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Field Notes
Mon., Wed. Friday at 4:54 p.m.

Nature notes and inquiry from the Montana Natural History Center.

  • 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!
  • Tufted evening primrose is one of the loveliest native plants found in dry climates across western and central North America. Its botanical name translates to “wine seeker, densely clumped,” which is apt for a low-growing, mounded plant with very fragrant, citrus-scented flowers.
  • I could not articulate what pulled me off the trail, but I followed the urge all the way to the base of the towering tree, a western redcedar. I stood, neck bent back to take in its shading canopy of soft, scaly leaves. We greeted one another in an exchange that predates my ancestors taking human form: the mammalian exhale of carbon dioxide and inhale of oxygen from the trees.
  • On this lazy Sunday just outside Missoula, I can hear only two cranes from the former flock. Perhaps these are the late sleepers, the teenagers, left by the wayside as the larger family group launched back to the migratory grind and headed north to their breeding grounds. Spring is the season of courtship, and what I’m listening to may well be the first pairing of lovers who will mate for life.
  • Found in the eastern portion of the United States, deathwatch beetles typically inhabit the hardwood timbers of old buildings or the decaying wood of very old trees. The larvae bore into the wood, feeding for anywhere from one to ten years before pupating and emerging as an adult. And while their wood-boring lifestyle can weaken the structural integrity of some infested buildings, if you believe the superstition, that’s the least of your worries.
  • I’ll never forget the first time I heard the call of a Sandhill Crane. It was early June, and I was halfway through an eight-day backpacking trip in the Sapphire Mountains. Sitting in a meadow one evening and refilling my bottle at the oxbow of a quiet creek, I began to hear a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard. It was part elephant, part jackhammer, and part squeaky door hinge. One thing seemed clear: no way had that sound been made by a modern animal, and certainly not by a bird.
  • I noticed a wide flat tail propelling the shadowy animal forward, and suddenly its head popped up above the water. Two large black eyes considered its surroundings as it meandered upstream. I watched excitedly through my binoculars as it dove smoothly under willow roots and resurfaced near a boulder. After two years of living along this creek, I had finally seen the ever-elusive beaver! I hadn’t really known what beaver signs to look for though as just a novice beaver enthusiast.
  • I love paddling my kayak, to get away even for just an hour or two. Sitting in my kayak one morning on a detention pond close to home, I watched a small, tan spider hopping on my paddle. I quickly took a picture, hoping to identify it later. Before I could enjoy watching this new-to-me spider too much, however, another spider—large, black, and hairy—emerged from under my paddle, ran up to the smaller spider, bit it, and started dragging it off!
  • Then, it happens. A pine squirrel wakes up. First one, then another, then three hundred, then five thousand, and before long the evergreen canopy is buzzing with their banter. From that moment forward, my pre-dawn slyness is a distant memory. There is no unwatched, uncriticized movement in these woods anymore. Any step I take is met with angry feedback from above.
  • We pause our berry gathering to more closely examine the kinnikinnick. On many parts of the shrub, the smooth, leathery green leaf margins are accented by bulbous, yellow-red growths. Unmistakably, these are galls, tumor-like growths of the leaf tissue. Each gall was induced by a manzanita leaf-gall aphid (Tamalia coweni), a female aphid who probes along the leaf to form a tiny home.
  • The cottonwoods and alders on the left and ponderosas and perennial grasses on the right framed the trail as if it were the subject of a painting, drawing our eyes up the valley. Mary was celebrating the variety and vigor of the riparian understory when I saw Iris sidestep a stick ahead of us. Iris leaves no stick unturned, so my curiosity was piqued. As we approached, I could see it was a rubber boa!
  • As a teenage boy on the farm in Iowa, I experienced a horde of grasshoppers while unloading a wagon of oats. The surface was covered with grasshoppers! It was not difficult to grab one, and when I did, it would “spit tobacco.” I have since learned that spitting a dark liquid is a defense mechanism. Memories like this one have stuck with me, and in part fueled my interest in the mass of grasshoppers that somehow ended up in Rocky Mountain glaciers.
  • You’ve probably seen it before, even if you didn’t know exactly what you were looking at: some black, woody growth on cherry or plum trees. Black knot fungus, or Apiosporina morbosa, is a fungal agent that invades young trees of the Prunus genus, including most hard-pitted, fruit-bearing trees like cherries, plums, apricots, and peaches.
  • For seven years, I pursued the jay-sized birds on Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana. That quest to observe a nesting pair turned out to be challenging. Belted kingfishers are loners, skittish, and fiendish to study. However, the rewards of a difficult journey are many—like finding something never recorded before.
  • Straightening the quilt on one of the cots, I glimpsed movement through a window and rushed - barefoot - to the narrow deck to see what it was: a herd of 200 elk galloping along each rise and dip of the valley below the treehouse.
  • Spending time in nature with its wild creatures has always been a way for me to rejuvenate my creativity, to fill my soul with happiness, tranquility, and relaxation. A way to let go of stress and worries, even for just a little bit. Recently I wondered how I could give back to the wildlife that makes itself at home around our five acres, to help it co-exist and thrive. Wanting to keep this little ecosystem as natural as possible, I came across the web page of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden For Wildlife.
  • Mountain goats, which aren’t actually goats but are considered “goat-antelopes” and whose closest relatives live in the Himalayas, prefer to live above the treeline and in high alpine meadows, beyond the usual range of predators like mountain lions. Beyond the range of many humans, too. They are one of the least-studied large mammals in North America.
  • I was ahead of my husband when I spotted a bear standing in clear view, close by on the gentle slope that led away from the trail. I stopped and smiled as my brain tried to make sense of why the bear was so short and broad…and why were its legs and back darker than its tawny sides? My jaw dropped when the synapses connected. It wasn’t a bear. It was a wolverine!
  • One June about seven years ago, my husband brought home a bitterroot plant. It was stuck to his irrigation shovel by the clay soil from the hay fields near our house in the Helmville Valley. I marveled at the beautiful hot pink blooms and planted them in the flower bed, where they rarely reappeared.
  • Early in April, I had just spied a fox squirrel eating pine seeds from a ground cache when I felt a shadow gliding overhead on silent wings. I looked up yet saw nothing. When I looked back, there was an indistinct gray form, an apparition, in the shadows where the squirrel had been. The apparition turned its head toward me and peered with two large golden eyes. Tufted horns now held erect confirmed it was a Great Horned Owl.
  • What do tree swallows, starlings, pigeons, hummingbirds, and mallard ducks all have in common? Besides being birds, of course, each of these species sports iridescent feathers that glimmer and shine when the light hits them.