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.

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?


"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.

Flickr user, Seabamirum

Their cryptic brown and white coloration makes ruffed grouse hard to see - often, the first sign you'll have of one is the deep sound of wings flapping, followed by an eruption of feathers nearby. A classic sound of spring in areas where ruffed grouse live is the booming sound of the male grouse, drumming atop a rock or log or mound, simultaneously announcing and defending its 6-10 acre territory. The sound has been described as "an engine trying to start."

Flickr user, Ian Jacobs

"It was fall, and my favorite heirloom house plant had outgrown its container, so I replanted it in a larger pot. To do this, I used some potting soil that had been sitting in sacks in the backyard. Soon after, the house was teeming with little flies. I knew they came from the potted plant, but I had no idea what they were. It turns out they were dark-winged fungus gnats, which feed off fungus in potting soil. These persistent little insects have followed me from one rental house to another over the past two years.

Flickr user, Tim Evanson

"In the late Cretaceous period, from 90 to 65 million years ago, Montana had a lusher climate than today. The Rocky Mountains formed one edge of a vast inland sea - Fort Peck was beachfront property on the edge of that sea. There are three distinct sedimentary rock formations from that era running through the area. The T. rex, "Peck's Rex," was found in the Hell Creek formation in 1997, just inland from the ancient coast. The sparsely-fossilized Fox Hill sandstone is a remnant of the beach itself.

Flickr user, Bev Sykes

"Bat Hearing," written by Erick Greene, read by Caroline Kurtz.

"Most people know that bats are able to perceive their surroundings using ultra high frequency sonar. But how exactly do they do it?

Flickr user, Putneypics

"Birds and Seeds," by Brian Williams.

Flickr user, Jason

"An Insect's Guide To Surviving the Winter," written by Ashley King, read by Caroline Kurtz.

With the help of fur, hair, or clothing, warm-blooded mammals keep a consistent internal temperature, no matter the air temperature. That's not true for insects. How do they survive the cold of winter? 

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Walking around old-growth forests this winter, if you're lucky enough to see fur-lined tracks leading to the base of a tree, or scat containing porcupine quills, look up. Scan the treetops. You might catch a glimpse of a marten or a fisher, two members of the mustelid family that roam Montana's winter landscape.

Flickr user, Sandor Weisz

"Plant Morphology in the Supermarket," by Peter Lesica and Annie Garde.

Liz Rohde

"Mount Aeneas," by Margo Whitmire.

Manith Kainickara, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

"Dance of the Sandhill Crane," written by Clare Antonioli, read by Caroline Kurtz.

"Why do sandhill cranes dance? There are several theories. They may be establishing territories, or they may be warning other cranes of possible danger, but the most widely accepted theory is that the dance is a mating ritual. However, sandhill cranes dance all the time, even when they aren't mating, so how could a dance be only a mating ritual? Even juveniles, who are not of mating age, dance.


"Daddy Longlegs," written by Melissa Zapisocky, read by Caroline Kurtz

Flickr user, Seabamirum

"Starling Obfuscation," by Robin Childers.

Joel Penner

"Pine Squirrel Caches," written by Caitlin Fox, read by Caroline Kurtz.

"Last September, I went on a hunt for buried treasure. I had heard of a man who put himself through college collecting pine nuts from squirrels' winter caches and selling them to the local grocer. He must have learned their hiding places and robbed their summer's work in late fall. I had pictured uncovering stores of hundreds of smooth, white pine nuts, individually shelled, like candy.