18 November 2011

Blue Mountain Recreation Area

Last week in Missoula was filled with reasonable temps and lots of sunshine with, so I decided to seize the last nice day of fall and go to Blue Mountain for a day hike. Looking back over the wind, snow, sleet, and rain from the past week, it shows how fast seasons change here in Montana. 

Despite the temperatures in the mid-40s the sunshine really made this hike special - the view across the Missoula Valley was crystal clear. The trails were rather busy due in some part due to Veterans Day, although I think the last chance for a dry sunny day played a big part in the number of Missoulians out and about. Once I trekked further in, the crowds dissipated, bird songs audibly grew in number, and the peacefulness of the forest emerged. 

The few times I tried to catch a family of chirping birds in my view finder, the small birds kept hopping and flying away. I put away my camera and decided to just watch and listen quietly; my mental note is just as vivid in my senses as a photograph in my camera. Once satisfied with watching the fleeting birds, I kept on the path and saw a few folks in bright vests in a field off in the distance. They were working on some sort of explosives project, of which I am not sure, but it did seem strange that in the midst this beautiful public space. Later down the trail a few signs directed me to stay on the path in the marked area as there were unexploded materials in the field. This made me a little uneasy, even though I was not straying from the path, so I changed directions at the next path I found. 

I headed down closer to the river and through a more densely wooded terrain. A crow was calling loudly and it felt as if he were following my path by hopping from tree to tree as I moved forward. Not long after, the crow swooped out of the tree overhead and made a complete circle over my location of the path; I took this as a good omen for my walk. 

Not long after the crow incident, I turned back toward the parking area. The walk lasted for well over an hour, but could have easily continued for longer given time. There are plenty of trails to explore, specimens to examine, and sights to take in. 

To find Blue Mountain, head south from Missoula on Highway 93 towards Hamilton. Not long after crossing the river, there is a light at the intersection of hwy. 93 and Blue Mountain Rd., where you will take a right hand turn. Follow Blue Mountain road for a couple of minutes and after a tight turn left, you will see a parking area straight ahead and slightly to the left. Once you park your car there are many trails to choose from!

To find out more information on the recreation area at Blue Mountain please visit the All Missoula website
And, for more information on bird species and field notes from Blue Mountain please visit the Montana Birding and Nature Trail site.

27 October 2011

Philipsburg Area

 Not much more than an hour outside of Missoula, you can escape to a little morsel of historical significance known as Philipsburg. It’s not too far along I-90 E, maybe 50 miles, after you wind past the forested areas of Beavertail and Bearmouth and emerge into a wide (and golden!) valley, that you turn off the interstate at Drummond and follow MT-1 S up the valley to the small town of less than a thousand.
At this time of year, the drive from Missoula to Drummond is spectacular with all the vibrant autumn colors--red maples, yellow larch, golden aspens--but the drive from Drummond to Philipsburg along the Pintar Scenic Route is phenomenal. I love slowing down and inspecting the ranches, looking at resting horses, wandering cattle, and ranchers leaning against the fence posts.

Philipsburg isn’t that big, but don’t let that deceive you into thinking that you could see it all from one place. I stayed two days and a night, and plan on going back because I didn’t see nearly everything that I wanted to (if you’re looking for a place to stay, I would recommend The Broadway Inn).

In town, there are numerous places to eat (Doe Brothers has stellar burgers and sweet potato fries) and a decidedly amazing candy store. The Sweet Palace is overwhelming! The fudge flavors are decadent and the truffles--oh, the truffles--are worth every bite. If you happen to get there when they are packaging salt water taffies and one of the taffies escapes unwrapped, they will give you it as a sample, and you will be struck with an inexplicable desire to buy more. Just a warning.

We went up to the cemetery on the hill and sought out the oldest headstones to get a sense of the beginnings of the city. There were so many sad stories contained in the collection of grave markings, stories of children lost over the years and all at once, fathers and mothers that died young or survived decades beyond their spouses and children, singular spouses left buried in the ground alone after their partners must have packed up all they had left and moved away.

We went on a wet weekend, but after the rain let up a little, we drove the narrow dirt road to Granite ghost town. It’s a road you’ll want a high clearance, 4WD vehicle for, but it’s worthwhile heading up there.

Photo courtesy of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks | http://visitmt.com/pictures/big/5179h.jpg
It’s difficult to believe that 3,000 people once lived where a few ruins now cling to the mountainside. We wandered along the Granite Ghost Walk and sought out foundations, most of which were broken up by tree roots and frost weathering. It’s amazing to think that the buildings in this area were built by hand, from the huge stones set in near-perfect walls to brick arches to giant steel towers. It’s amazing to think that the trees and vegetation have filled in so much in the past hundred and some years.
Photo courtesy of Sara Call

  The mine’s remaining structure is possibly the most impressive part of the area. It is massive, and only partially crumbling. Mica-studded granite sparkled throughout the rubble, brightened by the recent drizzle. The view from the mine’s perch was beautiful. 
Photos courtesy of Sara Call
On our second day of exploring, we made an appointment with a volunteer at the Granite County Museum and Cultural Center. Esther, a spunky older lady with lots of knowledge and hard work behind her, chatted with us but didn’t prepare us for how much we would get for our $3 admission fee. The upstairs portion of the exhibit included models, clothing, saddles, and cattle brands from way back to the 1870’s. Photos and descriptions of local ghost towns lined the walls, and an extensive mineral and rock collection filled an entire corner of a room.

We made our way downstairs, and there sat all sorts of mining equipment and buildings models--the original sign from the general store, an assay office model, a miner’s cabin, and a massive lift (the original elevator) and hydraulic engine. The absolute most incredible part of the museum was the walk-in replica of a silver mine shaft, built by volunteers. It’s a wonderful piece of work.

There are a few other ghost towns around Philipsburg that you can also visit--Kirkville and Garnet, for example--and plenty of recreational activities to engage in around the area. Over the pass to the southeast is Georgetown Lake, and if you continue down MT-1 S you’ll come into Anaconda, another town of significance in our state’s history of mining.

Of course, there’s also Drummond, which is a character-filled town in and of itself... If you’re there on a Saturday, check out the Used Cow Lot!

Sources and links:

17 October 2011

Garnet Mountain

Garnet Mountain

Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting my brother in Bozeman for a backpacking adventure! Our destination was the Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout that is just 20 minutes south of Bozeman. The day before our trek a storm had rolled through Gallatin County and dusted the mountain tops with snow. The weather on our hike up was pleasant, in the mid-50s and only semi-cloudy. The breaks from the sun were welcomed and we cheered with cool breezes that graced our hard working bodies. The hike itself is a mere 4 miles - however you gain nearly 3,000 feet over the course of the hike.

We were cautious of bears, toting bells and bear spray, but we did not see any large wildlife during our hike. We spotted lots of Elk tracks in the mud and saw a few chipmunks scurry off the trail into the brush. We ran into snow the last quarter mile that was up to 6 inches deep in some spots. The snow made it much easier to spot animal tracks, such as some Prairie Chicken tracks, Fox tracks, and more Elk tracks.

The last stretch to the top was by far the steepest, and in the snow field a few hundred feet from the fire lookout we spotted a bunch of fox tracks zigzagging and then turned into circles. We laughed at the sight of the pattern of the tracks and wondered what the little fox had been up to, perhaps chasing his tail or more likely following a bunny, whose tracks we also found not far from the fox tracks.

The fire lookout itself was very cozy and offered unparalleled views of the Gallatin Canyon and beyond. The sunset was incredible; bright pinks, golden yellows, and blazing orange contrasted against the deep blue and bounced off scattered clouds. The views from the Lookout were well worth the aches and pains of the hike! Luckily we were not socked in with clouds or fog so we were able to take in the stars and wildly bright moon. Thanks to the snow reflecting so much of the moonlight, we were able to turn off our lantern and sit by the fire to enjoy the endless beauty below us. After inhaling a delicious fajita dinner, we were all more than ready to cozy up in our sleeping bags and call it a night.
We only stayed one night, so after waking up, eating breakfast, and cleaning up the cabin, we headed back down. It was a beautiful fall morning, full of crisp air and chirping birds. Chickadee calls were the most prevalent, however that is the bird call I know the best, so it could have been that my ear was only tuned into the Chickadees. The trek down was difficult, but beautiful and much faster than going uphill. Yet again we didn’t spot any wildlife, outside a few squirrels. This hike and Fire Lookout was amazing and will definitely be something I will do again. If you are looking for a great weekend getaway and a challenge, I would highly recommend Garnet Mountain Fire Lookout! The only thing I would do differently next time is pack along a field guide (I forgot mine at home on the coffee table, doh!)

10 October 2011

Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge

In the middle of September I had the chance to attend the Crown of the Continent Roundtable in Polson, and on my drive back to Missoula I thought I would take the opportunity to stop at the Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Ronan. I had driven past Ninepipes many times, but I always had somewhere to be, so it just never happened.  
Ninepipes was created in 1921 as a refuge for native birds.. The refuge is located within the Flathead Reservation, but is maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department. According to the Fish and wildlife website, Ninepipes is home to avian species such as red-necked grebes, song sparrows, yellow headed and red winged blackbirds, ring necked pheasants, American bitterns, sora rails, osprey, great blue herons and double crested cormorants. Non-avian species such as muskrat, striped skunk, mink, badgers, field mice, meadow voles, porcupines, and the occasional grizzly bear call Ninepipes home.
There are no developed areas of the refuge, so on my visit I drove down a small an unassuming dirt road, just off of highway 93, to a dead end, parked my car, and found a walkway lined with informative signs. The path, while paved, showed signs of deterioration and plants were eager to root themselves in the cement cracks. The wide expanse of the refuge was beautiful, especially with the Mission Mountains looming to the east. Grasses swayed in the wind, duck calls rang across the water, and I was greeted with a slight fall sprinkling of rain. Despite being less than a mile from highway 93, civilization felt a world away. Since this stop was on a whim, I lacked binoculars and a bird book. I do recall seeing a few Mallard ducks and even a heron off in the distance, but there were many birds  than I can identify. 

If you find yourself on highway 93 with a few minutes to spare, I highly recommend stopping and enjoying the scenery yourself!

04 October 2011

Winter Weeds and Nature Walks

While perusing the Montana Natural History Center shelves a few days ago, Allison and I found a spectacular book all about the plants of Montana in the winter. Let the weather gods know that this does not mean we were hoping for the winter weather to come as of yet; but the plants are dying back and are sometimes difficult to identify at this point. 

Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and I checked the book out to take on a self-guided nature walk through Greenough Park. 

Here's what I found:

Dock (Rumex crispus)
 "You can recognize Dock by its dried, three-winged, heart-shaped sepals, which hang in dense umbrella-like clusters from the stems...As is characteristic of the Buckwheat family, Dock has wraparound leaf scars." (p. 70)
Curly Dock is a beautiful dark reddish-brown right now, and even though it's not a particularly pretty weed (and definitely not a desirable one--its seeds are viable for upwards of 50 years!), it catches afternoon light wonderfully in its dry, lacy sepal skeletons.
Motherwort (Leonurus Cardiaca)
 "This is a tall perennial which grows up to four and a half feet. The calyx-tubes [fused sepal structures] are arranged in whorls around the square stem, and they are fiercely toothed....Motherwort was introduced from Asia as a home remedy and has now escaped to waste places, gardens, clearings, and roadsides." (p. 146)
Motherwort is in the mint family, and is known for it's use by midwives as well as for use to pacify the nervous system. At this time of year, the contrast of green stem to red-brown calyx-tubes is nice to look at, but beware--the calyxes are sharp!
Yellow Rocket (Barbarea vulgaris)
"The fruits [of Yellow Rocket] are not very sturdy, so in winter you will mainly find the silvery membranes that are left after the fruit has split apart...It is usually quite bushy...Yellow Rocket is a common biennial growing in fields and along roadsides." (p. 90)
The yellow flowers of this member of the mustard family (its also known as winter cress) are, during the summer, quite eye-catching. The winter stalk is less bold, but its feathery remnants are delicately splendid. 
Now, here's a pitch: The Montana Natural History Center's library is full of books that are helpful, beautiful, educational, lyrical, and other good things, and I'm sure that you can find something you'll enjoy no matter your interests! (see more about the library here

I hope you're noticing things out in the world as the seasons change and we ease deeper into autumn. It's a lovely time of year.

Wildflowers and Winter Weeds, written and illustrated by Lauren Brown, 1997 reissue. 

22 September 2011

Boxelder Bugs

The Boxelder bug (Boisea trivittata)

I started typing this post about all of the autumn-time plants I’ve been seeing around Greenough Park, but I was interrupted when a boxelder bug crawled across the desk and onto the keyboard. 

There has been an influx of them in the office. They are crawling on walls and bookshelves, down the stairs and up the doorways. I have seen half a dozen today alone. I have heard folks talking about them--and not everyone knows much about them. 
Boxelder bugs are named for their love of boxelder trees. The bugs are attracted to the female boxelder trees, which are the seed-bearers that can be identified by their long slender blossoms that hang down and produce seeds similar to maple seedpods—the paired “whirlybirds.” Boxelder bugs will, to a lesser extent, also feed on maple, ash, and sometimes fruit trees. They use their ‘beak’—a proboscis—like a straw to suck juices out of plant material (predominately from seedpods), but they don’t seem to cause any damage to the trees.

 I can see a female boxelder tree out the east window of the office, its seedpods hanging in dry clusters that will endure through the winter. The windowsill is crawling with bright boxelder bugs of all life stages, sunning in the mottled morning light.

Sara C. 2011

The nymphs, or immature bugs, are bright red with round bottoms, which become more elongated and marked with black as they mature. The adults are a half-inch long, flat-topped and predominately grayish brown or black, with parallel red stripes on their thorax, a red abdomen, and red cross-markings on their wings. The bugs have big eyes and long, segmented antennae.

I don’t mind boxelder bugs; they don’t bite, or sting, or stink, or eat houseplants. They find ways into buildings, but don’t damage them. They just crawl around, looking for a nice place to sleep through the winter, and then come spring they go back outside to mate. They are considered pests simply because they are a plentiful, and therefore sort of a nuisance. (The boxelder bug at my desk is actually quite entertaining, and seems to enjoy following every cord from my computer and back.)

The boxelder bugs mark a change in seasons, a reminder that summer will come to an end. Other than that, they are absolutely harmless.

Though remember: don’t squish them, they’ll stain things.

 “Boxelder bugs and Conifer Seed/Leaffooted Bugs.” Montana Integrated Pest Management Center, 1997.  http://ipm.montana.edu/YardGarden/docs/boxelderbugsconiferbugs-insect.htm 

“Boxelder Bugs vs. Lady Bugs.” The Eclectic Scientist! June 23, 2010. http://angelasentomlabnotebook.blogspot.com/2010/06/boxelder-bugs-vs-lady-bugs.html

Swan, Lester and Charles Papp. The Common Insects of North America. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc: New York, 1972. p126.

See also: Spotlight on Boxelder Tree, April 2010

06 July 2011

July Observations - What Have You Been Seeing?

It's July, the weather is glorious, and summer is here!  This is the time when lots of folks are getting outside, taking hikes, exploring the rivers, going on backpacking trips.  Please share what you're seeing (and where you're finding it!).  

Two weeks ago I went on an amble up Waterworks Hill and saw a family of mountain bluebirds: 
The parents were feeding their little fledgling, who must have been just out of the nest:
Aside from this lovely sight, I saw several other bird species, including:

western meadowlark
black-headed grosbeak
American goldfinch
black-billed magpie
northern flicker
warbler sp.
chipping sparrow
eastern kingbird
western bluebird
house finch
red-breasted nuthatch
    So--what are you finding, on your outdoor explorations? 
    We would love to hear about it!