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.

Needle Ice: A Freeze-Frame Of Capillary Action

1 hour ago
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.

Super-Morph: Botanist In The Produce Aisle

Dec 8, 2019
woman in Grand Union supermarket produce aisle
PD

As the temperature drops and the leaves turn brown and drop as well, it gets hard for a botanist in Montana to find anything interesting to study outside. At this time of year I go on field trips to the supermarket. In the produce section the leaves are still green, and you can always find some germinating alfalfa and mung beans. There’s a lot to be learned among the aisles, but there’s a distressing amount of misinformation as well.

A Naturalist's Perspective On Winter Weeds

Dec 1, 2019
Winter Weeds
Flickr user Rachel Kramer (CC-BY-2)

As you travel about Montana’s fall and winter landscape, you’re bound to see the brown and gray patchwork of roadside weeds. We tend to classify weeds as those nuisance plants that grow where they are not wanted. It’s a rather subjective definition. Often the “weedness” of a plant rests in the eyes of the beholder. One person’s weed may be another person’s wildflower. To me these remnants of summer look like survivors the morning after a great party.

Eagle Watching At Rogers Pass, 2008

Nov 24, 2019
Golden eagle.
(PD)

As raptors at the top of their food chain, goldens are good indicators of the ecological health of a region. In recent years, studies show a population in decline. What does one do with this information?  This is one of the questions of science, and of birders: what are we really looking at?

Thermophiles: Multitudes In The Hot Spring

Nov 17, 2019
Black Pool, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park
Jim Peaco, NPS (PD)

Researchers are now testing theories that archaea populate the lowest branches, maybe even the roots, of our phylogenetic family tree. The hydrothermal ecosystems that encompass hot springs are among the oldest continuously-inhabited ecosystems on earth. These environments and the creatures that thrive there need to be protected, for they may tell us invaluable information about evolution and our ancestry.

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