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.

'Field Notes' Investigates Gizzard Grit

Jan 19, 2016
Ruffed Grouse
Flickr user tuchodi (CC-BY-2)

Afternoon sunshine was softening into twilight on a recent fall day as I drove with my family down a forest road in the mountains north of Missoula. We were heading home after a day of hiking and grouse hunting—and we had a blue grouse to roast for dinner. We rounded a bend to find a covey of seven ruffed grouse, milling about in the road and pecking at the gravelly surface. What were they doing?

The Story Behind Sagebrush, An Icon Of The West

Jan 8, 2016
Big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata)
Matt Lavin (CC-BY-SA-2)

Break off a sprig of big sagebrush and inhale its aroma: the fragrance is clean, sharp and as cool as the smell of winter. Call it camphor blended with a touch of Christmas. Crush a few leaves between your fingertips and the scent is suddenly somewhat bitter and more pungent. Let the sprig dry for a few hours and you’ll find that the fragrance gradually loses its bite, softening to crisp evergreen with a hint of juicy berry.

'Field Notes': What Bears Leave Behind

Jan 4, 2016
Black bear
(PD)

Recently, on an island in a Montana lake, I was walking through an old orchard, left twisted and rotting. Only the red-golden crab apples and tough green pears still grew. The trees were short, yet all the remaining crab apples were just beyond my reach. The only fruit I could reach was on the ground, one side soft. I presumed it had lain there all day, but I ate it anyway, to taste its bitterness.

A Naturalist's Perspective On Winter Weeds

Dec 23, 2015
Winter Weeds
Flickr user Rachel Kramer (CC-BY-2)

As you travel about Montana’s fall and winter landscape, you’re bound to see the brown and gray patchwork of roadside weeds. We tend to classify weeds as those nuisance plants that grow where they are not wanted. It’s a rather subjective definition. Often the “weedness” of a plant rests in the eyes of the beholder. One person’s weed may be another person’s wildflower. To me these remnants of summer look like survivors the morning after a great party.

How Fir Trees Became Christmas Trees

Dec 21, 2015
Christmas tree in front of the cathedral of Cologne.
Flickr user CRE@!V!TY (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)

Fir trees, decorated and lighted, are such a fixture of American homes at Christmas that it's difficult for us to imagine that it was not always so. But on a tame scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the beginning of life on earth, the Christmas tree tradition begins somewhere around 9.999999999.

Why No Two Snowflakes Look Alike

Dec 10, 2015
(PD)

You know the old saying “no two snowflakes are alike”? Well, there may be more truth to that than you think. I am from Hillsboro, Oregon, where the snow falls in wet, indistinguishable clumps. When I moved to Montana, I immediately noticed a difference.

A black-capped chickadee feeds on mountain ash berries.
Flickr user La FoeZ' (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)

Walking through many neighborhoods in Montana towns through the fall and winter, you’ll find yourself brushing past clusters of showy orange berries, hanging down from the limbs of mountain ash. By late winter many of the berries have spattered to the sidewalk, but through much of the drab months they provide a warm pop of color against the gray sky and white snow.

Bull trout
Joel Sartore/National Geographic, and Wade Fredenberg/USFWS

In the beginning, the idea of global warming was easy for me to ignore. Of course I found the footage of floating polar bears distressing, but the ice caps seemed far away, and scientists seemed even farther from any real answers. Instead, I distracted myself with fantasies of extended summer vacations and longer-lasting tans. Although I admit to subscribing to some serious misinformation, I have come to realize that climate change threatens far more than just the fierce and fuzzy white denizens of the Arctic. In particular, I began noticing newspaper and journal articles that warned of the effects of climate change on one of my favorite Montana native species, the bull trout. I learned that even slight increases in temperatures in the Pacific Northwest will warm waters enough to make them uninhabitable for bull trout. Without this fish, the prospect of longer summers and milder winters lost its appeal.

'Field Notes' Takes The Mystery Out Of Mushrooms

Nov 23, 2015
Mushrooms
(PD)

Throughout the human history of traipsing the earth in search of edibles, mushrooms have undoubtedly been the least understood and most feared flora in the forests of the world. Early Greeks and Romans thought most mushrooms were sinister, evil things. They associated them with dark, damp areas of decay and often depicted mushrooms in the company of snakes or toads, two key ingredients in witches’ cauldrons.

Unravel The Silky Mysteries Of Spiderweb 'Stabilimenta'

Nov 18, 2015
Unidentified orb-weaver spider in its web.
Josh Burnham (CC-BY-NC-2)

I hardly would have noticed her among the dry grasses if it were not for an unusual structure incorporated into her web: a thick white zig-zag of silk descending from the center which drew my attention before I noticed the spider waiting in the middle. What was this silken aberration? Wouldn’t it make the otherwise cryptic web more conspicuous to spider-seeking predators or web-avoiding insects? Why would a spider take such risks?

Pages