Field Notes

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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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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.

Winter Cottonwoods: Apartment Buildings For Wildlife

May 11, 2016
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany

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

'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.

Burnt snags in western Montana
Josh Burnham (CC-BY-NC-2)

One of my favorite places to look in the forest is up. I love the way trees frame patches of sky, and how rays of sun slide over the branches and slant into pockets of darkness. On a recent stroll through the woods near Echo lake, I found myself, as usual, looking up. I saw mostly fir and birch trees, and I took their narrow trunks and modest heights as signs of a young forest. But it was a much older tree that caught my eye.

Are You Mistaking These Common Tree Terms?

Apr 4, 2016
Governor Steve Bullock announced today he’s committing $1.5 million of state fire suppression funds for various forest restoration and fuel reduction projects.
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. 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.

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.