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.

Field Notes podcast

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.