31 March 2010


We at MNHC (especially Jessie) have been eagerly awaiting the return of the osprey, particularly the pair that nests on the platform at the Osprey Stadium.  We have a good view out of our north-facing windows, and Jessie can even see the nest from her window, with the help of binoculars.  Last year, the osprey returned on March 25th.  Last week Friday, on the 26th, a few of us went over to the osprey stadium to pull knapweed and other weeds from the area below the nesting platform.  There was plenty of knapweed, but no osprey.  None over the weekend.  None on Monday or Tuesday.  But today--today we saw a big, beautiful osprey circling over the river and McCormick Park, above the dusting of snow on the ground, beneath white clouds and blue spring sky.

We are very fond of the pair--we think they're the same birds, coming back year after year--that nests over at the baseball stadium.  They have learned to put up with a lot:  frequent summer games, cheering fans, and even fireworks (though they don't seem at all happy about those).  At every home game, MNHC sets up an osprey information table and a spotting scope, so that baseball fans can learn a little about this lovely raptor, as well as take a peek at the chicks in the nest.  (By the way, tabling at Osprey games is a great volunteer opportunity for those who are interested!)

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) are found on every continent except for Antarctica, making them one of the most widespread birds in the world.  One of the largest birds of prey in North America, it can be found throughout the continent (save for the farthest northern portions of Alaska and Canada).  Osprey have dark brown uppersides, including rump and tail, as well as a dark wrist and secondaries underneath.  The body and coverts are white; there are also patches of white on the primaries, though the wing tips are dark.  Up close, one can distinguish the distinctive dark eye stripe and white cap.  Osprey have long crooked wings, with an average wingspan of 63"; of the raptors in western Montana, only golden and bald eagles are larger.  Their call is a short, chirping whistle, either single or in a series.  Listen to it here.

Osprey can be found in riparian areas, particularly in those areas with open water that contains fish; fish account for 99% of the osprey's diet.  The bird will hover high over the water, and then swoop down, diving feet first into the water to catch the fish.  Osprey have specialized rough pads on the soles of their feet, which helps them to better grip the fish.  After catching the fish, they carry it to a tree to eat, or take it to their nest to feed to their young. 

Osprey build large, bulky nests of sticks high in snags or on top of human-made structures near water.  In Missoula, osprey mostly nest on several specially-made platforms around the city.  The female lays 1-4 eggs, which do not hatch all at once; the first chick may hatch up to five days before the last one.  The first chick thus has the advantage, and will dominate its siblings, even taking most of the food that the parents bring.  If there is plenty of food to go around, this isn't usually a problem, but when food is scarce, the younger chicks may starve.  Last spring we originally counted three chicks in the osprey nest at the baseball stadium, but there were only two by mid-summer.  Though we do not know for sure, this may have been a case of the youngest chick starving.

Now that the osprey are back--there are also reports that one has returned to the nest platform on Mullan Road--we encourage you to go out and enjoy them . . . and let us know if (and where) you see them!

26 March 2010

Spotlight On...Dwarf Mistletoe

Dwarf Mistletoe
Arceuthobium spp.

Viscaceae (Mistletoe Family)

What's in a Name?
Viscaceae has the same root as "viscus," and refers to mistletoe's sticky berries, which were historically used to make birdlime. Handfuls of ripe berries were chewed or boiled, formed into long strands and coiled around tree branches. A bird lands on the sticky branch and there he stays, until the bird-eating hunter returns to pluck him off. This is illegal in many countries now, by the way. Birdlime was also used to manufacture British sticky bombs in WWII.

According to some accounts, "mistletoe," originally mistelta in Saxon, comes from three Sanskrit words: Mas (the Messiah), tal (the womb), and tu (motion to or from). This is the first clue to the enormous cultural power Mistletoe has held throughout history. Read on.

Quick ID:  
In Montana, you'll find Dwarf Mistletoe, which looks a bit like coral, clinging to branches of Ponderosa, Lodgepole and Limber Pine, Douglas Fir and Western Larch. It's a hemiparasite, relying on its host conifer for most of its water and nutrients. There are 42 species of Arceuthobium worldwide (21 endemic to the US) that prey on members of the Pinaceae and Cupressaceae families. All have greatly reduced leaves (just scales, really) with the bulk of the plant living inside the host. Here's how it works:

Remember those sticky berries? Well, they're not just built to help ancient bird-eaters trap their dinner, oh no. As the berries ripen, they swell with hydrostatic pressure, which builds and builds until POW! The fruits burst open, sending seeds flying through the air at 50 mph. If they're lucky, these sticky little seeds land on a suitable host plant and get to work. Their root-like "haustoria" grow into the xylem (water pipes) and phloem (food pipes) of the host, thus beginning its slow decline and eventual death.
Sometimes the best way to spot Dwarf Mistletoe is to look for the peculiar "witch's broom" growths it creates on trees. These dense masses of branches could be mistaken for bird's nests, but they're actually just a bunch of branches growing out from a single point, and can be caused by fungi, insects, mites, nematodes, viruses, frost, forest thinning . . . and, of course, mistletoe.

Folklore and Fables Dwarf Mistletoe is cousin to the American Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens), the leafy plant we all know from the holidays. The mythology of mistletoe goes back thousands of years, far beyond that quick kiss at Christmas.  Perhaps it's because mistletoe's evergreen leaves seem a symbol of everlasting life (ironic, since it's also known as the "Vampire Plant" that sucks the life out of its host).

Throughout history and worldwide, it is considered a bestower of fortune, aphrodesiac, antidote to poison and curer of ills. In the Christian faith, mistletoe (mistelta) represented the time between the conception and birth of Jesus, and was supposedly "applied" to him as an infant. Mistletoe was considered sacred long before that, however.
Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) wrote of the Druids' relationship with the plant, which they held to be the most sacred of all living things save oaks (the Gaelic word druidh means "oak-knower"). European Mistletoe figured prominently in Greek mythology, and Romanians still use the plant for its magical and medicinal properties. The use of mistletoe at Christmas dates back to the 18th century, but kissing under the mistletoe comes from a Norse myth. The story, basically, is this:

Baldr, god of vegetation, was killed by a spear made of mistletoe. His death brought winter to the world (no good!) so the gods restored him. His mom Frigga declared mistletoe sacred, a bringer of love rather than death. To celebrate Baldr's happy return, any two people passing under the plant now must make the obligatory smooch.

In Scandinavia, it's still considered a plant of peace, under which enemies can declare a truce or quarreling lovers make up.

Medicine The plant has been purported to cure cancer and epilepsy, among other things. Suzanne Sommers made headlines when she opted for a mistletoe extract (Iscador) in lieu of chemotherapy following her treatment for breast cancer. There are several accounts, however, of mistletoe's poisonous properties that should not be taken lightly!

Ecology Many Dwarf Mistletoe species are considered to be serious threats to forest health. Severe infection can lead to reduced growth, seed and cone development, poor wood quality, increased susceptibility to disease and insect attacks, and premature death. Most of western North America's commercially important conifers are hosts to at least one Dwarf Mistletoe species.  Interestingly, higher rates of mistletoe infestation have been linked with higher numbers and greater diversity of birds and other animals, perhaps by creating more nesting sites within the tell-tale witch's broom.

Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas. Have a plant that you'd like to see featured? Let us know!

20 March 2010

Spotlight On...Douglasia

Rocky Mountain Douglasia
Douglasia montana
Primulaceae (Primrose Family)
What's in a Name?  
There are 11 species of "Dwarf Primrose" in the genus Douglasia, named after Scottish collector for the Horticultural Society of London David Douglas.  Douglas came to Oregon in 1825 on a botanical expedition, and ended up introducing many Pacific Coast plants to English gardens.  He was killed at the age of 36 in a bizarre accident in Hawaii where he fell into a wild-cattle pit. 

Quick ID:  
Look for dense cushions blooming now on rocky foothill slopes, and through July in higher alpine areas.  The foliage is lance-shaped with tiny teeth, and often hidden behind masses of bean-sized flowers.  The rosy-pink blooms are borne singly or doubly on short (1") upright stems.  
Easy to mistake for a common companion, Silene acaulis (Moss Campion, left), but look close and you'll see the difference.  Douglasia petals are fused to form a tube at the base, whereas moss campion's only appear to be tubular.  The stamens and style of Douglasia are hidden within the petal tube, while Silene's flare out beyond the petals.     

Found only in MT, ID, WY and in the Waterton Lakes area of Alberta.

Tidbits: The resourceful David Douglas is credited as one of the greatest botanical explorers of his time, introducing some 240 plants to Britain.  Among these were Flowering Currant, Penstemon and Lupine, as well as Ponderosa, Lodgepole and Western White Pine, Sitka Spruce, Grand Fir, and many other conifers that transformed the British landscape and timber industry.  He was memorialized in the naming of Douglas Fir, considered to be the most commercially important tree in Western North America.  The scientific name of Doug Fir, Psuedotsuga menziesii, honors a rival botanist, Archibald Menzies.  A naval surgeon, Menzies was long remembered by Hawaiians as "the red-faced man who cut off the limbs of men and gathered grass"  

Wild gardening:  
If you're going to try growing Douglasia from seed, collect them when the mature, dry capsules split open (late summer).  Like many seeds, they need to go through several months of winter temperatures in order to germinate (a process known as cold stratification).  The Native Plant Nursery at Glacier National Park reports that their seeds germinate the second spring after planting, and develop strong root systems shortly thereafter.
Douglasia makes a nice, creeping addition to rock gardens.  Space 9-12" apart in full sun.  Once established, plants are very cold- and drought-tolerant.  Grow them in scree (broken rock) conditions or in an alpine trough like this one.      
Link to photos used here

Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!

15 March 2010

Mountain Bluebirds

Last week the Master Naturalist Class took an excursion to Waterworks Hill to look (and listen) for birds.  We saw several common Montana species:  American robins, northern flickers, dark-eyed juncos, black-billed magpies, and spotted towhees.  Instructor Brian Williams heard the call of a mountain bluebird and saw it fly away in the distance, but the untrained ears and eyes of the students were too slow to pick up on it.  In lieu of having seen the bird, I decided to do a little research, find a few pictures, and share some bluebird facts here.

We in Western Montana know and love these bright bits of bird blue that come our way in the springtime. Well-named are those perfect, sunny, blue-sky days we call "bluebird days"!

Mountain Bluebirds (Sialia currucoides) are members of the thrush family, and are medium-sized songbirds with a large, round head, chunky body, medium-length tail, and sky-blue feathers.  The males in particular stand out, with the bright blue color covering head, body, wings, and tail.  Females are a duller color, a greyish-blue overall, with pale sky-blue coloring only on their wings, rump, and tail.  In general, it is the males that catch our attention, perhaps because they seem almost impossibly blue.  I always forget how richly blue they are, and am surprised, every year, by their vividness.  

Mountain bluebirds can be found in open areas and grasslands with scattered trees and bushes, such as agricultural areas and prairie-forest habitats.  Their ability to live in open spaces makes them unusual in the thrush family, and helps them increase their population when humans clear land or raise grazing animals.  They eat small fruits and insects, which they catch by hovering above their prey and dropping rapidly down to the ground, or by perching and flycatching insects from mid-air.  

The females lay 4-8 eggs in nests built of grasses lined with soft bark, hair, or feathers, located in cavities in trees or snags, or in human-made nest boxes.  The mountain bluebird's propensity for using nest boxes has made it a fairly easy subject for field research, but has resulted in most of that research being done on nest-box rather than natural mountain bluebird populations.

This bird's summer range extends north-south from Alaska to Arizona and east-west from western Nebraska to California, while in the winter it can be found from Colorado and Nebraska down into central Mexico.  It can be found year-round (though populations differ from summer to winter) from central Oregon to northern Arizona and New Mexico.  In western Montana, we can look for the mountain bluebird to return in early to mid-March.  In other words, now!

When you're out hiking in mountain bluebird habitat, listen for the series of low burry whistles of its song, or the clear, mellow "feeer" or "perf" whistle of its call.  You can listen to both sounds here.  Happy bluebirding!

12 March 2010

Spotlight On...Sagebrush Buttercup

Sagebrush Buttercup
Ranunculus glaberrimus
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)
What's in a Name?  
The genus Ranunculus comes from the Latin word for frog (rana) because many species grow in wet places.  This species, however, is most often found in sagebrush steppe and on open pine forest floors  Glaberrimus means totally glabrous, or without hairs.

Quick ID:  
One of the earliest wildflowers; look for Sagebrush Buttercup blooming now through June in Missoula!  Plants are fleshy and 5-20 cm high (smaller than the similar native Mountain ButtercupRanunculus eschscholtzii).  Leaves are very smooth, round to three-toothed, clustered mostly at the base.  The shiny yellow flowers are about the size of a quarter.  It's sometimes confused with Silvery Cinquefoil (Potentilla argentea), but they're easily told apart.  P. argentea has 5 pointy bracts alternating with its yellow petals and toothy, palmate leaves.

From BC to New Mexico and California east to the Dakotas.  Found in most parts of Montana (map)

Ranunculus is toxic to eat (including to horses and livestock), and can cause mild burning or blistering skin if handled.  The Okanagan-Colville Indians of the Pacific Northwest used sagebrush buttercups placed on a piece of meat as poisoned bait for coyotes, and rubbed flowers or whole plants on arrow points as a poison.  The toxin is unstable, and destroyed by boiling or drying.
Children all over the world play the "Do you like butter?" game, checking if the golden yellow flowers reflect off their pals' chins.  The sketch above is from the Royal Academy Notes for 1889.  Some things never change.  

Wild gardening:  
A cold-hardy perennial that brings early spring color; Sagebrush Buttercups need a sunny, well-watered spot.  Sources for seeds and plants may be hard to find, but worth trying.  The bright yellow petals secrete nectar, attracting an array of pollinators.  They're also also one of the first true heralds of spring, braving the still-icy winds as a promise of warm days to come.
Links to photos used here:
1, 2, 3, 4  

Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!

Playing with Fire

MNHC hosted a wonderful lecture on Wednesday.  Speaker Tony Harwood, the Salish-Kootenai Tribe Fire Management Division Manager, discussed the many ways that the Salish-Kootenai used fire to renew land for spiritual as well as ecological reasons.  If you missed him speak, be sure to check out the exhibit "When the Mountains Roared: The Fire of 1910," opening March 28th at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.

06 March 2010

Spotlight On...Blue Clematis

Blue Clematis
Clematis occidentalis
Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family)

What's in a Name?  
Clematis comes from the Greek root clema, meaning "long, easily bent branches."  Occidentalis is a very common species name meaning "from the west" (as opposed to orientalis, "from the east").  Also known as Western Virgin's Bower.

Quick ID:  
Blue Clematis is a perennial woody vine, with stems that wind around other plants as they climb up searching for light in shady forests.  Leaves are opposite with 3 leaflets.  The solitary, 4-"petaled"* flowers appear nodding on slender stalks May-July.  Fruits are small, hard achenes with long, feathery tails that clump together en masse.
*technically sepals, not petals

Fruits remain on naked branches all winter, resembling fluffy piles of cotton entwined around other trees.


Shady forests, on cliffs and in thickets; moist to dry sites in foothills, montane and subalpine zones; BC/Alberta to Utah/Colorado.

Like many Ranunculaceae members, Clematis contains a toxic sap (ranunculin) that causes skin reactions in some people.  It has been used by trained herbalists to treat nervous disorders and headaches; however, misuse can cause severe illness or death, and ingestion is not advised.
A tea made of the stems and leaves was used by the Okanagan-Colville Indians to prevent gray hair.  
The fluffy seed tails make a soft, effective insulation for boots and mittens, and are excellent tinder for fire-starting.

Wild gardening:  
Loads of showy flowers and a unique vining characteristic make this an excellent ornamental that's easily grown from seed or by layering a section of the vine.  True to its climbing nature, it prefers a sunny location where the base of the plant stays shaded.  Clematis is known to attract backyard birds, particularly hummingbirds.

Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!

04 March 2010

Master Naturalist Tracking Field Day

This past Saturday a group of Master Naturalist students piled into one of MNHC's mini school buses and headed northwest to Seeley Lake.  We were armed with hot tea, lunch, and our naturalist tools:  journals, pens, measuring tapes, binoculars, guidebooks.  We met up with Adam Lieberg from Northwest Connections for an introduction to the complexities of tracking.  We learned to look at:

1) Habitat--certain animals are associated with certain habitats
2) Gait Patterns--a collection of individual tracks over a long distance; discerning the patterns helps identify animal families
3) Track Characteristics--looking at track specifics on a small scale to determine species

And then . . . we went outside to test and expand our new-found knowledge.  

The first tracks we saw were widely spaced across a clearing.  We measured a 44" stride--the distance from where one footprint appears in a trail to the next point that a footprint is made by the same foot.

We determined they were coyote tracks in direct register, that is, the hind feet were placed in exactly the same print as the front feet.  Direct registering helps animals conserve energy when walking in deep snow.

Coyotes are generalists:  they can be found in many habitats (forest, riparian, wilderness, and even urban).  

Coyotes are both bold and curious--they will go directly through open ares (such as this clearing), but will also investigate brush piles, fallen logs, and other nooks and crannies.

As walking coyote strides generally measure between 28" and 34", we determined that this one was trotting, most likely keeping a good pace in order to get through the unprotected clearing, which was also very near to human-made structures. 

We learned that canine tracks are symmetrical, with the second and third toes much farther from the pad than the first and fourth toes, creating a print that is longer than it is wide.  The claws (especially the outer ones) do not always show.  Adam taught us that looking for claw marks is not necessarily the best way to determine an animal's family, as canid claws do not always show, while feline claws may occasionally be present.

One way to distinguish a canine print from a feline one is to look for the "volcano," the cone-shaped mound between the toe and pad prints (see it sticking up in the middle?): 

We also learned that one can draw an "x" between the toes and pad of a canine print,
which cannot be done with a feline print, due to the larger size of the pad and wider arc of the toes (as evidenced by this mountain lion print):
We were thrilled to be able to test these examples in the field--after studying the coyote tracks, we moved into the edge of the mixed-conifer forest and encountered none other than the remarkably clear tracks of a mountain lion(!), which we tried, unsuccessfully, to follow through the underbrush.  We finally found the tracks again when we moved through the forest to the edge of Seeley Lake.  

On our way through the forest and along the frozen surface of the lake, we saw several other sets of tracks:  red squirrel, snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse, and mink, as well as a beaver mound.  

Despite the lack of fresh snow, we saw plenty of fresh tracks, and we all agreed that we'd had a great day!  Next time, perhaps we'll see more than tracks . . . 

Nature Detectives

Last Saturday we held a wonderful Track Detective kid's workshop, led by UM grad student Elliott Parsons. We had expected some snow on the ground for the activity, but luckily mud is just as good at showing animal tracks!  First, Elliott talked to the kids about the evidence animals leave behind as clues that they were once in an area.  Then, everyone went outside for a scavenger hunt!  All the kids had a sheet of paper and went on the prowl for their items.  Along the way, Elliott pointed out all sorts of tracks: dog, cat, mice, squirrel, and even fox!  They also saw fox scat and logs that beavers had munched.  In the end, everyone arrived back at the center for some hot cocoa (even though it was 50 degrees out!) and snacks.

Coyote tracks, which we did not see!

All this talk of tracking reminded me of an e-mail I got a few months back from a friend of MNHC named Carolyn.  She sent us some really cool pictures of porcupine tracks in snow from her trip to Colorado: 


Pretty neat, huh?   You can just imagine them meandering along, minding their own business.  A few weeks ago I was giving my dog a quick walk at night off-leash and we saw a porcupine walking right down the street in our neighborhood.  Luckily I saw the little guy before my dog - he would definitely have wanted to go say hi!

If you have interesting pictures of your own adventures, please share them with us!  Provide us with your name (and let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous), pictures and a brief description of the pictures.
Send your submissions to office (@) montananaturalist.com