Montana Public Radio

Montana Natural History Center

'Field Notes:' Cushion Plants Keep It Short

Apr 29, 2018
U.S.F.S. Northern Region

This spring I went out for a walk on one of the bald hills on the outskirts of Missoula, just east of Hellgate Canyon. I walked the crest of the hill and saw how the strong wind on these exposed ridges blows the soil away, leaving a gravelly surface. The plants growing on this stony pavement are different from the typical grassland species on the slopes.

'Field Notes:' How Scientists Study Bird Migration

Mar 19, 2018
Bar-tailed godwit.
Ian Kirk (CC-BY-2)

Migration is one of the many adaptations used by birds and other animals to cope with the cold temperatures and scarcity of food that winter can bring. As scientists and naturalists we are interested not only in where birds go in the winter, but in how we know where birds go in search of more hospitable conditions. Traditionally, scientists captured, tagged and released individual birds and hoped that someone, somewhere, would find this bird and report its whereabouts.

'Field Notes:' Great Horned Owls

Mar 12, 2018
Great horned owl watercolor.
Wenfei Tong

I was admiring a blanket of stars spread above Lake Como in Montana’s Bitterroot valley, when out of the stillness of the chill winter night came floating a deep, dignified, hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo.

There are few things more evocative of wildness in the northern woods than the hooting of great horned owls.

A red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) eating a cone.
(PD)

Not long ago I was out hiking in the mountains during one glowing afternoon. I turned off the trail and headed into the woods in search of a comfortable place to nestle down and daydream. As I found a spot for myself a red squirrel came bounding toward me on a fallen log. It jumped onto the trunk of a ponderosa pine and gave me that bright-eyed stare accompanied by several swishes of its feathery tail. Then it headed up the tree and disappeared among the high branches. I'd been sitting in a peaceful reverie for only a minute when suddenly a pine cone came crashing to the ground just a couple of feet away. I looked up and saw two more falling. The squirrel was attacking me!

Field Notes: Winter Clouds

Feb 25, 2018
Winter clouds
(PD)

At no other time is the parting of clouds felt more powerfully than outdoors, at the height of winter.

On this particular day, the clouds break intermittently and when they do, motion ensues. The peeps and chatters of birds start, and you can see them dart and cling through a white and shifting world. The snow itself starts to awaken and come alive - melty, unstable layers slide down the steeples of trees.

A black-capped chickadee feeds on mountain ash berries.
Flickr user La FoeZ' (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)

Walking through many neighborhoods in Montana towns through the fall and winter, you’ll find yourself brushing past clusters of showy orange berries, hanging down from the limbs of mountain ash. By late winter many of the berries have spattered to the sidewalk, but through much of the drab months they provide a warm pop of color against the gray sky and white snow.

Cottonwoods: Where Wildlife Take Refuge In Winter

Jan 29, 2018
Black Cottonwood in Winter.
USFWS Mountain Prairie

Thinking about plants in winter recently, I remembered a particular good-sized cottonwood I saw while walking along a riverbank. What was its story?

From James Halfpenny’s fascinating book “Winter:  An Ecological Handbook,” I learned that cottonwoods, like many northern trees, have very special adaptations to survive the long, cold winters.

That's No Flea - It's a Snow Fly

Jan 15, 2018
MUSE (CC-BY-2.0)

When I’m out in the woods in winter, I tend to keep my eyes on the ground. I’m looking for tracks, scat - signs of warm-blooded life. About the last thing I’d expect to see is an insect. But a few weeks ago, on a ski up at Lolo Pass, that was exactly what I found – and not just one insect; dozens.

'Field Notes:' How 'Moon Dogs' Are Made

Dec 3, 2017
A lunar halo, or moon dog. Ruka, Finland
Timo Newton-Syms (CC-BY-SA-2)

Moon dogs have many names: lunar halos, moon rings, or winter rings. Their scientific name is “paraselenae” and they are made visible by a combination of specific circumstances.

Rough-legged hawk
FLICKR USER, FRANK D. LOSPALLUTO (CC-BY-2.0)

As winter comes to the National Wildlife Refuges of the Mission Valley, we begin to see a whole different group of visitors. And I’m not just referring to the human kind. Strange as it may seem, the National Bison Range, Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge and Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, along with other lands in the Mission Valley, are where a number of birds choose to spend their winter.

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