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Field Notes
Wed. at 3:53 p.m., Sat. at 11:53 a.m.

Nature notes and inquiry from the Montana Natural History Center.

  • In late 2020 I’m spending mornings masked, working in a lab in the University of Montana Zoological Museum. The museum houses research collections of natural artifacts like skins and skeletons. But behind the scenes museum staff tend a single living collection: a colony of dermestid beetles, the meticulous scavengers that scour flesh from bones before a skeleton can be installed in the museum.
  • Why are they so feared and misunderstood? If a bird popularity contest were held, Turkey Vultures would not fare very well. A spooky bird contest, on the other hand? Dead winner.
  • First one, buzzing and bumping into the living room window, who was soon joined by a few sisters. Within an hour, there were more than 40 sinisterly striped yellow jackets (Vespula alascensis) zooming from one window to another in pursuit of light, and I was outnumbered.
  • As I watched Rob Domenech, executive director of the Raptor View Research Institute, and his research biologist Brian Busby carefully load the three chicks onto the lift, and heard Harriet’s chirps of protest from above, I considered the importance of this work.
  • At Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, I saw an Osprey dive into the deepest section of white water and emerge with nothing to show for its effort, and then retreat to a cottonwood branch to watch for another opportunity in the dark, boiling water.
  • A small spot of orange in the middle of the trail caught my eye. It wasn't a leaf or a berry; it was tiny and moving! As I neared the curious sight, I discovered it was a fuzzy caterpillar.
  • Despite the harsh and stark appearance, all is not lost after a wildfire. In fact, there is much to be found when you look about.
  • Let me take you on a journey. It’s just a few miles, but over that short distance we’ll be transported not only to a dramatically different landscape, but also back through hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s history.
  • The first sound we hear these early summer mornings is the prehistoric, other-worldly call of Sandhill Cranes. It rises deep from their impossibly long necks, climbs into the sky, and stretches for miles across the countryside.
  • We’re wandering around the mostly evergreen woods nearby the ghost town of Garnet, Montana. we reach a sunlit clearing: a bright green patch with just a handful of trees.
  • Usually, pronghorn will dash away when they see a truck coming. However, at times they race toward me, accelerating, seemingly intent on crossing the road ahead of me.
  • My sister and I struggle to keep up with our mother. Today, we carry gallon-sized Ziploc bags, rolling the nearly-black berries from their stems to our palms to our bags.
  • This Montana prairie holds a secret. This is coulee country, a landscape peppered with gullies waiting to be explored.
  • A visitor to the Yellowstone National Park helped with a calf struggling to cross a river. After, the calf began approaching people and cars, hazardous for all concerned.
  • Wind has a way of blowing in and cutting short an adventure. It can ruin a picnic. It can wreak havoc on the best-laid plans. At its worst, it can be dangerous and even deadly. But it also creates the breeze that shakes the leaves of quaking aspen. It carries the seeds of black cottonwood and the wings of Red-tailed Hawks to new destinations.
  • Most plants conduct photosynthesis and make their own food from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. Fungus flowers, however, cannot conduct photosynthesis, making them not only look bizarre but function in a bizarre manner.
  • Tyrell’s tufted, along with most jumping spider species, is not aggressive. Jumping spiders actively hunt their food using their speed, the hunters of the arachnid world.
  • We continue walking, giving the shoreline a wide berth to avoid scaring any loons that might be around. Now we're on the opposite side of the lake and—we see them. Two adult Common Loons. Oh, they're lovely: streamlined, low-slung bodies, perfect for diving. Sleek black heads, red eyes, and characteristic black-and-white coloration that makes it easy to identify them.
  • It’s June and I’m in a dreamy meadow deep in the backcountry of Mount Rainier National Park, looking for toads. My mission: find the toads, count the toads, save the toads—in that order.
  • Crawdads have specialized cells in their exoskeletons that allow them to change color to adapt to their surroundings. The cells, called chromatophores, work to either concentrate or disperse pigment. Similar cells in chameleons and octopuses allow for a quick color change. But, for crawdads, the process is slower.
  • Northern Harriers are considered one of the most elusive raptors, and some of the most accomplished wildlife photographers admit how difficult they are to photograph. Male Harriers, with their white underside and opaque gray-back plumage, seem to be even more challenging to photograph than the brown and much larger females. For that reason, many birders and photographers call male Harriers “Gray Ghosts.”. One moment they’re in your viewfinder, the next, they’re gone.
  • I was delighted to observe such an unusual visitor, but he had a bigger surprise for me. As I watched him forage through my yard he did something unique I had never seen, heard of, nor even imagined!