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.

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Truffles, Trees And — Squirrels?

Oct 16, 2016
Truffle With A Squirrel Bite

Walking through the woods recently, I saw a red squirrel digging in the litter of the forest floor. I assumed it was burying a pine cone, but on closer inspection I found a piece of mushroom. Little did I know I was witnessing a process critical to the survival of a forest.

Golden Islands Of The Western Montana Forest

Oct 8, 2016
Golden islands of western larch in the Gold Creek area near Missoula.
Josh Burnham (CC-BY-2)

Sitting on the shores of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park last fall, gazing up at the surrounding hillside, I was struck by a unique mosaic of golden splendor against the evergreen background. The largest of its species, the western larch, Larix occidentalis, is indeed a unique kind of tree.

A Rumination On The Mule Deer Rutting Season

Oct 2, 2016
Mule deer buck

Soaking up some September sun, I was perched on a rocky outcrop of Wild Horse Island in Flathead Lake. The sweet vanilla scent of Ponderosa pine permeated the air as I watched gulls flying overhead. I sat quietly on a large boulder and waited for the residents of this island ecosystem to resume activity as if I were not there. Across the small gully on the next rocky hilltop, a single female deer grazed in the shade of a pine. By the black tip on the end of her tail, I was able to identify her as a mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus.

Sagebrush near San Luis, CO.
Flickr user Jeff B (CC-BY-2.0)

I’ve always been impressed by survivors, especially here in the arid, unforgiving West. No species better demonstrates this survival instinct for me than does the lowly Artemisia tridentata, better known as big sagebrush. And few other species come as close to communicating such a significant part of the nature of the landscape.

Stressed? Science Says Take A Walk In The Woods

Sep 19, 2016
More and more research reveals time spent outdoors relieves stress and improves physical and emotional well-being.
Josh Burnham (CC-BY-NC-2)

I feel the stress from the week lift off my shoulders as I breathe in the scent of ponderosa pine. Today, I have no papers to write, tests to take, or meetings to attend. This is my time to relax in the Montana wilderness. Even though I know that spending time in nature always makes me feel better, I don’t always take the time to immerse myself in it. And I’m not the only one. It seems fewer people escape from the human world while, ironically, more and more research reveals time spent in nature relieves stress and improves physical and emotional well-being.

Flickr user, Jason Hollinger (CC-BY-2.0)

Recently, the work of lichenologist Toby Spribille, a research professor based part-year at the University of Montana-Missoula, has upended the idea that lichen are an alliance between just one fungus and one algae. In many lichens, a mysterious yeast is the third player in this symbiosis. 

Why Spiders Appear To Bungee-Jump From The Sky

Sep 3, 2016
Flickr user, Hunter Desportes (CC-BY-2.0)

It felt like the perfect spot to see some wildlife. So I plopped down in the sun-soaked grasses among the widely scattered ponderosa pines and waited. I was squinting, or possibly had my eyes closed, and when my vision came back into focus I saw a visitor. One of the most creative, silent and lethal predators of the natural world was directly in front of me.

We were making our way down the Bitterroot River. I said to Chinook:  “I’ll be Lewis; you can be Clark.”  Then I reconsidered. “We’ll both be Sacagawea – since, historically, probably more than one Indian woman filled that role.”  Chinook wasn’t listening.  He was working hard to plow through water up to his belly and keeping an eye out for fish.

The Bonsai Opportunists Of Timberline: Krummholz

Aug 22, 2016
Flickr user, famartin. (CC-BY-3.0)

Winds lash the peaks. Snow pelts the ridges almost every month of the year. The warmest average monthly temperature is a mere 50 degrees F. The conifer forests of the high Northern Rockies appear hunched, twisted and bent. In fact, there’s a word for the dwarf form of subalpine tree species which in other environs would grow tall and straight: “krummholz,” which translated from German means “crooked wood.”

Ponderosa Pine Bark: Rocky Mountain Aromatherapy

Aug 15, 2016
Flickr user Tim Jones (CC-BY-NC-ND)

The bark of any tree is more than just a good-looking façade. 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.  Much like our skin, this outer layer is a necessity to protect the biological functions occurring within its protective covering.