MTPR

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] montananaturalist.org or (406) 327-0405.

Field Notes podcast

River otters in winter
Flickr user, USFWSMidwest (CC-BY-2.0)

What happens to otters in winter when the lake is frozen, I wondered. Does the family stay together or disperse? Do otters have any special survival strategies to get through the cold times?

Truffles, Trees And — Squirrels?

Oct 16, 2016
Truffle With A Squirrel Bite
FLICKR USER, SCOTT DARBEY (CC-BY-2.0)

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
FLICKR USER, JON NELSON (CC-BY-2.0)


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.

Flickr user, Ralph Arvesen (CC-BY-2.0)

Wish I may, wish I might…see a shooting star tonight. If increasing your chances for wishing on a falling star sounds appealing, then circle the nights of August 11th and 12th on your calendar and make a big list of wishes – for this is the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, when it’s possible to see a hundred meteors an hour. In fact, for 2016, a meteor “outburst” is predicted, which means that if you’re able to watch after moonset, from midnight till dawn on August 12, you could see as many as 200 meteors an hour.

Flickr user, Peter Stephens (CC-BY-2.0)

"Glacier lilies set standards in beauty and cultural importance. These charming flowers are the lights of spring, indicators of winter’s end, symbols of nutrition, yellow images of patience and longevity, and for me, a new and solid representation of pure human enchantment."

Flickr user, Ingrid Taylar (CC-BY-2.0)

I’m not sure if I’ve ever been on a river, at any time of year, and not seen a Great Blue Heron. They seem to stand as solitary sentries on the rivers of Montana, but also on rivers from Canada to South America.

Keith Williams (CC-BY-2.0)

My eyes open at 5:00 a.m. I see my breath billow towards the top of my tent as I sigh at the blaring intrusion of a battery-operated alarm clock. I must hustle if I want any shot at boiling the pot of water necessary for a hot breakfast. Fumbling around for my least stench-ridden set of clothes, the reality slowly creeps into my head: I am a field biologist.

'Field Notes': Flowers & The Fibonacci Sequence

Jul 4, 2016
Black-eyed Susan
Jason Hollinger (CC-BY-2)

It's summer, and wildflowers are dotting the hillsides and forests. You might find yourself plucking petals off those flowers, trying to determine if he loves your or she loves you not. If you're a hopeless romantic who repeats this ritual year after year, you will notice a happy coincidence — more often than not, he or she loves you. This could only mean one thing (besides that you're worthy of adoration). Empirically speaking, this means that more often than not, flowers have an odd number of petals.

Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC-BY-2.0)

This is a Field Note about greed. My greed.

Recently the dogs and I were out joyfully stretching our legs on a sunny, blue-sky late winter day. The dogs were far ahead of me across the grassy hills when I saw a fox! It saw me, too, but it just kept going about its business in the grass, poking around over by the gully. I know that gully.  It’s full of secrets, hidden under the downfall, in the hawthorne trees, or in woodpecker holes that riddle the twisted old aspens.

'Field Notes:' Reflections On Knowing A Wild Place

Jun 17, 2016
Allison de Jong

Montana has so much to offer for those who love wild places, and I’ve spent much of my time here exploring all the new spots I can in our lovely state. Yet there are a few places that I find myself returning to again and again. My favorite may be Glen Lakes in the Bitterroots.

Extremophiles: The Berkeley Pit's Silver Lining?

Jun 15, 2016
The Berkeley pit in Butte, Montana.
NASA (CC-BY-2)

This story almost begins on a dark and stormy night in November of 1995, when 342 snow geese landed on Berkeley Pit Lake. Unfortunately, this was no ordinary lake and the story did not end well for these birds.

Whitebark pine.
Famartin (CC-BY-SA-3)

I first visited Glacier National Park in June. Though winter had only recently loosened its grip on the Crown of the Continent, there were blue skies and sunshine as I hiked up a high-elevation glacial basin. The temperature was a balmy 60 degrees.

'Field Notes': Calliope Hummingbirds

May 15, 2016
A hovering male calliope hummingbird.
Kati Fleming (CC-BY-SA-3)

It is mid-May, and I am living in a wall tent on a farm in the Mission Valley. The tent is white canvas, and sits next to the largest apple tree I have ever seen. The largest limb hangs high and wide and reaches over the top of the tent. This time of year, springtime, bees and flies and other pollinators dart between blossoms on that high limb. And inside the tent, all lit up with sunshine, it feels like the canvas house is humming and buzzing. This spring, I feel like I’m living in a cloud of wing beats.

Cottonwoods: Where Wildlife Take Refuge In Winter

May 11, 2016
Black Cottonwood in Winter.
USFWS Mountain Prairie

Thinking about plants in winter recently, I remembered a particular good-sized cottonwood I saw while walking along a riverbank. What was its story?

From James Halfpenny’s fascinating book “Winter:  An Ecological Handbook,” I learned that cottonwoods, like many northern trees, have very special adaptations to survive the long, cold winters. They begin their “hardening” process in the fall, as temperatures begin to drop and the amount of daylight decreases.  Leaves typically fall during this stage of hardening, but the process continues as winter settles in. 

'Field Notes': Bird Watching At The Polson Dump

Apr 24, 2016
Gulls at a Belfast dump
Burns Library Boston College

Bird watching at the Polson dump is not for the faint of heart. The task requires an unnatural tolerance of gigantic machinery operated by large men wearing overalls and permanent looks of disapproval. But if you're serious about observing gulls, you need to go to where trucks discard trash at the edge of town. Evidently it's much easier for gulls to pick through our leftovers than to catch freshwater shrimp and fish.

Are You Mis-Using These Common Tree Terms?

Apr 4, 2016
Some write of “conifers and deciduous trees” as if they are somehow different. But, of course, when describing trees the words coniferous and deciduous may be distinctions without a difference.
Josh Burnham (CC-BY-2.0)

As I split and stacked my winter firewood this fall in preparation for the long nights to come, trees in the surrounding forest were also preparing for winter. While I watched their leaves turning yellow along the flank of the Bitterroot Mountains, I found myself considering the confusing terms people use to describe those trees. In particular, folks tend to mix up perfectly good words in ways that leave me more befuddled than enlightened.

Flathead NatioFlathead National Forest to update forest plan, seeks public inputnal Forest To Update Forest Plan
U.S. Forest Service

Two otters slip down a riverbank to merge with the cool depths of the Madison. An angler casts into a limpid pool. Nearby, a kingfisher plunges and emerges from the riffles, a minnow draped through its bill like a mustache. The profusion of wildlife in and around Montana’s blue-ribbon trout streams is no accident.

Wolf Moss: Wallpaper Of The World's Forests

Mar 21, 2016
Wolf Moss
Claire Burgeson

Although small and unobtrusive, an estimated 13,000 to 17,000 species of lichen spread across the Earth, from the Arctic to the equatorial tropics. One of those species, more noticeable than most, is Letharia vulpina, a brilliant fluorescent yellow-green, moss-like lichen that clings to the bark and wood of living and dead trees throughout the world, from sea level to timberline.

'Field Notes': The Wonders Of Winter Adaptation

Mar 13, 2016
A red fox rests in the snow.
Flickr user Charles Anderson (CC-BY-NC-2.0)

Humans tend to sense and respond to winter - the cold, the snow, the wind, the short days - by controlling their environment. We mediate winter's effect by living in a warm house, wearing thick jackets or flying like "snowbirds" south to warm and sunny climates. 

Do Bobcats Kill Deer? 'Field Notes' Investigates

Mar 7, 2016
Bobcat kittens
Summer M. Tribble (CC-BY-SA)

Bobcats are relatively common in patchy habitats all across the U.S., but we don’t see them often because they are crepuscular or nocturnal and well camouflaged. But after a recent bobcat sighting, I'll be on the lookout for bobcats much more than I have before.

Reviewing Avalanche Safety With 'Field Notes'

Feb 29, 2016
Reviewing Avalanche Safety With 'Field Notes'
(PD)

Over the past several years I’ve been introduced to the freedom offered by ducking resort boundary lines and skiing in the backcountry. But the more I’ve grown to love skiing the backcountry, the more I’ve come to respect the immense and unpredictable power of snow.

'Field Notes': Meeting A Montana Loon In Mexico

Feb 22, 2016
Common loon.
Cephas (CC-BY-SA-3)

Each week the haunting wail of the common look opens Field Notes. The loon's cry always brings to my mind large, clear mountain lakes rimmed by lush coniferous forests, a handsome pair in their formal back and white courting plumage calling across the quiet water.

Field Notes: Winter Clouds

Feb 16, 2016
Winter clouds
(PD)

At no other time is the parting of clouds felt more powerfully than outdoors, at the height of winter.

Townsend's Solitaire: Soundtrack To Your Hike

Feb 10, 2016
Townsend's Solitaire
Mark Watson (CC-BY-NC-ND)

When I feel the need to escape from town and immerse myself in the woods, I head up to Marshall Canyon, just east of Missoula, for a hike. Hiking along one of the old roads through the woods and taking in the fresh air and the views down the Clark Fork River towards Milltown soothe my soul and put things back into perspective. As I hike, I frequently hear what sounds like the squeak of a playground swing, swinging back and forth. This sound, however, is completely natural, the call of a somewhat drab-looking bird: a Townsend’s Solitaire.

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