14 December 2012

Friday Field Notes: The (un)Common Redpoll

A few days ago, an unusual bird showed up in my backyard. I could tell immediately from its size, shape, and plumage that it was a small finch. Overall, it was a fairly plain bird, with plenty of brown stripes and a noticeable white wing bars, not far different from a Pine Siskin. But, whenever the bird turned its head in my direction, it revealed a bright, slightly iridescent red patch just above its eyes. It could only be one thing: a Common Redpoll!

The name is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, if you live in a mountain valley in Alaska or northern Canada, you might see Redpolls as frequently as Chipping Sparrows. But in Montana, these birds only show up sporadically in the winter. A member of the "winter finch" clan, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes Common Redpolls as "erratic" migrators, sometimes ending up in places as unusual Arkansas or New Jersey. In irruption years (which this year is certainly shaping up to be), Common Redpolls, along with a variety of other finches and sparrows (and birds of prey - who can forget last year's Snowy Owl surprise?!) move far south of what would be considered their typical range, driven by a scarcity of food.

A Common Redpoll in winter plumage.

Year-round, redpolls are incredibly social birds, sometimes found in flocks of 300 individuals. Even during breeding season, it is not uncommon for multiple pairs of redpolls to nest fairly close together and show a lack of territoriality. Redpolls feed almost exclusively on seeds, and hence, are likely to show up where there is a bird feeder. To increase your chances of attracting a redpoll to your backyard, tempt these birds with thistle or nyjer seeds.

Have you seen a Common Redpoll or any other surprising visitors this winter? Be sure to let us know if you do!

07 December 2012

Friday Field Notes: Winter's Other World

There's a whole other world out there that only exists in winter. The arrival of snow literally creates an entirely new habitat not found at any other time of the year. Naturalists know this place as the "subnivean environment."

While we might just see snow as powdery white stuff that accumulates as winter goes on, there is actually a lot happening underneath the surface. And indeed, the word subnivean, which means "under the snow" in Latin, suggests just that. As snow accumulates, it undergoes a variety of transformations: it compacts, melts, and refreezes. All of these changes form what we commonly think of as the snowpack. The snowpack can contain a variety of different layers, some hard, some soft, some deep, some shallow. These layers provide opportunities for small animals to create burrows, tunnels, and other structures that would be much more difficult to maintain in the soil, which is typically frozen throughout the winter.

Small mammals, like mice, voles, and shrews, likely could not survive outside of the subnivean environment. In addition to providing physical space for them to live in, the subnivean provides critical insulation. While the world above the surface is exposed to high winds and temperatures in the negatives, life underneath the snow remains a relatively cozy 32 degrees Fahrenheit! The other benefit of living in the snowpack is the protection it offers from predators.

Of course, these small mammals aren't totally safe. Have you ever seen this?

A fox dives into dinner head-first.

Foxes - as well as coyotes and some owls - are capable of hearing the movement of rodents underneath the snow. They wait patiently, honing in to the animals' exact location. And then, they pounce (or in the case of the owl, swoop). Extraordinary, no?

And then of course, there's this:

A marten emerges empty handed.

American Martens, like most other weasels, have never been afraid of digging in and getting a little dirty (or snowy?). Instead of listening for rodent movement and using stealth to catch their prey, they rely on power and speed to ramble through the snow and grab critters.

Next time you're out skiing or snowshoeing, imagine all the things that are going on beneath your feet! The snow isn't just snow; it's another world.

09 November 2012

Friday Field Notes: Winter Birding

The osprey are on winter break in the Bahamas, and the warblers are even further south, soaking up the sun and warm temperatures of central America. As for us? Well, we are faced with the reality of our first significant snow storm of the year in Montana. Winter is long and cold in our great state, and that's why many of the more than 300 avian species that call Montana home for part of the year pack their bags and hit the road (or should I say the airways?). Despite this, winter can still be an incredible time to go birding. Here are some tips to help get you through the cold, snowy months ahead:

- Put out a feeder! The bears are just about gone, and birds are now having to look harder to find critical winter food sources. Once one bird finds your feeder, they all do, and they will stay as long as you keep it filled. Platform feeders are a fantastic option - they attract a wide range of birds, from chickadees to grosbeaks, and they provide an excellent opportunity to get a close-up look at the bird.

- Go for a walk in an area with lots of deciduous trees. Birders often joke during spring migration, "If only those darn leaves didn't get in the way of the birds!" Well, now that the leaves have fallen off the trees, they don't. Brilliant, colorful birds like Evening Grosbeaks, Cedar Waxwings, and House Finches who spend much of their time in trees and shrubs are now strikingly obvious, and the views are unobstructed.

- Don't forget about water. The rich, diverse riparian habitat that lines our streams and rivers and attracts dozens of species in the spring and summer is still filled with birds in the winter. Iconic birds like American Dippers, Great Blue Herons, and Bald Eagles never leave, and winter can be as good a time as any to view them.

- When the snow rolls in, so do the birds. Significant snow storms push birds that typically spend their time at higher elevations (Clark's Nutcrackers, Steller's Jays, and Gray Jays, among others) lower into valleys. Additionally, the snow-covered ground makes it difficult for seed-eating birds (finches, sparrows) to find the food they need. Suddenly, your feeder becomes a wild bird refuge!

A flock of Evening Grosbeaks weathers a storm.

An Evening Grosbeak

What are your winter birding tips?  What birds have you been seeing?  Share your observations in the comments!

02 November 2012

Friday Field Notes: Election Edition

As election season "bears" down on us and Americans head to the polls to cast their votes, it can seem as if the weight of the world is suspended above us, hanging by a tiny thread. To cut this tension, ease the panic, and introduce some comic relief, I give you this:

A Naturalist's Interpretation of Election Season

DISCLAIMER: What follows is incredibly cheesy humor that only a naturalist will find even remotely amusing. There is absolutely nothing political about this cartoon whatsoever--just some chuckles for nature nerds like me!

28 October 2012

Friday Field Notes: Who's Watching Hoooo(m)?

Have you ever had the experience of coming face to face with an owl?

Incredible birds for a variety of reasons, including their elusive nature, adept hunting skills, and haunting calls, owls have long captured the human imagination. Stories about owls have been passed down for thousands of years in numerous cultures, and even today we assign them meaning (mystery, cunning, wisdom) and relate to them in profound ways.

What I have been most touched by, however, is the way in which owls seem to gaze back at us with the same intent with which we look upon them. The thrill of seeing a bear or moose or eagle is undeniable, but these animals often do little more than acknowledge our presence before dismissing us as a non-threat and moving on to whatever they were doing before we disturbed them. Owls, by comparison, appear to stare directly at us, appear to be going through a series of complex thoughts and judgements. I have sometimes felt as if the bird is actually peering directly into my soul. Sure, many animals display extreme senses of curiosity (especially American Martens), but owls are doing more than checking out what we're up to; they're breaking us down and sizing us up. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing a bit too much; but maybe owls are even more intelligent and complex than we give them credit for.

A Great Gray Owl sizing me up.

I am led to believe that owls watch and study us in ways most other animals do not, ways that we do not truly understand. This places us in unusual position, one in which many people would not be comfortable:  as humans, we are usually the ones placing other animals under the microscope, not vice versa. So the experience of coming face to face with an owl (especially a large one) can be fairly humbling and eye-opening.

A Snowy Owl checking me out from a somewhat unusual vantage point: a roof.

Standing eye-to-eye with an owl stirs up ancient and primal emotions, transporting us to times when we were a bit closer to the world around us. It forces us to re-evaluate our assumptions about nature. It poses much larger questions, none more relevant than: Who's watching whom?

19 October 2012

Friday Field Notes: Photo Essay: Fall in Montana

With colors of red, orange, and gold everywhere and the cool, rainy weather bearing down on us, it is evident that things are changing. Long gone are the warm temperatures and sweet (and smoky) smells of summer. It appears that sooner, rather than later, we will be immersed in a world of white. But for now, we can revel in the fact that it is Fall in Montana.

The icy cold waters of Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park
continue to carve through ancient rock.

Aspens paint the hillsides gold near East Glacier.

A grizzly print high in the Absarokas, an indication that these creatures are moving up in elevation
to feed on critical fall food sources like whitebark pine seeds.

Rattlesnake Creek takes on many moods on an overcast day.

Much-needed moisture relieves the strain of a hot, dry summer throughout the West.

Sunlight slices through storm clouds to pit a shimmering aspen
against the backdrop of an ominous sky.

Red meets gold in the understory of the subalpine forest.

A beaver works diligently to ensure all is in place before yet another make-or-break winter arrives.

The sight of snow atop rocky peaks reminds us that winter is never too far away.

A group of American Coots gather on Lake McDonald as they prepare for winter.

15 October 2012

Stuart Peak Saturday Venture

Stuart Peak long held its spot at Number 4 on my “Day Hikes to Conquer” list.  So, this past Saturday while several Missoulians cheered for the Griz to win, I packed up my dogs and headed into the Rattlesnake for what was to be an adventurous and rewarding journey.

To my surprise the trailhead was packed with cars at 8 a.m., but I did not see a soul until the descent.  The trek to Stuart peak begins a half-mile off of the main Rattlesnake Trailhead and meanders along Spring Gulch for about three miles.  The dogs were gallivanting around the woods and I was thinking this was the best Saturday morning activity I had done in awhile.  Rain dripped from the leaves, creating a very mystical ambiance.  The forest always seems somewhat magical when blanketed with fog and heavy with water. 

After making my way up Spring Gulch, I followed the trail as it wound its way around a mountainside.  I have been told that one can see a large portion of the Rattlesnake and Missoula, but the thick layer of clouds prohibited such views. Up, up, up, I went and continued to be enveloped in fog and rain.  I will note here that the majestic, magical quality I mentioned before now took on a whole new meaning as I was pelted with hail brought over from the relentless eastern wind.  Regardless of the changing weather conditions, I continued following my dogs, who were still having the times of their lives despite being soaking wet.

At last I reached the wilderness boundary, where hastily I took a photo and continued onward.  I hiked for about two more miles until my spirits were tested.  There is no direct path up to Stuart Peak, so navigating up the side of the mountain is something you should know you are going to do before beginning.  I slowly conquered the steep climb up to the peak and was blown away by the vie--or lack thereof, in this case.  On a cloudless day, Stuart Peak affords a hiker the view of the adjacent peaks and the Missoula valley, but on a day such as this, it looks like you are the only person left in the world.  As far as I could see there was nothing but clouds.  Twenty feet below the peak, clouds crept in and covered everything.  While seeing the landscape would have been breathtaking, being atop a landscape of clouds was breathtaking in its own right. 

Overall, I am overjoyed to have made the 18-mile hike to Stuart Peak and back.  I began my trek at 8 a.m. and was back in Missoula by 3.  Yet, I am none too eager to cross Stuart Peak off my list--instead I am moving it to Number 9 and saving it for a cloudless, sunny day in the future.

28 September 2012

Friday Field Notes

The beautiful weather of late has kept me from dragging winter clothes out from the depths of my closet, and has instead forced me to continue enjoying what nature has to offer. Here's some notes, observations, and photographs from a recent trip up to Glacier National Park:

Colors across the spectrum.

Fall foliage is really starting to take off. The aspens (Populus tremuloides) are shimmering gold, or are quite close to it. Plants of the understory, such as grouse whortleberry (Vaccinium scoparium) and huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum), fill the hillsides with shades of red and orange. Contrasted against the rich greens of conifers, the deep grays and purples of the ancient sedimentary cliffs, and the regal blues of Glacier's many alpine lakes, hiking in the park these days is like walking through a dreamland. I don't know that I have ever seen so many colors on display at once!


If you've ever been to a national park - especially one inhabited by grizzlies - you know how serious the National Park Service is when it comes to bears and safety. This time of year, the message is even more important. As bears prepare for hibernation in late summer and early fall, they enter into hyperphagia, a status literally of excessive hunger and consumption. Feeding primarily on berries, insects, and whitebark pine seeds, bears can easily consume over 15,000 calories per day. The need to constantly find more food and pack on fat leads to bears being particularly active this time of year, and as a result, increases the likelihood of an encounter with a bear. Two days in Glacier yielded three grizzly sightings, one of which was an adult male that essentially popped out of nowhere a mere fifty feet from me while hiking near Bullhead Lake in the Many Glacier valley. The other bears - a sow with her cub of the year - were observed high on a talus slope, likely digging through rocks for moths and other insects. So, to steal a line from the NPS, "Be Bear Aware" if you head out into the hills this fall.

Other Critters Abound

So you're a devoted birder and have read the passage in your Sibley Guide to Western Birds where it says golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) nest on rocky cliffs in mountainous areas, but you've only ever seen them on the plains or near agricultural fields. Well, that was me. Until this past weekend, when I managed to spot one soaring high near Swiftcurrent Pass, later coming to a roost on a cliff no more than one-hundred yards from the trail, allowing for a great look through binoculars. A few lucky people might get to see these massive raptors harassing young goats and sheep in an attempt to drive them off cliffs, a fascinating hunting strategy, unless you're the goat.

A young goat, not at all disturbed by my presence
Speaking of goats, there was no shortage of these fuzzy white critters in Glacier. On the Highline Trail near Logan Pass, I was lucky enough to see a ewe and her kid, as well as a lone goat up close and personal (seen to the left). Admittedly, I was a bit more excited than many of you likely are when you see a mountain goat, as this was my first time! Along with all the goats, there was a somewhat uncommon sighting of a bighorn sheep. I've seen sheep before in Wyoming as well as Montana, but this was a vintage scene: high up on a narrow ledge, traversing across loose rock, totally poised (I wish I could move across the side of a mountain like that!). It's observations like these that make you fully appreciate and understand how life has evolved to survive in some of the most challenging landscapes.


Perhaps this photo best sums up the weekend...

Tranquility, stillness, and solitude are just some of the words that come to my mind when reflecting upon this scene. The national parks are infamous for their crowds in the height of summer, but fall is a splendid time to be gazing upon Saint Mary Lake. The hordes of people common in July and August are long gone, and one can truly experience some peace and quiet in one the most beautiful places on Earth. To be able to leave city life and the worries of graduate school behind and escape to Glacier is truly a privilege. As Montanans, we should embrace the parks, forests, wilderness, and other natural areas we have right in our backyards - the opportunities for reflection and recreation they afford us are invaluable.

I hope that you too will be able to experience Glacier or another wild place this fall. In case you can't make it out, I'll leave you with a few more photos in an attempt to share the experience! (Photos after the jump).

21 September 2012

Friday Field Notes

"What? In Montana?!"

We expect that this will be the reaction of many of you to learning that a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) has been making its rounds in eastern Montana. This elegant, long-tailed bird, a member of the Tyrant Flycatcher family (better known around Montana for species such as the Western Wood-Peewee or Olive-sided Flycatcher), has been seen a number of times by birders near Pompey's Pillar National Monument in the past week. According to Montana Field Guide, the state's official database of species information and observations, there have only been 15 recorded observations of Scissor-tailed Flycatcher's in Montana!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Pretty--and pretty weird in Montana.
The bird, whose summer breeding range is limited primarily to Texas and Oklahoma, is notorious for wandering far from its traditional range. With a body similar in size to an American Robin, its forked tail essentially doubles the bird's overall length. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers primarily use open, grassland habitats, including roadsides and agricultural lands. They are often seen perched on fence posts or power lines, scanning the ground for grasshoppers and crickets.

With migration season in full swing, this bird should be well on its way south towards Central America, making its appearance in Montana even more unusual. For birders and naturalists alike, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a spectacular southern bird in our home state. So if you're around Billings this weekend and have a pair of binoculars, be sure to look for a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. And if you should see it, be sure to let us know!

Happy Birding!

14 September 2012

Friday Field Notes

Have you been wondering what’s going on around Missoula? Well, here’s a quick update on some natural history events occurring right in front of our eyes:

Fall Foliage

Although the gorgeous weather of late would have us believe that it’s still summer in western Montana, there are some signs that fall is on its way. Nighttime temperatures are dropping, the birds are stirring, and perhaps most noticeably, the leaves are beginning to turn. In just a few weeks, the Quaking Aspen and Western Larch trees that dot the mountainsides will shine gold, while the various maple trees found around town will fill the streets with shades of red and orange. Already, the larches have begun to turn a lighter green, indicating that it is only a matter of time before fall arrives.
Western Larch paint the hillsides gold
It is these vibrant colors and cooler temperatures that make fall one of the most pleasant times of the year in Montana. Indeed, fall gives us all a perfect excuse to get outside and put our naturalist skills to use.

Looking for ways to enjoy the turning of the seasons? Here’s some ideas:
  •         Take a walk through Greenough Park. The towering cottonwoods and other deciduous trees that line Rattlesnake Creek will be putting on a show.
  •         Go for a hike in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Many trails in the Sawmill Gulch area climb high onto ridges that provide great views of the larch-covered hillsides.
  •         Up for a challenge? Climb the steep slopes above the “M” to the top of Mount Sentinel for great views of fall foliage throughout the Missoula area!

Feathered Flyby

Like the turning of the leaves, the annual migration of birds from their summer breeding range to winter habitat is imminent! Birds are already exhibiting pre-migration behaviors indicative of this great journey. Various species of sparrows, warblers, and other woodland songbirds have gathered into mixed-species flocks, which provide members of the group with greater protection and increased feeding efficiency. Additionally, large groups of ducks and other waterfowl can be seen congregating on lakes and wetlands. Because of this, fall is an incredible time to go birding. The many wildlife refuges found in the region, particularly in the Mission and Bitterroot valleys, provide countless opportunities to observe migratory birds.

 Migration isn’t all about the movement of vast flocks of birds from northern latitudes to warmer climates, however. For many species of birds found in western Montana, migration consists of simply moving down in elevation - rather than in latitude – to escape the harsh conditions of winter. Many of the birds that summer in the region, often nesting high up in the mountains, winter low in valleys and in our backyards! As a result, the movement of birds to lower elevations during fall and winter presents a great opportunity to see rare and unique birds that are secretive and elusive the rest of the year.

Numerous species of finches, including Pine Grosbeaks, Cassin’s Finches, and the stunningly colored Evening Grosbeak, become common sights at backyard bird feeders. In addition, many corvids - such as Steller’s Jays, Gray Jays, and Clark’s Nutcrackers – move to lower elevations where food is more readily available. In the coming weeks, listen for unusual calls or sounds; it could be one of these birds settling in to the valley for winter!

A flock of Evening Grosbeaks invades a Missoula backyard, 2010. 

 So Missoulians, get ready for the many wonderful changes fall brings to our home!

10 September 2012

Discover ways to involve yourself with MNHC this Fall!

photo by Merle Ann Loman

Visiting Naturalist Program

We're kicking off the program with introducing 3rd-grade students to bird beaks and feet and 4th- and 5th-grade students to the idea of naturalist as scientist, artist, and writer.  Staff naturalists visit the classrooms once per month throughout the school year, and lead activities that incorporate creativity with a scientific study of the natural world.  Volunteers are always needed (and appreciated) to help assist with classroom activities. 

miniNaturalist Program
Youngsters can come and discover the natural world all year round with our miniNaturalist program.  As brand-new naturalists, kids engage in nature with a series of sensory, imaginative and (sometimes) musical activities.  Last week, we talked about squirrels--what they eat, where they live and who might eat them.  Our miniNaturalists taste-tested seeds, learned about squirrel habitats and became a squirrel in their own Squirrel Play Production. The miniNaturalist Program is offered every first and third Thursday at MNHC from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.  Admission is $3/non-member and $1/member.   

A Forest for Every Classroom
Don't worry, teachers, we won't let the kids have all the fun.  MNHC offers teachers a unique opportunity to learn about place-based education through seminars and workshops.  In the past, teachers have traveled to various places around western Montana, including Tarkio, the Blackfoot Valley, Seeley Lake, and the Bitterroot Valley, and met with various scientists, ecologists, forest service specialists, naturalists, ranchers, and conservationists.  This year-long program has two- three-day workshops in every season, which are designed to inform educators about what is going on in Montana's natural environment and how they can incorporate place-based education within their own curriculum. Educators are provided with supplemental course materials which offer a range of activities that can be used to teach children about anything from the wildlife diversity to patterns of change within the environment. We are currently recruiting interested educators  to be a part of our new workshop session which will begin in April 2013.

Fall Celebration and Auction
Celebrate with us on October 5 at the DoubleTree Hotel starting at 5 p.m.  There will be a silent and live auction with items graciously donated from artists, restaurants, designers, jewelry makers, and businesses throughout Montana.  Don't worry if you get tired from all that auction bidding, because the dinner menu includes salad, your choice of entree and a cookie sundae with Big Dipper Ice Cream.  If you're interested in attending we've made it easy!  Log onto our website at http://www.montananaturalist.org/ and follow the link to register and reserve your spot.

Interested in volunteering, learning about our programs or checking to see what's new?
Please contact MNHC Tuesday-Friday 12-5 at 406.327.0405

07 June 2012

VNS May Field Trips: Insects, Part 2--Beetles!

There are 450,000 species of beetles, and they make up 40% of all insects. So, I hope you'll forgive me for not being able to identify all of the species we saw on our field trips! We caught some amazing specimens: brightly colored ones, iridescent ones, and just plain adorable ones. The kids were superb insect collectors, and only a few bugs were accidentally crushed in the excitement (one of which, I will admit sadly, was a sneaky common cricket that I was trying to recapture). I will do my best at telling you what I know about the beetles I got pictures of--or about beetles in general.

Here are the basic body parts of beetles, which I will refer to below. What isn't illustrated in the diagram is a section called the pronotum, or a portion of the front-most surface of the thorax. The shape and size of this feature is often very helpful in the identification of beetles.

Beetle #1: The lime green one on a pencil. 
Truly, I do not know what kind of beetle this is. It was a vivid, lovely color, though, and the kids who found it were ecstatic. 

 Beetle #2: The funny-colored lady beetle. Or, what reminds me of a Colorado Potato Beetle.
 This one came and landed right on my bracelet. He is shaped just like a lady-beetle--and there are 150 species of "ladybugs" in the U.S., so he very well could be one!

Entomologists think that lady-beetles may have spots to warn predators that they taste bad and can make them sick. See, ladybugs make a little bit of poison--just a little--and birds may be able to learn that a spotted beetle equals a terrible taste and illness.    

I'll admit, being a girl from a farm, my first thought was, wow, what a funny little, spotted Colorado potato beetle. Thankfully, this guy's pronotum and coppery-brown color set him off as something different. He's lovely, isn't he?

Beetle #3: A metallic-colored ground beetle (perhaps?)
If you Google the colors of this beetle (metallic green and copper-brown), you will get results for the notorious Japanese beetle--but this guy's colors are inverted and his shape is not the same. 

Do you know any of these beetles? If you do, tell us about them in the comments! We'd love to know!

06 June 2012

VNS May Field Trips: Insects, Part 1.

The insects station is, by far, the most active one in the spring. Sure, the hikes have lots of walking, but at the insect station, we wander around, run with nets, dump and scoop bugs with caution and speed, and work hard to draw and inspect. We don't really try to ID, but, as you will find, it is difficult not to know what to call a specimen we find. Naming something, however, is only part of the process, and  being able to describe it or draw it in detail is also important. Simply observing and marveling at something is worthwhile, too!

Christine W. helping with a multitude of bugs!
After the sometimes cold and often surprising weather of the first two weeks of field trips, things warmed up, the sun came out, and jackets were shed or tied around waists and we were able to focus on the bugs in the nets and crawling around on us. At least, in theory, we could focus. Sometimes we had insects in a bunch of places, which led to a multitude of things going on all the time.

This little guy is an Anthocharis stella, or a Stella orangetip, butterfly. Along the Pacific coast, the subspecies is a Sara orangetip, and the Stella was thought to be a subspecies; but recently, scientists discovered that the two (Sara and Stella) will cohabitate without hybridizing. You can tell the difference, I've learned, by the color of their marbeled underwing: Saras are darker grey-green, and Stellas are pale mossy-green.

In general, though, you can just call them all orangetip butterflies, if you'd like.

They are such beautiful little creatures! Variations of this species are found all over the world. In some, the females are white, like cabbage moths. In others, like these, both males and females have orange tips, but males have more pronounced dark borders on white wings, while females have a yellowish tint and lighter mottling on the underside of their wings.

Isn't that wing marbling neat?

Look at this grasshopper we found! He was bright green with brown legs, wings, and eyebrows. No really--he had eyebrows! It was very cool.

Now, there are at least 11,000 verified species of grasshoppers (Kevan 1982; G√ľnther, 1980, 1992; Otte 1994-1995; subsequent literature), but still, I'm going to go out on a limb and try to identify him. I think he's some sort of band-winged grasshopper. I didn't stretch out his wings, but if I had, I bet I would have found bands of color on them.

The kids absolutely had a blast! Look at these little naturalists!

05 June 2012

VNS May Field Trips: Solo Hike.

Students on the solo hike get to put their naturalist skills they've learned to practice--all on their own. I heard many students say that they were surprised by how much they enjoyed being alone on a trail. A few times, they insisted they walk back along the solo hike trail in the opposite direction, again all alone.

Some discoveries:

A tiny, blue egg. I found it along the trail at Fort Missoula, and have yet to get a confirmation of what kind of bird it belongs to! Of course, it is most probable that it was a robin's egg--but it was definitely no bigger than a quarter. Could it have belonged to someone else?

 Here's a chart I found of the sizes of eggs (some of which are blue) from someone in Connecticut. An Eastern bluebird egg is the same size, approximately, as a Western or mountain bluebird.

European Starlings can also have blue eggs. Their eggs are darker and smaller than robins' eggs, a little larger than a bluebird egg, and glossy, but without any spotting. If you want to have a go at IDing the egg we saw, do so in the comments!

 This group of kids at Council Groves enjoyed walking alone, and really loved skipping rocks along the river afterwards. They seemed so enthralled by being alone that I had to run around to gather them back togther to share their discoveries from the solo hike!

 At Fort Missoula, kids ate their snacks all crammed into the big log. These girls were all telling each other about things they had seen, and it from a ways off it seemed like the log itself was chattering.

04 June 2012

Spring at the MNHC!

As Allison said, so many exciting things have been happening this spring!

May ushered in the time of the year when we hold field trips for our Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program. This year, I had the opportunity to help with field trips held at Council Groves, Maclay Flats, and the Native Plant Garden at Fort Missoula, but field trips were also going on at a few other places. All hands were on deck. The warm weather (or, mostly warm) brought lots of exciting animals and plants out and about for all the naturalists to see.

For those of you who don’t know, Visiting Naturalist in the Schools is a program for grade schoolers (mostly fourth graders) aimed at helping young students develop their artistic, writing, and scientific skills to explore the world as naturalists. We do two “field study” sessions; the first is in October and the second is in May. Slightly different stations occur depending on the season. In May, we have three stations: the wildlife hike, the solo hike, and the insect study. These stations at the end of the year are especially exciting because we get to put all of the lessons we learned throughout the school year into practice. 

The next few posts are all about a few of the very exciting things we saw and experienced during VNS field trips in May!

Community Observations: What are you seeing?

Spring has arrived in a glory of rain and sun and flowers and green things growing.  It's a great time to be out and about, observing the natural world!  The staff at MNHC have been seeing lots of fun things:  Great Horned Owl young in a nest at Council Grove; Lazuli Buntings at Bass Creek in the Bitterroots; American Dippers braving wild run-off waterfalls along Sweathouse Creek; Osprey soaring over the Clark Fork River, looking for fish; the bright colors of Western Tanagers in back yards around Missoula; and dozens and dozens of wildflower species, from lupine to paintbrush to side-flowering mitrewort to fairy-slipper orchids.  

Where are you exploring this spring?  What are you seeing?  Please share in the comments!

27 February 2012

Bitterroot Valley surprises.

So often, we tend to think of "natural history" in terms of the arguably more traditional definition of nature, specifically as the world surrounding humankind but existing independently of or uninfluenced by human activities.Certainly, this is a major part of natural history (the history outside of our own species), but it's so important to also include the history that involves our coexistence with and stewardship of the natural world.
2012 © Sara J. Call
Which brings me to The Big Ditch. There is a large canal that begins at the corner of Lake Como and stretches up past Stevensville to the bench lands southeast of Florence, delivering water to agricultural land (over 1,300 users) along a span of 75 miles. It is 25 feet across at the Lake, and gradually dwindles to a third that size before petering out to transect ditches completely. 

2012 © Sara J. Call
2012 © Sara J. Call
If you grew up in agricultural land as I did, you know that even though water only fills canals and ditches for a few months out of the year, they create a significant amount of riparian-type habitat. And even though they go in relatively straight lines and don't meander like streams and creeks we like to picnic alongside, they are home to many of the same creatures we know and love near other waterways. 

The Big Ditch (more formally known as the Bitter Root Main Canal) has an impressive history. Copper King Marcus Daly first conceived of a giant canal when he moved to the Bitter Root Valley and founded Hamilton in 1887. He built a few irrigation projects in the area, but his plans for a "big ditch" along the length of the entire valley were ended by his death in 1900. That same year, though, an intrepid business man named Samuel Dinsmore joined the irrigation game, and made plans to build a pipeline and canal that took water from the west fork of the Bitterroot River and ran parallel the river to Hamilton. After a few years, when finances ran low, he attracted wealthy investors from Chicago to finance his project, and it was then he founded the Bitter Root Irrigation Company and added the plan to take water from a storage-worthy fortified Lake Como. The scheme included the grand idea to buy up cheap land, bring irrigation water to it all, and resell hundreds of "orchard plots" to out-of-towners for a hefty profit. So, the "Apple Boom" of Western Montana was launched into full gear. Hundreds of speculative land buyers came to partake in the supposed fruit cornucopia of the Bitterroot Valley. The Big Ditch was dug with massive steam shovels and communities were constructed, and the since-burned lavishly glamorous Bitter Root Inn was built. The promotional scheme seemed to be working.

But farmers found they could not afford to pay for water rights, and the land was not as perfectly suited for McIntosh apples as advertised. By 1917, the Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company went bankrupt, and finally in 1920 the company became a municipal corporation run by the farmers that remained to raise livestock, vegetables, and wheat. Only a few orchards remain. 
2012 © Sara J. Call

But the ditch remains. There is no sign or historical plaque marking it. It is still fully operational. And it is impressive; from Lake Como, it is sent up on to a bench on the west edge of the valley, then, a few miles later, it goes into a massive pipe, off a steep hillside, and disappears under Highway 93. It reappears on the other side of the pavement and crosses over the Bitterroot River, where it threads across the valley and weaves along the bench lands paralleling the river along the Selway Range. 

2012 © Sara J. Call

I managed to follow it and intersect the ditch every so often along its length. I took unpaved residential roads, followed the Skalkaho Pass road, got lost in rural neighborhoods following transect ditches up to their origins, and found myself amazed at the immensity--and beauty--of the irrigation project.    

While out on a side road that I had successfully found crossed the Big Ditch, I paused to take a photograph at a sweeping bend of the canal that held some water from both snow melt and a dripping pipe that funneled a creek across near the bridge. I was stunned when I heard the following sound, and then saw its creator:
2012 © Sara J. Call

Yes, that's right; the red-winged blackbirds are beginning to return; spring is imminent! (I believe the one I heard and saw was a bachelor or yearling red-winged blackbird, recognizable by its muted or orange shoulder patches. These young guys return to gather in bachelor flocks rather than stake out territory like older males. He was smaller and up in a tree, not down near an obvious nesting site along the canal.)

All in all, what a magnificent adventure. And what a wonderful reminder that our cultural history remains so intertwined with that of the natural world, that even the things that many may believe are a threat to the natural world (ie: agriculture) also (or rather) provide habitat for the creatures with which we coexist.

As the sun set in the Bitterroot Valley, and as I paralleled the last leg of the tapering Big Ditch, I saw a group of white-tailed deer pause in a dry grass-filled pasture. The clouds were painted pink in the sky above them, and for a moment they looked curiously toward me before lifting their fluffy tails and bounding away toward higher ground. Below us, the lights of the city of Stevensville twinkled. The Bitterroot Valley held so many lovely surprises.   
2012 © Sara J. Call

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