Island. It was awesome.

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Food is probably the best thing to bring people together. These are some of my nearest and dearest feasting during our annual Beltane celebration on Shaw Island. Fresh crab, warm baked bread, tandoor chicken, and much else.

I backpacked the hell out of 2016. Starting with a trip to the Olympic Coast with Caitlin and ending with an epic in Goat Rocks Wilderness. It was a good year for outdoor recreation.

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Beach camping at Third Beach in Olympic National Park with Caitlin.

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These guys are a constant inspiration and welcome adventure companions. Here we are starting our hike into Horseshoe Basin in the Pasayten Wilderness of the Eastern North Cascades.

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Four hours later it’s snowed 5 inches and we’re frozen. Only a true friend would endure smelly trail socks while sharing a hot mug of beef bullion.

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The cold and hard hike into the area was worth it. This view from a saddle below Windy Peak was worth the sweat to get up the ragged trail there.

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Windy Peak behind, granite squatters in the foreground.

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Windy Peak behind, a look of trail pain in the foreground. This is after crawling through miles of trail covered in trees downed by fire and wind.

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It was so wet coming in, we barely appreciated the flowers that covered the trail. Here we are at the end of the trip.

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Later that summer three of us went to the Goat Rocks Wilderness. This is the Knife’s Edge, some of the highest portions of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington. I accidentally left my camera on a HDR setting, but I appreciate the vibration of the image regardless. We were definitely humming from the setting. Rainier is in the background.

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Hiking down toward our first night in Goat Rocks. Much of the trails here are above the treeline so we had to descend to find a good campsite.

Despite the high adventure, some of my most fond times with friends outside were in the landscape that I’ll forever call home, kayaking and climbing trees, two obsessions.

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Exploring the Nisqually River Delta by kayak.

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Getting 100 feet up in a Douglas Fir with my friend Scott.

Plants

I may not be a botanist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the world of plants. Atop geology, they are what defines the places I love and are part of the substrate for the ecosystems and the animals I am so passionate about. I constantly marvel at where plants are able to live and their diversity. This year I felt like I know just a little bit more between continuing to explore plants and by my work as an arborist.

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This Pacific trillium image is probably my favorite plant photo of my year. They were blooming all over the rainforested coast of Olympic National Park.

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Continuing on the same color scheme, these vanillaleaf (Achlys triphylla) were all over Mt. Rainier National Park in May when I visited for the Bioblitz.

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Exploring the Pasayten Wilderness while backpacking in June, we alternated between various conditions that changed the makeup of the forest. Engleman spruce was certainly a predominant species, a clue that we were on the verge of the boreal forest.

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On our final night in the Pasayten, we camped in a cluster of larch trees, vibrant with fresh green needles. They were enjoying a wet draw, while just above on the well drained ridge stunted white-bark pine were growing in large numbers.

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Where exposure and fire had opened up space, quaking aspen (Populous tremuloides), which grow clonally, were taking hold. I have fond memories of many summers napping in a draw full of these beautiful trees.

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There are few things that amaze me more than plants growing in extremes. While I know there are extremes. This composite flower (I didn’t have time to key it out) and moss campion (the pink flower) were growing in basically, rock, at 6000 feet, out in the open. Crazy stuff.

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This dwarf lupine was similarly growing on an exposed gravelly ridge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

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But this alpine agoseris blew my mind. This is rock. On a crazy slope, thousands of feet from any other plants. I cannot fathom a pollinator getting here, let alone a seed finding a hold in this inhospitable place.

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Although not as insane in terms of the landscape, these bear grass (the while blooms) and pink mountain heather live two thirds of the year under tons of snow!

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I didn’t take much in the way of macro shots in 2016, but this is another denizen of the alpine, the seed head of the Western pasque flower.

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We don’t have a lot of native cacti in the Pacific Northwest, but brittle prickly pear is one species. This plant was in the John Day Fossil beds, but they have a toe hold in the San Juan Islands and even make it almost to the Arctic circle in Alberta.

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Deserts prove immensely challenging for plants, and then you add on highly basic soil and it’s a wonder these buckwheat can even bloom.

Place

I didn’t get far from home, but that doesn’t mean I had a bland time, nor that I didn’t see anything new. In fact, I saw some places I’d never been within just a few hours of Seattle.  I stood atop ancient volcanoes while looking across at active ones. I marveled at the geology of fathomless time. I looked out at wilderness that seemed endless, but which I knew needed my help more than ever.

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Standing atop Old Snowy Mountain, 7880′, in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

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Sunrise in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, looking North to Mt. Rainier (if you look in the lower left hand corner, you’ll notice some white dots just under one of the fir boughs, those are goats I watched all morning).

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I love the vibrancy of the alpine, this tundra on Mt Rainier is bursting with life just beneath rock and snow.

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In another wilderness area, the Pasayten, I walked through miles of burns, but I never found them sad or oppressive. Here was a landscape rejuvenated with lots of life rebounding. Fire isn’t always bad.

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Neither is erosion, or at least in this case, millions of years of erosion. This was my first visit to the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument. These hills of petrified soil from previous tropical climates were nothing short of stunning.

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I had my first encounter with the Northern Lights this year. Having lived on the edge of where these solar storms are frequently visible all my life, it’s surprising I’ve never seen them. We had no expectation of seeing them, they just appeared while we were enjoying a bonfire on Shaw.

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And last but not least, home, as I imagine it. Water. Trees. Mountains.

Yeah, as it turns out, it was a pretty good year. You’d think I’d have figured that out during the process. And by the way, I got into grad school!

7 Comments

  1. “I pretend that I need to travel to feel whole, but the truth is, I’ve never felt more attached to the Pacific Northwest than this year.” How sweet to hear. I’ve been feeling the same thing for a while now, but was almost afraid to express it somehow (you know, like the cool kids will frown on it). Now I see that in owning our shit, and not pandering to some innocuous crowd of 25K followers, we are the real cool kids, and if we remain true to what we love, we’ll be successful regardless of the outcome. I mean, where I live, maybe 1% or less of the world’s human population gets to experience what I do. Why the hubub about travel? I go further in my backyard than many naturalists travel in a year! Jealous of your Long-Eared Owl encounter, and the Burrowing Owl pic is killer! And indeed, coyote behavior is not merely skulking, as you note, for just last week I was startled, while on a bicycle ride here on Whidbey Island, to see one staring at me sidelong in a warrior pose every bit as transcendent as Simba the F**cking Lion King. This is a massive, awesome post, and if you only post like this every six months I will be your biggest fan (but more regular posts would be great, too).
    Cheers, Declan

    Declan Travis
    Creative Fine Art/Nature Photographer
    http://www.barredlife.com/

    “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know…” – Diane Arbus

    • Brendan McGarry

      Dude. This was a very, very nice comment. Thanks much and I hope I can continue to get you excited. What’s up with the owls right now?

      • Thanks for the reply, Brendan. The owls here have been very active the past two weeks, with call and response heard at all times of day and night. Their activity unsurprisingly coincides with a great uptick in the variety and volume of various birdsong (some of which have sounded so good I’ve been tempted to record them). I anticipate a great season for fledglings, but am in dire need of an equipment upgrade – will see what I can come up with.
        Cheers, and congrats on grad school!

  2. Pingback: Awesome Post from Brendan McGarry @ Wingtrip – Barred Life

  3. jean mi

    Hi Brendan. I was surprised and delighted
    to find your e-mail. Some great photos
    I should have noted the ones I thought very special ., but enjoyed them all. Life has changed much for me. Howard, my husband of 63 years died Dec8th 2016 –a harsh blow to be without him..I quit my 16 years of weekly Tuesday morn shift at Audubon gift store a couple of months ago and the Dr advised me to park the car permanently, so depending on others for rides is another pain. Now that I reread this it sounds like one big tear shed after another so forgive me and the next time that you are out in the wild and no one can be distrubed give the outdoors a very hearty Yahoo for me . I am so happy for you being accepted to grad school
    . I wish you a very good year ahead Jean

  4. GhostlyWriter

    I wish I could take pictures like you do! These have absolutely blown me away!!!

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