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.

River otters in winter
Flickr user, USFWSMidwest (CC-BY-2.0)

What happens to otters in winter when the lake is frozen, I wondered. Does the family stay together or disperse? Do otters have any special survival strategies to get through the cold times?

How Do Ants Keep Warm In Winter?

Feb 9, 2020
red wood ant mound
Thue (PD)

On a recent stroll around a local bird refuge, I was struck by the appearance of a large ants’ nest, covered with a thatch of pine needles. The type of ants who construct these nests are called “mound builders,” and this particular mound was made by red wood ants. What do they do to survive the cold, I wondered?

Kristamonique (Pixabay)

Walking in a heavy snowstorm at night is one of my favorite ways to experience winter. There is something quite magical about being wrapped in the hug of falling snow. Snowflakes land delicately and melt on the tip of my nose. The trees are covered in a lacy latticework of icy crystals. The world slows down for a while and becomes quiet, save for the scrape of shovels on driveways and sidewalks, or the thwop of snow as it slides en masse from roof to yard.

'Field Notes': Meeting A Montana Loon In Mexico

Jan 26, 2020
U.S.F.W.S. (P.D.)

Each week, the haunting wail of the common loon opens the Field Notes program. The loon’s cry always brings to my mind clear mountain lakes rimmed by lush coniferous forests, a handsome pair of birds in their formal black and white courting plumage calling across the quiet water.

Needle Ice: A Freeze-Frame Of Capillary Action

Jan 19, 2020
Needle ice pushing up soil particles
Thomas Bresson (CC-BY-2.0)

It was midnight and dark, but when my boots made crunching noises as I walked along the dirt road, I knew what was underfoot: tiny, clustered pillars of ice lifting the top layer of soil debris from the road.  Now, in the light of the morning, the ice pillars look like miniature, partially buried, delicate ice castles.  I am as intrigued by them now as I was when I first noticed them a few years ago, both here by Flathead Lake and up along McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park.

Beneath The Snow, The Subnivean Zone Bustles

Jan 12, 2020
Diane Renkin, Yellowstone National Park (PD)

Many animals are able to survive the freezing cold temperatures of a Montana winter by making use of that place between the snow and the ground called the subnivean layer. This layer is created because snow is such a good insulator, holding in warm air heated by the earth, and keeping out cold air.

Sponges: These Aquatic Oddities Are At Home In Montana

Jan 5, 2020
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. 

A Portrait Of Kehi-oo-Leh, Rattlesnake Creek

Dec 29, 2019
Rattlesnake Creek flowing through Missoula's Greenough Park, January 2019.
Josh Burnham / CC-BY-NC-2

I grew up in Missoula with the sound of Rattlesnake Creek pouring bedtime stories into my room, its chanting waters carrying me away to peace-filled dreams. When I was younger, my brother, our two neighbors and I used to build dams in the creek when summer warmth slowed the waters. At ages 10 and 12 we considered ourselves the best in the field, and this was reflected in our job titles: log expert, rock expert, and rescue expert.

The Bird Count Of Christmas And 'One Magpie Dancing'

Dec 22, 2019
Black-billed magpie
Helenagoma (Pixabay)

Just before lunch, we pulled up to a dead end at the base of the foothills and looked out into a plowed field to see … yet another magpie. This one, though, was hopping and flashing its wings in jerks, as if trying to perform a mad waltz, so we drew up our binoculars for a closer look. We could see then that it was corralling a small rodent, a vole I guessed, as it danced from foot to foot.

The Short-Tailed Weasel: Life Sped Up

Dec 15, 2019
Short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), summer phase
Steve Hillebrand (U.S.F.W.S.)

While some animals get off comparatively easily in the winter by hibernating, or by gorging and then fasting, the short-tailed weasel has to hunt every day to keep its blast-furnace metabolism stoked. With a heart rate of several hundred beats a minute and little in the way of fat reserves on its long and slender body, the animal must consume half its body weight daily.

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