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.

Freshwater diatom seen under a scanning electron microscope.
Courtesy UM Electron Microscopy Facility

The bottom of this shallow stream is covered with a complex community of algae, comprising many different species. Probably most abundant of all are the diatoms, many of which secrete a slippery mucus as they travel, leaving the rocks very slick.

Chris Kennedy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (CC BY 2.0)

If you are like me, you will probably hear hundreds of pikas before you ever see one. For years, I heard their shrill calls while hiking high ridges and peaks, but no matter how still I stood or how hard I gazed at those rocky mountain slopes, I never saw a real, live pika.

As The Crow Flies: A Curious Look At A Clever Bird

Aug 14, 2015
Crow
(PD)

Growing up in Kentucky, what I knew about crows was that my uncle had a big one tattooed across his chest. What struck me most when I moved western Montana was the murder upon murder of crows. Never in my eastern life have I seen so many crows as I do in this western place. Crows make a habit of lingering by the dumpster out back, in the tall evergreen out front, in the middle of the street. Even now, I can hear them cawing.

Grasshoppers: 'A Crisp, Electric Spark of Joy'

Aug 1, 2015
There are nearly 400 species of grasshoppers in the 17 western states.
(PD)

Did you know grasshoppers sing with their legs, and hear with their abdomens? Learn more with this field note from the Montana Natural History Center.

Sunlight, Sodium, & Spiders: The Life Of A Montana Butterfly

Jul 29, 2015
Spring azure butterfly.
Elena Gaillard (CC-BY-2)

A cluster of male butterflies called "blues" are sipping minerals from a damp, sandy patch at river’s edge. Each of the nickel-sized insects probes the sand grains with a proboscis, a tongue of sorts that’s more like a drinking straw. Then, something strange interrupts the peaceful scene. A butterfly keels over.

Ponderosa pine bark
Flickr user Tim Jones (CC-BY-NC-ND)

The bark of any tree is more than just a good-looking facade. Even the most graceful aspen or stately ponderosa requires bark to protect its sensitive inner flesh from disease, parasites, and other environmental stresses, such as fire.

Ancient Giants: The Mysterious Beauty Of An Aspen Grove

Jul 13, 2015
Aspen grove
(PD)

One of the world's largest and oldest organisms is an 80,000 year-old aspen colony covering over 106 acres. How do aspens grow so large and so old?

Ant lion larva
Jonathan Numer (CC-BY-SA-3)

Ant lions, or "doodlebugs" have impressive mandibles, are adept at camouflage, and are very successful at trapping and ambushing their prey. "Field Notes" takes a closer look at these fascinating insects.

In August, 2010, my family and I watched from our backyard an unbelievable phenomenon: a single species of dragonfly, individually numbering in the thousands, flew steadily westward across our property on the edge of town for ten magical days. Occasionally they would perch briefly – each one facing west – on the neighbor’s wire fence before continuing on.

Clark's Nutcracker
Ryan Mitchell (CC-BY-2.0)

As a bird biologist who studies bird songs, I immediately recognize most sounds I come across in nature: the winnowing of a Wilson’s Snipe, the smack of a Dark-eyed Junco, the zee-chubbity-chub of a Rufous Hummingbird, just to name a few. For me it is a matrix of sound, as diverse and varied as the surrounding landscape. When I hear a strange sound in nature, I can’t give up until I determine its source.

Glacial erratic in Yellowstone Park's Lamar Valley
Jo Suderman - National Parks Service

Few sights have the romantic appeal of a lone tree growing in the grasslands of Montana. While these trees are beloved by photographers and artists for the serenity and peace they evoke, their origins typically lie in a more abrasive past.

Josh Burnham (CC-BY-2.0)

In the great stands of old cottonwood trees along prairie rivers, chemical skirmishes are taking place between beavers, cottonwoods, and a certain species of beetle. Beavers gnaw on the trees; the trees fight back with toxic compounds; and the beetles move in to feast on the toxins. But in this apparent conflict, all three species benefit.

The Sweet Songs Of The Yellow-Headed Blackbird

Jun 15, 2015
Male yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Flickr user, Vitalii Khustochka

Next time you’re out exploring and hear the sounds of a mechanical disaster, don’t call the National Enquirer to report an alien landing. Pull out your binoculars. You might just catch a glimpse of a yellow-headed blackbird singing his song.

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Shellfish In Montana: The Western Pearlshell

Jun 12, 2015

There are not many freshwater mussels west of the continental divide in Montana; in fact, there is only one native species here, the western pearlshell.

Fireweed: A Colorful Reminder Of Change

Jun 5, 2015
Steve Hillebrand, USFWS

"On a backpacking trip two summers ago, a group of fellow students and I started our trek across the Bob Marshall Wilderness on the West Fork of the Teton River. Much of this area had burned in a wildfire a few decades ago, but the landscape was far from barren. Beneath the smooth, branchless trees, fireweed was growing in bright and colorful abundance.

Ivar Leidus

"What exactly is a weed? This can be a tricky question to answer. A plant that is nurtured and cultivated by one gardener may be yanked out unapologetically by the next, in favor of something preferable. It seems that a weed to one person can be a prized plant to another.

When Do Bumblebees Ignore Flowers?

May 29, 2015
Flickr user, Bramblejungle

Montana's State Insect, The Mourning Cloak Butterfly

May 25, 2015
Kymi

"If you have ever spent any time with a three-year-old, then you’ve probably heard a lot of simple questions about the world around you. Here is one that occurred recently.

Seacrest Wolf Preserve

"If you are lucky, you might see some of Montana’s wolf pups emerging from their dens starting in mid-May. At first the pups stay at the entrance of the den, where they have been holed up with their mother since being born some three weeks earlier. They startle easily at first, disappearing frequently into the den, but soon they are exploring the area around the mouth of the den and socializing with the rest of the pack.

Cushion Plants Keep It Short

May 18, 2015
U.S.F.S. Northern Region

"This spring I went out for a walk on one of the bald hills on the outskirts of Missoula, just east of Hellgate Canyon. I walked the crest of the hill and saw how the strong wind on these exposed ridges blows the soil away, leaving a gravelly surface. The plants growing on this stony pavement are different from the typical grassland species on the slopes.

The Brash Brown-Headed Cowbird

May 16, 2015
Flickr user, Rodney Campbell

"Across North America this spring, female brown-headed cowbirds will wait in the pre-dawn light for a songbird next to be left unattended. In those moments of opportunity, the cowbirds will swoop down and lay an egg in the nest of an unsuspecting mother.

Lewis and Clark Caverns: A Trip Down Under

May 11, 2015
Flickr user, Tjflex2

"Deep inside Lewis and Clark Caverns in the Tobacco Root Mountains of southwestern Montana, a pale spider crawls across the Madison Limestone and vanishes behind a stalagmite.  Scanning the ceiling for roosting bats, I realize the greatest concentration of wildlife here lies within the limestone itself.

Birger Fricke

"Early last fall, I was walking with my dog in the late evening. As we approached a tall silver maple, Benally pulled the leash taut in a fit of canine curiosity. I looked down to find him sniffing through a patch of peculiar-shaped mushrooms that were growing above the maple's roots.

Birds Of A Feather Shop Together

May 4, 2015
Flickr user, Andy Jones

"Have you ever been shopping at your local retailer, heard the chirps of birds coming from the rafters, and wondered, “How did those birds get in here?”

The Mighty Wren

May 1, 2015
Tom Talbott

“I was sunning myself on a large boulder along the snowy banks of the Lochsa River, absorbing warmth and the scent of red cedar, when an abrupt call, “check! check! check!” startled me out of my reverie. I turned to glimpse a tiny, dark brown animal disappearing into a rotted log.

The Scoop On Sculpin

Apr 24, 2015
Dave Neely, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

"I dipped my green net and held it on the bottom of the Swan River. It was mid-October, and I was taking part in a field course exploring watersheds in Montana. I could feel the force of the water as I pulled the net out to inspect what I caught. Flopping nervously in the bottom of my net were two small brown fish. I dropped them into a glass jar to show my instructor. She told me the two specimens were common in western Montana's rivers, and were both slippery sculpins. I returned them to the river without much thought.

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.

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