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!

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