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] or (406) 327-0405.

'Field Notes': Water-Loving Willows

Nov 10, 2015
Cottonwoods, a member of the Salicaceae family, are a common sight across Montana.
Flickr user Jon Hurd (CC-BY-2.0)

Amidst the rugged gumbo-ridge landscape of more easterly Montana, water is everything. With hotter summers than the western half of our state, and with drier winters, the Montana of my childhood does not have the many deep, clear, blue lakes that look up from the covers of most Montana travel brochures. It is the small, isolated watering holes dotting the prairies that sustain life here.

'Field Notes:' Deer In The Spotlight

Nov 8, 2015
White-tailed doe.

As they grazed on the grasses in a small break in the forest, and I held my breath to keep from scaring them off, I realized the white-tailed deer's abundance didn’t take away from their significance.

Malachite: Brilliantly Green, And Made In Montana

Nov 5, 2015
Courtesy Laurel Hitchborn


Never having seen such a brilliant green like this in nature, I was certain it was melted plastic or some other man-made material. Paint. It had to be paint. I tried to scrape the enamel off of the dolomite matrix, but to no avail. As I looked about, I saw that scant splashes of this enigma were all around me.

Paintbrush: The Prettiest Parasite On The Prairie?

Oct 26, 2015
Indian paintrbrush (Castilleja linariifolia) in Grand Teton National Park.

Most people are familiar with the showy red or yellow flowers of the Indian paintbrushes. They can be found from the dry valley grasslands to lush alpine meadows. There are 21 species of the paintbrush just in Montana, including bristly paintbrush, the red-flowered species of dry slopes and scarlet paintbrush which is common in meadows and along streams.

It's No Walk In The Park To Fly Like An Eagle

Oct 20, 2015
Golden eagle.
Flickr user Rocky (CC-BY-2)

I had been sitting in the observation blind for a couple of hours when I heard a commotion outside. Looking through the one-way glass, I saw an enormous bird with a golden crown and talons that were built for serious damage. Another landed nearby. I knew immediately that they were golden eagles, which are one of the largest predatory birds in North America.

Stellar Scintillation, Or Why Stars Twinkle

Oct 14, 2015
Stars over camp
Josh Burnham (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)

I often return from camping trips with a sore neck. For a while, I couldn’t figure out what caused this ailment. “Maybe I slept on it weird,” I think to myself. Then I think back to my last trip into the wilderness, and remember specifically the cloudless, moonless nights. The inky black sky. The stars. The universe over my head.

How Tall Can A Tree Grow?

Oct 8, 2015
How tall can a tree grow?

Have you ever driven across Montana and noticed that the further west you go, the bigger the trees get? In fact if you kept on driving to Seattle, you’d notice that the trees there are even bigger than those in western Montana.

Fishing With The King: The Belted Kingfisher

Oct 6, 2015
A female belted Kingfisher with her catch.
Teddy Llovet (CC-BY-2)

While recently visiting the Rock Creek area to simply go fishing I became distracted as I cast my red skwala into the clear, frigid stream. I was not distracted by the surrounding beauty of grasslands and different flora, or my ongoing love/hate relationship with fly-fishing, but rather the immense variety of sound echoing off the rock outcroppings surrounding the area.

Wolverines: Wild Weasels Of The Alpine

Sep 30, 2015
In Montana, wolverines reside mostly within the Crown of the Continent ecosystem.
Andrew Gainer (CC-BY-NC-2)

A small dark blur upslope materialized into a loping wolverine, coming straight toward us! Afraid this wolverine wanted to share our lunch, we left our backpacks where they lay, and hurried out of its path.

Ghosts Of The North Woods: Great Grey Owls

Sep 25, 2015
Great gray owl.
Flickr user Elizabeth Haslam (CC-BY-NC-2)

One evening while walking along the river just outside of town, winding my way through a meadow fringed with ponderosa pine, I met a great gray owl hunting down amongst the bunchgrass and wheatgrass. Startled, the bird rose on 5-foot wings and flew straight towards me, veering at the last moment to skim past my shoulder.