Field Notes

Sunday 12:55 PM, Tuesdays and Fridays at 4:54 PM

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.

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.

Sponges: These Aquatic Oddities Call Montana Home

Sep 20, 2015
Spongilla lacustris, a widspread freshwater sponge often found under logs and rocks in lakes.
Kirt L. Onthank (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Although many people associate these stone-like animals with the crystalline waters of the tropics, several species of sponges do occur in lakes and ponds across North America, including those of western Montana. 

The Scotty Brown Fire, seen on August 11, 2015.

July of 2015 was the warmest month on record in the history of our planet, 2015 is on trend to be our warmest recorded year, and in much of the American west that warmth has been coupled with moderate to extreme drought conditions.

With emissions of greenhouse gases showing no sign of decreasing, these records will probably not last long. For Montana, it means that our overall climate is likely to get warmer and drier.

Glaciers 101

Sep 9, 2015
Scientists measuring the terminus of Grinnell Glacier, in Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park

Glaciers: they are sculptors, carvers and artists. When the Bitterroot Mountains, the Missions and the Rockies were raised from the floor of the ocean it was the glaciers that came behind, crawling over the surface, grinding and eroding the face of the land.

Lycogala epidendrum, also known as "wolf's milk slime".
Benny Mazur (CC-BY-2.0)

Slime molds are stubbornly mysterious. They are usually lumped in with fungi, but exhibit several traits ordinarily attributed to animals. One of these stands out above the others: slime molds travel.

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

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.

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

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.


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

"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?”