Montana Public Radio

Field Notes

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

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.

A moose near Missoula, MT. Moose in Montana are some of the smallest moose in North America.
Josh Burnham

On a sunny June day, I was standing among a group of budding naturalists, sketching the bark of a cottonwood tree. Suddenly, I heard a series of quiet gasps and more than a few titters ripple through our small crowd. Someone had spotted a cow moose and her calf crossing the path just a few feet away from us. We all turned to watch them on their route to the Bitterroot River.

Lazuli bunting, Oakland, CA
Doug Greenberg (CC-BY-NC-2.0)

There are poems on the wing upon the mountainsides – fraught with beauty and peril.  A female bunting with grass in her mouth is one such poem. In May, lazuli buntings return to the mountains and valleys of Montana.  Lazuli – stone of azure, jewel of the sky.  As spring ripens into summer, the males with their blue hoods and russet breast bands sing from atop shrubs and trees, and begin the rite of passion.

'Field Notes' Takes The Mystery Out Of Mushrooms

May 10, 2020
Mushrooms
(PD)

Throughout the human history of traipsing the earth in search of edibles, mushrooms have undoubtedly been the least understood and most feared flora in the forests of the world. Early Greeks and Romans thought most mushrooms were sinister, evil things. They associated them with dark, damp areas of decay and often depicted mushrooms in the company of snakes or toads, two key ingredients in witches’ cauldrons.

Where Rocky Mountain wood ticks live
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (PD)

Spring has hit western Montana in full force. Days are longer than nights, temperatures are warming, and the snow is gone for the lower elevations. Animals that live here throughout the year, but become quiescent during the long, cold winters, are once again warm, active, and searching for their first meals of the spring. Such an animal is the Rocky Mountain wood tick, one of approximately 825 species of ticks known in the world, which as a group feeds solely on the blood of terrestrial vertebrates.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) in Potts Grove, Pennsylvania, USA. Female on nest.
Flickr user, Audrey. (CC-BY 2.0)

While glancing out my window the other day, I noticed a killdeer in my neighbor’s unpaved gravel driveway. I was reminded of the first time that I noticed a killdeer when I was a child. As I was walking up our gravel driveway, my attention was drawn to a killdeer in distress. The bird appeared to have a broken wing. Insistently and loudly repeating its name in call, it staggered forward, hugging the ground, with one of its wings distended as if broken.

Geralt-Pixabay

I consider myself to be a fairly normal human. Ten fingers, ten toes, two ears. Made up of thousands of different cells. Oh, and of all the cells in and on my body, the human cells are outnumbered tenfold by bacterial cells.

The Gall Of Aspens: Poplar Twig Gall Flies

Apr 12, 2020
Poplar twig galls
Eli Sagor (CC BY-NC 2.0)

"Is not disease the rule of existence? There is not a lily pad floating on the river but has been riddled by insects. Almost every shrub and tree has its gall, oftentimes esteemed its chief ornament and hardly to be distinguished from the fruit. If misery loves company, misery has company enough. Now, at midsummer, find me a perfect leaf or fruit." - Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, September 1851

The Teamwork Of Late Winter: Bird Flocks

Apr 5, 2020
A Bohemian waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) puffs its feathers, April 2011, Glacier National Park, MT
David Restivo, National Park Service. (PD)

Except when mating and nesting, bohemian and cedar waxwings are simply highly social birds. They seek food and water supplies large enough for the entire flock. They will sometimes dispatch a few birds at a time out of a larger flock to a food source, rather than allow a frenzied competition of individuals.

Jupiter and one of it 79 moons, Io, whose shadow eclipsed the sun, September 2019
Pixabay

As I get my first view through the eyepiece, I am met by a dazzling brightness. I am now looking not up but down onto the cloud tops of another world. My eye adjusts to the bright image and I begin to perceive the tan belts and gray wisps of the stormy Jovian atmosphere. Then I see it. It is what I had hoped to witness tonight, and it explains why only three of Galileo's moons are visible.

The Raven's Labor-Saving Device: A Squirrel

Mar 15, 2020
common raven
Alexas Fotos (Pixabay)

Staring out a window while avoiding my to-do list for the day, a squirrel and a raven presented me with a peculiar sight. I observed the squirrel going from spot to spot, digging up seeds in the snow with a raven following close behind. As the squirrel worked its way through the snow, the raven would follow it and move in to inspect the squirrel’s findings. The raven had realized that a squirrel digging through the snow means food, and it was using the squirrel as its personal food finder.

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