You've probably seen woodpeckers. Whether attracting them to your backyard with suet feeders, or hearing them drill on the side of your house, you have probably noticed their large pointed beak and ability to climb tree trunks. But besides downy and hairy woodpeckers, which are seen often in Montana, we also have some types of woodpeckers that live in some of the most unique habitats and do some of the most peculiar things of any animal in the Rocky Mountains.
Have you ever walked around in a recently burned forest? One of those areas where perhaps last summer you saw flames leaping out or smoke billowing? If not, I urge you to go out and take a look at this unique environment. I had never spent any time in a burned forest until a few years ago. I was immediately impressed with the beauty and abundant life I found in this transformed forest.
Enter the high country of Montana in late May or early June and you may see a striking pale pink flower. Few plants can rival the lovely bloom of the bitterroot, a low-growing perennial herb with a blossom that ranges from deep rose to almost white. The bitterroot grows on the dry slopes of the Rockies, ranging from southern British Columbia and Alberta to the high-altitude deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.
Thirty-plus years ago when I was studying wildlife management at Oregon State University, we learned that Ceanothus was a highly preferred forage plant for deer and elk during the winter. I knew that Ceanothus was the genus name of a large group of western shrubs and I even knew enough to recognize a few of the individual species back then.
In the great stands of old cottonwood trees along prairie rivers, chemical skirmishes are taking place between beavers, cottonwoods, and a certain species of beetle. Beavers gnaw on the trees; the trees fight back with toxic compounds; and the beetles move in to feast on the toxins. But in this apparent conflict, all three species benefit.
If you have been in open country anywhere in Montana, you have heard, and probably seen, thunderchunks. These birds are everywhere, proclaiming territories and singing from fence posts, sage brush, and telephone poles.
I love driving from Missoula to Helena or Great Falls or Bozeman, over the big passes of the Continental Divide and along some of our country’s most spectacular rivers. On the west side of the Divide, we pass green foothills, huge ponderosas and larch, and soaring bald eagles and osprey. Dropping down onto the east side, we start to see grasslands, sage brush, mule deer and pronghorn. Travelers in Montana know that the climate on the east side of the Continental Divide is suddenly and...
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.
I was walking through Greenough Park in Missoula the other day, enthralled by the bright spring afternoon. A yellow cascade of dandelions popped out against the grass. Rattlesnake Creek swelled with snowmelt. The air smelled of shoots, buds, and fresh growth. Then I heard an echoing croak. A raven swooped down and perched on a park bench, a defiant figure of darkness in the daylight.
"Glacier lilies set standards in beauty and cultural importance. These charming flowers are the lights of spring, indicators of winter’s end, symbols of nutrition, yellow images of patience and longevity, and for me, a new and solid representation of pure human enchantment."
Cat-o-nine-tails, reedmace, bulrush, water torch, candlewick, punk, and corn dog grass. The cattail has almost as many names as it has uses. Humans have taken their cue from the animals over the centuries and continue to benefit from cattail’s nutritional, medicinal, and material uses.
The bark of any tree is more than just a good-looking facade. Even the most graceful aspen or stately ponderosa requires bark to protect its sensitive inner flesh from disease, parasites, and other environmental stresses, such as fire.
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.
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.
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...
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.
You know the old saying “no two snowflakes are alike”? Well, there may be more truth to that than you think. I am from Hillsboro, Oregon, where the snow falls in wet, indistinguishable clumps. When I moved to Montana, I immediately noticed a difference.
If you go cross-country skiing in the North American woods, you’re likely to hear all manner of twittering and chattering as flocks of birds like chickadees, finches, and nuthatches bustle about finding food and warning each other about danger. Most birds will call like this at any time of year, but reserve singing for signaling a territory or attracting mates during the breeding season, typically in spring.
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.
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. They begin their “hardening” process in the fall, as temperatures begin to drop and the amount of daylight decreases. Leaves typically fall during this...