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

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?

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.

Fishing With The King: The Belted Kingfisher

Oct 6, 2015
A female belted Kingfisher with her catch.
Teddy Llovet (CC-BY-2)

While recently visiting the Rock Creek area to simply go fishing I became distracted as I cast my red skwala into the clear, frigid stream. I was not distracted by the surrounding beauty of grasslands and different flora, or my ongoing love/hate relationship with fly-fishing, but rather the immense variety of sound echoing off the rock outcroppings surrounding the area.

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.

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.