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Nature notes and inquiry from the Montana Natural History Center.

Nature notes and inquiry from the Montana Natural History Center.
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Nature notes and inquiry from the Montana Natural History Center.






'Field Notes:' Great Horned Owls

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.


'Field Notes:' How Red Squirrels Store Food For The Winter

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...


Field Notes: Winter Clouds

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.


Why No Two Snowflakes Look Alike

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.


Singing In The Snow: Montana's Winter Bird Songs

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.


Mountain Ash: Feeding Birds And Brightening Winter

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

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...


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

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': Learning To Read The Wildlife Stories Cast In Snow

Skiing across fresh fallen snow through a ponderosa forest, I pause at strange tracks with no apparent beginning or end, as if some animal had fallen from the sky. Wing tracings reveal a delicate brush of feathers. Within a heavy indentation where the bird must have struck, the snow is stained slightly red. The wingspread measures almost as long as my outstretched arms.


How Fir Trees Became Christmas Trees

Fir trees, decorated and lighted, are such a fixture of American homes at Christmas that it's difficult for us to imagine that it was not always so. But on a time scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the beginning of life on earth, the Christmas tree tradition begins somewhere around 9.999999999.


Western Montana's Winter Inversions Explained

Since my recent move to Missoula from the sunny state of Florida, I had experienced many unfamiliar weather conditions. Montana residents might be well accustomed to snow, black ice, negative temperatures, and the season known as winter, but these were still novelties to me.


'Field Notes:' What's Wrong With Whitefish?

I dipped my woven landing net into the frigid creek water and drew the fish towards my legs. It was winter and I was standing mid-calf deep in a favorite fishing spot outside Missoula. I knew the fish wasn’t a trout before I scooped it into my net. An icy bank embraced the creek, and my breath rose before me, rhythmically billowing out my mouth and nostrils. The fish nonchalantly took one of the nymphs I had been sinking near the creek bottom, diving into the depths and pulling its weight...


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

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.


'Field Notes:' How Insects Survive Montana Winters

Every autumn I begin to wonder – where do all the bugs go? Unlike people, and other warm-blooded critters that can maintain a consistent internal temperature, insects cannot. So, you might wonder, what do insects do to survive the cold?


'Field Notes' Talks Turkey

In those early days of the young republic, hunters would come back with reports of seeing a 1,000 turkeys in one day, often in flocks of as many as 200 birds. Yet from an estimated population of perhaps 10 million, the numbers of wild turkeys dwindled as unrestricted hunting increased and their woodland habitat was cleared to make way for homesteaders. By the 1940s there were only some 30,000 wild turkeys left in a fraction of their former range.


Montana's The Final Destination For Rough-Legged Hawks Flying South

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.


Wolf Moss: Wallpaper Of The World's Forests

Although small and unobtrusive, an estimated 13,000 to 17,000 species of lichen spread across the Earth, from the Arctic to the equatorial tropics. One of those species, more noticeable than most, is Letharia vulpina , a brilliant fluorescent yellow-green, moss-like lichen that clings to the bark and wood of living and dead trees throughout the world, from sea level to timberline.


Whitebark Pine: The Crown Of The Continent's Vanishing Giants

I first visited Glacier National Park in June. Though winter had only recently loosened its grip on the Crown of the Continent, there were blue skies and sunshine as I hiked up a high-elevation glacial basin. The temperature was a balmy 60 degrees.


Do Bobcats Kill Deer? 'Field Notes' Investigates

Bobcats are relatively common in patchy habitats all across the U.S., but we don’t see them often because they are crepuscular or nocturnal and well camouflaged. But after a recent bobcat sighting, I'll be on the lookout for bobcats much more than I have before.


Golden Islands Of The Western Montana Forest

Sitting on the shores of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park last fall, gazing up at the surrounding hillside, I was struck by a unique mosaic of golden splendor against the evergreen background. The largest of its species, the western larch, Larix occidentalis , is indeed a unique kind of tree.


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