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

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.

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?

The Story Behind Sagebrush, An Icon Of The West

Jan 8, 2016
Big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata)
Matt Lavin (CC-BY-SA-2)

Break off a sprig of big sagebrush and inhale its aroma: the fragrance is clean, sharp and as cool as the smell of winter. Call it camphor blended with a touch of Christmas. Crush a few leaves between your fingertips and the scent is suddenly somewhat bitter and more pungent. Let the sprig dry for a few hours and you’ll find that the fragrance gradually loses its bite, softening to crisp evergreen with a hint of juicy berry.

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 tame 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.

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