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.

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.

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.

Flickr user, Charles Peterson

"By the 1930s, conservation groups across North America teamed up to help save the trumpeter, of which only 69 were known to exist. Various projects restored and increased breeding, wintering and wetland habitat, including the new Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Montana. Trumpeter populations rebounded and reached almost 35,000 swans by 2005.

Roger Wollstadt

"By the 1880s, bison numbers had dropped from millions to scant hundreds. Few people in the densely populated East viewed the coming extinction of the bison as an ecological and cultural loss. Naturalist William Temple Horaday was one of the first people to call for the conservation of bison, along with his friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institute, was outraged that the slaughter of bison was allowed to occur.

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