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

Some rough-legged hawks fly south for the winter and end up in Montana's Mission Valley.
Andrew Reding (CC-BY-NC-ND)

As winter comes to the national wildlife refuges of the Mission Valley, we begin to see a whole different group of visitors. And I’m not just referring to the human kind. Strange as it may seem, the National Bison Range, Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge and Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, along with other lands in the Mission Valley, are where a number of birds choose to spend their winter.

'Field Notes' Investigates Gizzard Grit

Jan 19, 2016
Ruffed Grouse
Flickr user tuchodi (CC-BY-2)

Afternoon sunshine was softening into twilight on a recent fall day as I drove with my family down a forest road in the mountains north of Missoula. We were heading home after a day of hiking and grouse hunting—and we had a blue grouse to roast for dinner. We rounded a bend to find a covey of seven ruffed grouse, milling about in the road and pecking at the gravelly surface. What were they doing?

Field Notes: What Bears Leave Behind

Jan 4, 2016
Black bear
(PD)

Recently, on an island in a Montana lake, I was walking through an old orchard, left twisted and rotting. Only the red-golden crab apples and tough green pears still grew. The trees were short, yet all the remaining crab apples were just beyond my reach. The only fruit I could reach was on the ground, one side soft. I presumed it had lain there all day, but I ate it anyway, to taste its bitterness.

A Naturalist's Perspective On Winter Weeds

Dec 23, 2015
Winter Weeds
Flickr user Rachel Kramer (CC-BY-2)

As you travel about Montana’s fall and winter landscape, you’re bound to see the brown and gray patchwork of roadside weeds. We tend to classify weeds as those nuisance plants that grow where they are not wanted. It’s a rather subjective definition. Often the “weedness” of a plant rests in the eyes of the beholder. One person’s weed may be another person’s wildflower. To me these remnants of summer look like survivors the morning after a great party.

How Fir Trees Became Christmas Trees

Dec 21, 2015
Christmas tree in front of the cathedral of Cologne.
Flickr user CRE@!V!TY (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)

Fir trees, decorated and lighted, are such a fixture of American homes at Christmas that it's difficult for us to imagine that it was not always so. But on a time scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the beginning of life on earth, the Christmas tree tradition begins somewhere around 9.999999999.

Why No Two Snowflakes Look Alike

Dec 10, 2015
(PD)

You know the old saying “no two snowflakes are alike”? Well, there may be more truth to that than you think. I am from Hillsboro, Oregon, where the snow falls in wet, indistinguishable clumps. When I moved to Montana, I immediately noticed a difference.

A black-capped chickadee feeds on mountain ash berries.
Flickr user La FoeZ' (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)

Walking through many neighborhoods in Montana towns through the fall and winter, you’ll find yourself brushing past clusters of showy orange berries, hanging down from the limbs of mountain ash. By late winter many of the berries have spattered to the sidewalk, but through much of the drab months they provide a warm pop of color against the gray sky and white snow.

Bull trout
Joel Sartore/National Geographic, and Wade Fredenberg/USFWS

In the beginning, the idea of global warming was easy for me to ignore. Of course I found the footage of floating polar bears distressing, but the ice caps seemed far away, and scientists seemed even farther from any real answers.

"Field Notes" Takes The Mystery Out Of Mushrooms

Nov 23, 2015
Mushrooms
(PD)

Throughout the human history of traipsing the earth in search of edibles, mushrooms have undoubtedly been the least understood and most feared flora in the forests of the world. Early Greeks and Romans thought most mushrooms were sinister, evil things. They associated them with dark, damp areas of decay and often depicted mushrooms in the company of snakes or toads, two key ingredients in witches’ cauldrons.

Unravel The Silky Mysteries Of Spiderweb 'Stabilimenta'

Nov 18, 2015
Unidentified orb-weaver spider in its web.
Josh Burnham (CC-BY-NC-2)

I hardly would have noticed her among the dry grasses if it were not for an unusual structure incorporated into her web: a thick white zig-zag of silk descending from the center which drew my attention before I noticed the spider waiting in the middle. What was this silken aberration? Wouldn’t it make the otherwise cryptic web more conspicuous to spider-seeking predators or web-avoiding insects? Why would a spider take such risks?

'Field Notes': Water-Loving Willows

Nov 10, 2015
Cottonwoods, a member of the Salicaceae family, are a common sight across Montana.
Flickr user Jon Hurd (CC-BY-2.0)

Amidst the rugged gumbo-ridge landscape of more easterly Montana, water is everything. With hotter summers than the western half of our state, and with drier winters, the Montana of my childhood does not have the many deep, clear, blue lakes that look up from the covers of most Montana travel brochures. It is the small, isolated watering holes dotting the prairies that sustain life here.

'Field Notes:' Deer In The Spotlight

Nov 8, 2015
White-tailed doe.
(PD)

As they grazed on the grasses in a small break in the forest, and I held my breath to keep from scaring them off, I realized the white-tailed deer's abundance didn’t take away from their significance.

Malachite: Brilliantly Green, And Made In Montana

Nov 5, 2015
Malachite
Courtesy Laurel Hitchborn

   

Never having seen such a brilliant green like this in nature, I was certain it was melted plastic or some other man-made material. Paint. It had to be paint. I tried to scrape the enamel off of the dolomite matrix, but to no avail. As I looked about, I saw that scant splashes of this enigma were all around me.

It's No Walk In The Park To Fly Like An Eagle

Oct 20, 2015
Golden eagle.
Flickr user Rocky (CC-BY-2)

I had been sitting in the observation blind for a couple of hours when I heard a commotion outside. Looking through the one-way glass, I saw an enormous bird with a golden crown and talons that were built for serious damage. Another landed nearby. I knew immediately that they were golden eagles, which are one of the largest predatory birds in North America.

Stellar Scintillation, Or Why Stars Twinkle

Oct 14, 2015
Stars over camp
Josh Burnham (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)

I often return from camping trips with a sore neck. For a while, I couldn’t figure out what caused this ailment. “Maybe I slept on it weird,” I think to myself. Then I think back to my last trip into the wilderness, and remember specifically the cloudless, moonless nights. The inky black sky. The stars. The universe over my head.

How Tall Can A Tree Grow?

Oct 8, 2015
How tall can a tree grow?
(PD)

Have you ever driven across Montana and noticed that the farther west you go, the bigger the trees get? In fact, if you kept on driving all the way to Seattle, you’d notice that the trees there are even bigger than those in western Montana.

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.
Inciweb

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
Crow
(PD)

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.
(PD)

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.

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
(PD)

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.

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