19 December 2016

Montana Rail Link provides 'Museum Field Trips for All' Program at MNHC

Montana Rail Link (MRL) has partnered with the Montana Natural History Center (MNHC) to bring children and families who are disadvantaged to the Center for nature-based educational opportunities through museum field trips. Thanks to a generous gift from MRL, children and families who have been identified as under-served will be able to come to MNHC to learn about the natural world around them through science-based nature education. The center tours will be led by MNHC teaching naturalists and will take these groups through the interactive museum as well as taking them outside into nature areas where they can explore and learn.

“We are impressed with MNHC’s mission and youth outreach across the state of Montana,” said Jim Lewis, MRL Chief Sales and Marketing Operator. MNHC and MRL believe that all children should have the same opportunities as their peers in terms of what they are learning in math and science. Data shows that if children can touch, feel, and see what they are learning in school and again in a museum setting the concepts will stick. And, because the children and families who will participate in this program have been identified as under-served, they are the ones who are missing this critical non-formal science learning.

“Having a strong and healthy relationship with nature isn’t something that only people with means deserve,” said Thurston Elfstrom, MNHC Executive Director. “We think it’s critical to serve this population of kids and families and are grateful of our partnership with MRL.”

Over the coming year, groups like the Boys and Girls Club, Watson Children’s Shelter, Partnership for Children, and Flagship will come to MNHC to participate in this program. Additionally, MNHC has given the Missoula Public Library four family passes that are available for check out so that families can visit the museum with no admission cost. All family resource specialists in Missoula County Public Schools will be receive 10 family passes so that they can give them out to families that they have identified as needing experiences like this the most. All of this is made possible by MRL’s generosity!

Stephanie Potts, Youth Program Coordinator, receives the check from MRL.

Kids check out Camo, our resident Gopher Snake.

21 November 2016

10 Things to do OUTSIDE on Black Friday!

Avoid the frenzy of holiday shopping on Black Friday and head outside with your loved ones to create connections with each other, and with nature. Here is a list of 10 fabulous places in and around the Missoula area to explore with your friends and family, compiled by the staff at the Montana Natural History Center!

1. Kelly Island—Montana Birding and Nature Trail
Kelly Island is accessible for almost any age to explore. The expanse of river rocks along the river provides great rock hounding opportunities. In addition to belt rocks of many colors, you can find jasper, agate, animal teeth, and other fun treasures. The river and cottonwood gallery contain birding opportunities from chattering flickers to Peregrine Falcons chasing Mallards. 
-Christine Morris, Community Programs Coordinator

2. North Hills Open Space—Mountainview Trail

Take a hike up along the “switchback” trails above the PEAS Farm. There is a trailhead on the corner of Mountain View and Duncan Drive. The trail takes you up some steeper switchbacks before reaching the ridgeline where views of Missoula and the surrounding mountains are abundant. Often, you can watch hawks catch thermals or view the bluebirds along the fence lines. The hillsides feature rare communities of cushion plants, including the Missoula phlox and our state flower, the bitterroot. We’ve also seen coyotes, foxes and lots of deer. You can make the hike as long or as short as you’d like based on the loop nature and openness of the trail system. And if you’re lucky, you may even find a geo cache at the top of the switchbacks under the highest pine tree. The neighborhood kids make a special effort to keep it stocked with goodies so be prepared to leave a treasure if you take one!
-Sarah Millar, Development and Marketing Coordinator

3. Pearl Lake

 One of the places I love is Pearl Lake, outside of Superior. The drive from Missoula takes about 1.5 hours and the hike in is about 4 miles. Pearl Lake sits right below the Stateline Trail dividing Montana and Idaho, so sitting by the lake puts you in the middle of a big bowl surrounded by ridgelines. There are a few great campsites to keep in mind for the warmer months, but during the fall it makes a great day hike or even a snowshoe trip. I often spot a herd of mountain goats on the lake shore and I've heard pika there as well. It's a gorgeous, secluded spot to explore the northern Bitterroots!
-Drew Lefebvre, Teaching Naturalist

 Larch Camp Road in Pattee Canyon
Need a pint-sized adventure? Our family loves to walk the trails off of Larch Camp Road in Pattee Canyon. There are so many small trail loops, with climbing hills, sliding hills, and even a few places with grand views. If you are really observant, you might find one of the small treasures that people have left, tucked into holes in the trees (is Santa Claus still there?).
-Lisa Bickell, Education Director

5. Rock Creek

 Rock Creek is one of my very favorite streams in Montana. Part of my affection for this lovely, small river is the fishing, which is definitely some of the best fishing in the Missoula area. On colder days, throw on a bacon-and-egg combo (a San Juan worm and a salmon egg patterns). If the weather is warm, stay on top of the water with dry flies and watch for the sipping heads of brown trout or the explosive, acrobatic take of rainbows.

But the fishing is only part of the equation. The area is rich with wildlife, too. I've seen rubber boas, bighorn sheep, whitetail deer, and American Dippers! The flora is spectacular as well as dogwoods and willows nestle the shores along with black cottonwoods, aspens, and plenty of Douglas-fir.

If you're going to head up Rock Creek for some fall fishing, I recommend staying lower on the stream. Any of the access points at Valley of the Moon and upstream a few miles should provide excellent opportunities to catch a nice brown!
-Thurston Elfstrom, Executive Director

6. MoZ Hidden Treasure Trail on Mt. Sentinel

I like to head right out my front door on Pattee Creek Drive, head up Pattee Canyon Road and hit the Gas Line Trail that connects you with the MoZ Trail. You can run, hike or mountain bike up this trail. Lately, I’ve been enjoying running or hiking the lower half of the MoZ Trail. It offers a beautiful view of the Missoula valley, Lolo Peak, and Sleeping Woman Peak. You can daydream about making turns in the winter at Snowbowl as you look to the north. In the spring and summer the wildflowers are abundant and in the fall it offers a welcome way to get out and possibly above the Missoula inversion and into the sunshine. Might be perfect for November 25th!
-Ramey Kodadek, Development Director

7. Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge
Wintertime is a great time to visit Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge near Stevensville. Open to the public year-round, Lee Metcalf NWR offers great opportunities for hiking as well as seeing wildlife from the car. The wildlife viewing area trail meanders through sloughs and ponderosa pine stands before ending up at a stunning view of the Bitterroot River and Mountains. On the ponds near the visitor center, watch for muskrats and waterfowl including Green-Winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Bufflehead, and Common Goldeneye. On land, look for herds of deer, flocks of wild turkeys, and overwintering eagles and raptors such as Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks.
-Stephanie Potts, Youth Programs Coordinator

8. Woods Gulch Trail in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area

Woods Gulch in the Rattlesnake has a nice 6-mile loop, along with several longer and shorter options depending on your time frame and energy level. The lovely fall larches turn golden as the sun shines through the ponderosa pines. There's a wealth of wildflowers in the spring, from trillium to fairy slipper orchids. The trail climbs, providing a nice view of the Missoula valley at one point. Look for deer, juncos, chickadees, and ravens.
-Christine Morris, Community Programs Coordinator

Sledding at Lolo Pass
Nothing says the holidays like some good, old-fashioned family fun! Our family loves to find places to sled, and sometimes we have to go up to higher elevations in search of snow. One of our favorite spots is the sledding hill just behind the Visitor’s Center at Lolo Pass. It can be epic fun for older kids and adults, and can be tailored to smaller rides for younger kiddos. Bring a picnic lunch and hot cocoa and gather inside their warming hut to thaw frozen toes and fingers before heading back out for belly laughs and screams down the hill. If your crew is feeling more adventurous, pack the cross country skis and snowshoes and head out on their groomed trails!
-Sarah Millar, Development & Marketing Coordinator

10. Christmas Tree Hunting

Are you going to decorate for Christmas? Take this day to go on a Christmas Tree Hunting Expedition. Visit your local National Forest office for a tree permit (just $5 per tree!) and information on where to go. Pack up some warm clothes and snacks and head out for an adventure. Will you choose a Douglas-fir, or maybe an Engelmann spruce? Or perhaps you'll find the perfect grand fir or subalpine fir to grace your living room this season. Take lots of photos and maybe make this an annual tradition!
-Lisa Bickell, Education Director

16 September 2016

Catch, Release, Repeat

A cold wind fights against the warmth of the sun on this early-fall day of fishing. Not too far outside of Philipsburg - it’s apparently a secret location, but maybe you know it - the creek winds through the tall grasses. It is easy to take a quick glance at your surroundings and miss the abundance of life just under your nose. My companion’s attention remains on the creek and his fly line. You can see the years of practice in each back-and-forth of the cast.

Unidentified Beetle - Stephanie Parker

I am distracted easily. I find a beetle in the grass, suddenly much more important than the fish I cannot see in the water. With each step I take, I see grasshoppers fleeing for safety and birds calling out just before they fly further down the creek. There is a scurrying in the short grass and I become determined to find the culprit. My partner, moving upstream to find the next best fishing spot, dismisses the scurrying. He guesses it’s a vole, which, to be completely honest, makes me more excited to find it. But my pursuit is shorter lived than I intended when I see a flopping movement out of the corner of my eye, and my attention returns to the creek and the fish hooked on the line.

Fresh Catch - Stephanie Parker

With big smiles and wet hands, we admire our fish. A cutthroat trout, apparently. I get a quick lesson in fish identification. After a quick and, I hope, harmless release, we move upstream.

I appreciate the patience in fishing. The anticipation builds as you watch the fly float with the current. Is some poor fish going to take the bite? I imagine it must be disappointing to discover a tasty meal is actually a ruse designed for the sole purpose of your capture. You have to hand it to our fishy friends, though - I am unable to detect a single fish in this steam until it is being reeled in and its light underbelly is exposed in the struggle. The excellence of their camouflage prompts more questions on my part: how many fish are really in this creek? Where are they all living? Are they carried down by the current? If not, what kind of muscle mass is required to fight the current? I am left with more questions unanswered than answered.
I have to commend the predators, such as Osprey, capable of sighting these fish and successfully capturing them. Life in the water is a mystery to my naked eye. Perhaps more time on the water will reveal more of this ecosystem’s inhabitants. My companion reels in a different species of fish this time. It’s a brown trout. This non-native fish may not belong in our creek, but I am happy to take a glimpse at its spotty pattern. Round black spots are joined by bright red spots, all encircled in white. After a few quick photos, we release our fish. 
Brown Trout - Colter Murphy
The pattern of the day continues: casting, catching, reeling, releasing, moving upstream and repeat. The repetitive nature of this fishing trip is accented with small bursts of excitement. A few too many fish nibble and then spit out the fly, escaping. Our final hurrah is a surprisingly forceful tug against the line - an approximately 14-inch cutthroat pulls on the line in a desperate attempt for freedom. This is most likely the largest fish we will find in this meandering creek. But in this Man vs. Fish struggle, the fish comes out victorious. Luckily, our excitement over the fish eclipses the disappointment of a missed catch. Our only thought on the walk back to the road: we’ve got to come back out before the seasons change.

25 February 2016

Guest Post: Ice Discs

Enjoy this guest post about an unusual ice phenomenon from naturalist Larry Youmans, who lives in the Flathead Valley:

I had the camera trained on a perfect 40-foot circle of ice.

This was my second disc sighting, same place, and same disc size. I looked down on the river at the snow-shrouded Glacier Rim Boat Landing, a public access boat ramp. If you stand on the ramp, facing the river, you’ll notice the stream crooks and drops a bit. When the conditions are right, ice discs can form at this spot.

The North Fork of the Flathead River system is a young tributary, a young river with history. One event in its history is the ice disc.

Born about 15,000 years ago during those turbulent times of glaciation, the North Fork has mysteries in its past. Not a long river, it flows south and slightly west along the border of Glacier National Park. As you float this stream there seems to be a series of long pools that slough off to the right at the downstream edge.

Over time, receding glaciers gradually made the North Fork longer and longer. At the boat access, the river flows over bedrock, making this a very old stretch. This stable portion of flow, over time, has probably produced many discs.

River ice circles are an uncommon phenomenon, with sightings ranging globally in colder climates. The few photos of ice discs on other rivers indicate a consistency in stream shape.

Theories on their formation, and there are many, range from chunks of ice breaking off and grinding in one spot, to alien intervention. It would seem this is a North Fork secret.

Here is one theory: Precipitation changes flow all the time. The build-up of winter snow on the banks reduces the river’s flow. At the boat landing, where the river drops, the right flow can produce a subtle flat swirl or eddy.

As the temperature decreases, it is possible for ice to form in the center of that quiet patch of water. Ice also forms inward from the riverbanks, which causes upstream flow to slow even more. As ice at the center of the swirl expands toward the current, it might start to rotate, forming a perfect circle where it meets the ice growing from the river’s edge.

The reality is there’s no clear understanding of how these circles form. However, I took these photos on Jan. 21, 2014. Historical data indicates Kalispell, Montana, temperatures on Jan. 20 through Jan. 22 ranged from a high of 33 degrees to a low of 12 degrees. The river discharged an estimated 520 cubic feet per second at Glacier Rim on Jan. 21, a common flow rate for the early months of the year.

This portion of the North Fork River may have produced many ice circles over the years. I’ve seen two. If I’m lucky enough to see a third, I will spend more time appreciating this rare phenomenon.

~Larry Youmans

09 February 2015

Traveling in the Backcountry: the essentials

A cold sweat chills me from under my backpack straps. The rhythm of my ascent up the clean white mountain side hypnotizes me. Slide-clack slide-clack. My skis cut a new climbing track up the wind-drifted slope. I climb up along a sub-ridge with a friend, past twisted sub-alpine fir trees barraged by wind since germination. It's a struggle to keep grins off our faces despite the steep grade and wind-hardened snow. It's a bluebird day in the Rocky Mountains and that is hard to beat.

Exploring backcountry terrain in winter is inherently risky, so there are a few things I bring along in my backpack and in my brain to try to minimize that risk or avoid it altogether.

  • Shovel - a light and sturdy aluminum shovel is absolutely essential for a good winter backcountry kit. Not only is it necessary for digging test pits to evaluate potential avalanche hazard, but shovels are great for digging out tent pads, fire pits, and are even great to sit on if you want to stay out of the snow. 
  • Cord - bringing a length of nylon cord (4-6 mm thick, at least 10 m long) is a great idea. It's a necessary part of proper test pit procedures, can be useful in rescue scenarios and has a host of other uses.
  • Probe - it is really important to continually check the depth of the snow pack you're traveling across. Probes are collapsible, graduated aluminum tubes that can be poked down through the snow to measure its depth. They are also essential for a successful rescue in the case of an avalanche burial.
  • Avalanche beacon - always be wearing your beacon and have it turned on from the time you leave the trailhead to the time you get back. Make sure every member of your party knows how to use their beacon, and make sure to practice with them (and the rest of your safety gear) before you get into potential avalanche terrain. Keep in mind: beacons will not guarantee your safety. Do not rely on them.
  • Small repair/survival kit - you never know when gear is going to malfunction. Bindings, boots, and snowshoes can break. Bringing a small bag with a multi-tool, knife, headlamp, extra batteries, ski scraper, lighter/matches, and thermal blanket can really be a life saver--especially if you're a worrier like me.
  • Avalanche forecast - always, always, always check the avalanche advisory from your local avalanche center before you decide where you're headed, or even whether you're going out at all.
  • Knowledge and common sense - the best way to survive an avalanche or exposure in the backcountry is not to get in a bad situation in the first place! Be up to speed on safe snow travel, route-picking, avalanche avoidance, and snow science, and know the area you're going to play in. If you've never been there before, go out with or talk to someone who has.
  • A Plan - make an itinerary for your day. Write down notes or thoughts after you read the advisory, map your route if you've never been there before. Record what you see while you're out for future reference. Let someone know about your plan back home. Talk about your plan while you're out with your partners. I have found that this helps me maximize my experience in the backcountry. I don't waste time deciding where to go, and it helps me make more confident safety decisions.

We crest the main ridge. We're entering the slope a few hundred feet east at a safe entry point that's not too wind drifted.Wind blows snow into our faces. One last safety check. Boots tight, bindings secure. I watch my friend descend onto the face, a sheltered slope still clinging to some good snow. He makes arcing turns as he paints a portrait of sheer bliss.

Butterflies fill my stomach and the sun-laden snow seems even brighter. He makes it down and signals for my descent from a safe location. One last check of the boots and I roll over the edge.

28 January 2015

Educating our Educators: equipping teachers with tools for place-based education

Being involved at the Montana Natural History Center has given me the unique opportunity to interact with a variety of people from across Montana. From preschool teachers to university professors, and from field scientists to young aspiring naturalists, there are two common and binding characteristics that I have observed: a strong sense of place and love of learning.

Last weekend wrapped up the final session of the 2014-2015 A Forest for Every Classroom (FFEC) program. This program is a collaboration between a host of government agencies, education non-profits, universities, and environmental organizations that provides place-based education training for educators. FFEC's mission states that it is "a dynamic professional development program for educators focused on place-based approaches to education. Teachers who participate in FFEC gain experience, form relationships and increase their own knowledge so that they are able to foster student understanding of and appreciation for their natural and human communities."

I am fortunate enough to have gotten to attend two of these sessions as MNHC's FFEC intern. Over days we spent in the pristine larch groves and snowy track-riddled forests of the Swan and Blackfoot Valleys, I canoed across fog-hooded lakes before sunrise, listened to stories about horsepacking through wilderness and toured active timber harvest sites. Our group also had the opportunity to experience the tribal material culture that is as much a living part of that landscape as the mink we tracked in and out of a frozen creek.

During my time with these teachers, I began to see something that goes unnoticed by many in America today. I saw a deep connection integrally tied to landscape and hardworking people who were trying to find the best ways to communicate that to young people of all ages. I saw kindergarten teachers learning how to integrate place-based education into play time and high school teachers learning how to integrate more out-of-classroom learning into their curriculum. I saw teachers from small rural schools interacting and networking with each other, sharing ideas and building friendships.

I think these educators, with their diverse backgrounds and personalities, embodied most what I truly appreciate about people: true empathy. Their commitment to providing young Montanans with quality leaning opportunities is wholly noble and undoubtedly supported by A Forest for Every Classroom.

12 September 2014

Guest Post: Mystery Butterfly

Observations & photos submitted by naturalist Kim Birck, late July 2014.

Yesterday a butterfly I’d never seen before visited my yard. It had the colors of a swallowtail, but no tails, and it didn’t match anything I could find by doing a Google image search for “black and yellow butterflies." So I posted a (low-resolution) smartphone photo to Facebook and got an immediate reply from a cousin in Wisconsin--“Could it be a Mourning Cloak?” Though the Mourning Cloak is Montana’s state butterfly and does frequent my yard--and its general morphology is somewhat similar--I’d already ruled out Mourning Cloak using the eNature.com online butterfly field guide.  

However, eNature was no help in figuring out who the mystery visitor actually was. The categories I might have chosen from their list--swallowtails or “boldly patterned”--produced no results. This was a very cooperative butterfly, however, hanging around all day and posing prettily on the bee balms (Mondarda sp.) that have proliferated where the native vegetation catches overspray from the lawn sprinklers. So I was able to get several good shots with a real camera, and e-mailed one to my friendly local naturalist at the Montana Natural History Center, Brian Williams. 

Twelve hours later, I had a reply: “Hi Kim, Great picture and good butterfly--it's a female Great Spangled Fritillary. Charles [Miller] and I were out in the Rattlesnake yesterday and saw one ourselves! Perfect timing on your question too, I've been working on my fritillary ID skills the last two weeks.” 

I Googled Great Spangled Fritillary, and on the Wikipedia page found the reason why it was so hard to identify: “Females tend to be darker than males and individuals from the western reaches of this species range tend to be brighter orange.” Talk about an understatement! All the Great Spangled Fritillary images I’d ever seen were brown and gold. Who knew the sexes were practically dimorphic? Today, a couple orange-colored males were chasing each other around the yard, and one landed on the same flower as the female I was photographing. She took off, but here’s the male.

He appears a bit the worse for wear as the markings have faded, near his wingtips, especially. 

Here are views of the undersides of their wings: Male:

and Female:

After seeing them fluttering around, I had a few more questions for Brian: 

"How do you distinguish Great Spangled from the OTHER Fritillaries? Could GSF be easily confused with the Northwestern Fritillary?" 

He responded: "Well, identifying the fritillaries besides Great Spangled is my summer's million-dollar question. Luckily, the Great Spangled is the one (of 10 or so, it seems), that is most readily identified. The best characteristic is the nature of the silver spots on the bottom of the hindwing--in the Great Spangled, the spots are relatively few, small, and well-spaced compared to all the rest of the fritillaries (like your photo, which is indeed a Great Spangled). The Great Spangled is also a bit bigger than all the other fritillaries. So, while at first glance, the Northwestern and Hydaspe Fritillaries are similar to Great Spangled in overall color, it is possible to distinguish them in the field. Beyond Great Spangled, the question is much more muddied. Charles and I have been collecting fritillaries for a display and I've actually been submitting photos of our pinned specimens to the website 'Butterflies and Moths of North America' to get positive identifications. Good fun!"

(Now we know what naturalists do when they aren't leading field trips!) 

Natural History Information from the Butterflies and Moths of North America Website
Great Spangled Fritillary 
Speyeria cybele (Fabricius, 1775) 
Family: Nymphalidae 
Subfamily: Heliconiinae 
Identification: Large. Upperside of male tan to orange with black scales on forewing veins; female tawny, darker than male. Underside of hindwing with wide pale submarginal band and large silver spots. 
Wing Span: 2 1/2 - 4 inches (6.3 - 10.1 cm).
Life History: Males patrol open areas for females. Eggs are laid in late summer on or near host violets. Newly-hatched caterpillars do not feed, but overwinter until spring, when they eat young violet leaves. 
Flight: One brood from mid-June to mid-September. 
Caterpillar Hosts: Various violet species (Viola). 
Adult Food: Nectar from many species of flowers including milkweeds, thistles, ironweed, dogbane, mountain laurel, verbena, vetch, bergamot, red clover, joe-pye weed, and purple coneflower. 
Habitat: Open, moist places including fields, valleys, pastures, right-of-ways, meadows, open woodland, prairies. 
Range: Alberta east to Nova Scotia, south to central California, New Mexico, central Arkansas, and northern Georgia. 
Comments: The most common fritillary throughout most of the eastern United States.