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.

Snow Fleas: 400 Million Years Old And Still Springing

Apr 3, 2015
Flickr user, Robbie Sproule

""Oooo...the poor snow fleas," says my fiancée, Paige, crouching on the ice to see them closer. "It's a snow flea massacre, a snow flea disaster!" she exclaims, throwing her hands in the air.

I smile. This is why I'm marrying her later this year - she reminds me to stop and look at the snow fleas.

It's 48 degrees on the 26th of January in western Montana, and the fleas, no more than specks of dirt to the naked eye, are streaming down rivulets in the icy road and pooling in inky masses that look like miniature peat bogs.

Flying Squirrels, Night Gliders Of The Forest

Mar 27, 2015
Angie spuc

Head down, legs spread, the flying squirrel glides among trees in the forest like an animated paper airplane.

The Sundew's Lure Disguises A Deadly Trap

Mar 20, 2015
Flickr user, Adriaan Westra

In the poor soil of fens, marshes and bogs, sundews have evolved to be carnivorous.

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?

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