Field Notes

For keen observers, a walk to the grocery store or a hike up a mountain can inspire questions. Where do magpies nest? Why doesn’t a spider stick to its own web? How do water striders keep from sinking? Every week since 1992, Field Notes has inquired about Montana's natural history. Produced by the Montana Natural History Center, Field Notes are written by naturalists, students and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana.

Interested in writing a Field Note? Contact Allison De Jong, Field Notes editor, at adejong [at] montananaturalist.org or (406) 327-0405.

Can Spider Webs Reveal Air Pollution?

Mar 16, 2015
Flickr user, PermaCultured

"Classic spiral spider webs are made by orb-weaving spiders which weave them deadly traps for flying insects. But orb spider webs are also electrostatically charged, making them perfect for capturing not only prey but pollen and other small pollutants, indicators of an environment's health.

Attracting Wildlife To Your Backyard

Mar 10, 2015
Flickr user, Dan O'Connor

"I live at the base of Mount Sentinel in Missoula, and as a result frequently have all sorts of wildlife wandering through my yard. I’ve spotted deer, squirrel, and even occasional coyote or fox tracks in the mud pit that will, come spring, morph into a garden. Seeing those tracks, I started to wonder what other wildlife calls my backyard “home.”

Flickr user, Tim Pierce

"I realize that many people do not like insects. The fourth graders are almost always exuberant, though, and when it comes to nature, there are no "ewwww"s in my class! Still, I do like to give a nod to the fact that bugs are not always appreciated. There are excellent reasons for this, reasons the kids can usually figure out: mosquitoes bite; wasps sting; beetles can eat corn, fruit and potatoes; bark beetles can kill many trees and destroy forests; insects sometimes carry diseases, which can infect people and livestock; termites can eat our homes.

Flickr user, Sid Mosdell

When it comes to surviving winter, insects in temperate regions like Montana can be divided into two groups: freeze-tolerant insects that can survive if their body fluids freeze, and freeze-avoiding ones that can't.

Certain flies, wasps, beetles and moth and butterfly larvae and pupae produce chemicals that control the rate and size of ice crystal formation in their bodies, so that freezing doesn't damage their cells. The pupae of one species of swallowtail butterfly has survived laboratory temperatures of -385 degrees F.

All About Leeches

Feb 15, 2015
Flickr user, Michael Jefferies

"Some people seem surprised that I don't keep fish in the large aquarium in my home. Instead I have mud and debris, plants, insect larvae, beetles, hydras, scuds, crawdads...and leeches. I collected all these goodies from ponds and sloughs in the area. This fall, I noticed that one of the leeches, a good-sized sucker, was clinging to the side of the aquarium, out of the water. I wondered if it was trying to escape to find a winter home in less soggy mud. To find out, I went to the library and came back with a three-volume set of books all about leeches.

Steve Hillebrand, USFWS

"While some animals get off comparatively easily in the winter by hibernating, or by gorging and then fasting, the short-tailed weasel has to hunt every day to keep its blast-furnace metabolism stoked. With a heart rate of several hundred beats a minute and little in the way of fat reserves on its long and slender body, the animal must consume half its body weight daily.

Flickr user, Alexey Kljatov

"It almost makes you dizzy to look straight up into falling snow. People love watching things fall through the air: autumn leaves, fireworks, even skydivers wafting to the ground on their parachutes. On this winter day, I begin to wonder if the grammar school adage is true. Are all snowflakes unique?

Retron

"Take a dozen railroad whistles, braid them together, and then let one strand after another drop off, the last peal so frightfully piercing as to go through your heart and soul." According to biologist Stanley P. Young, that's a stockmen's take on the sound of a howling wolf pack. But it'll come as no surprise to any dog owner that while howling is the most recognizable of four different wolf vocalizations, under various circumstances, wolves also growl, whimper, and bark.

Flickr user, Chris Moody

"Not long ago, I grabbed my boots, a small cooler, and a turkey baster from our kitchen. In just a few minutes, I had broken through the ice on the shore of the Bitterroot River, sucked up some water from under rocks, and squirted it into the cooler. I moved on a bit and watched two muskrats, while I listened to chickadees singing with the sounds of the river behind. This was natural history at its best, almost. It was about to get better. I returned home where my microscope was waiting to show me what minute life forms I had captured.

Flickr user, Teddy Llovet

"Skiing next to a creek north of Missoula on a morning so cold that ice crystals dance in the air, the world seems silent, asleep. Then a brilliant melody pours forth like a breath of spring. The sound seems to come from the water itself. I ski closer to the ice-lined creek and a splash in the shallows reveals a stub-tailed, plump little bird whose dark coloring blends perfectly with the drab gray rocks. This is a dipper, or water ouzel, a year-round native of Montana's rushing, forested streams.

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