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