Thursday, December 5, 2013

Flight of the fox

It was a cool fall day out in the hills. The leaves were just turning that amber color that screams autumn. I had my backpack on and my dog by my side. Everything seemed perfectly in place, the birds above me migrating south before the frost came, the chipmunks were rushing to get ready for the hard winter ahead, and deer didn’t quite seem all there. They had that dazed look in their eyes as they always do. None the less, it was a magical morning just as the sun was rising. I had always been one to get up early to experience the mysterious wonder that nature holds tight with a grip that could only be broken with a trip in the wilderness. This particular morning was a strange one though, something seem off. My dog wasn’t running off to find trouble. Everything was slightly out of place.

Then, out of the corner of my eyes I saw a flash of red. I immediately grab the collar of my dog to prevent a wild chase from happening. The scarlet blur turn out to be a fox. Fairly common here in Montana, but it was sure a sight to see. The way its tail would swing as it trotted up the neighboring hill. I noticed the similarities with my red heeler as it would turn to look back at us. I headed back home to give the animal some space.

Back home I decided to look up the creature on the internet. Weeding through the multiple videos of What does the Fox say? I finally found some good information.According to, the fox is the largest of the fox family. It weighs up to 24 lbs, and its lifespan is roughly 2 to 4 years. It has a thick tail that aids its balance, but it has other uses as well. A fox uses its tail as a warm cover in cold weather and as a signal flag to communicate with other foxes. This was a great day for adventuring. We usually scare any sort of animal away from us as we walk due to all the noise we make.

Submitted by Wyatt Iverson
Summer Naturalist in Training 2012 and 2013

Volunteer with the Leadership Institute for Nature, Kids, and Stewardship

Friday, September 6, 2013

Belted Kingfisher

Naturalist Journal Entry from Becca Mathias, Big Sky Watershed Corpsmember:

August 8th, 2013
9:45 am
BeBe’s Channel
Billings, MT
78 ° F
10% Cloud Cover
Slight breeze from the North

Belted Kingfisher
Ceryle alcyon
I heard a piercing rattle as I was sitting down by BeBe’s Channel near Norm’s Island and I looked up to see two Kingfishers flying low near the water, doing somewhat of a dance in mid-air.  I sat and watched them as they were flying acrobatically near the water and back up again, until they finally took a break and perched on a nearby post.  Their behavior, acrobatic ability and appearance peaked my curiosity, so I looked up some cool facts and information about them in the Sibley Bird Guide and Behavior books.    
Belted Kingfishers feed mainly on small fish, are found around open water areas and use their sharp bill to capture fish underwater.  Belted Kingfishers are great divers, and require clear waters to spot their prey from afar.  They have also been known to eat small crustaceans, aquatic insects, reptiles and amphibians.  They have a piercing rattle for a call and are stocky, large headed birds with a straight, thick, pointed bill.  They have a shaggy crest (resembling a serious mohawk) on the top and back of the head along with white marks around the bill and eye. 

Some cool facts about the Belted Kingfisher:
-        During courtship, the male pursues the female in the air, then the male presents the female with a fish and mating occurs. 
-        Many Kingfishers dig into exposed banks along watercourses, in the roots of upturned trees and holes in walls or bridges and create a nesting area.
-        Both the male and female help create the burrow, which are on average 2 inches wide and 3-10 feet deep!
-        The Belted Kingfisher can hover up to 20-30 feet above water and still spot their prey… wicked awesome eyesight!
Since Belted Kingfishers are so highly specialized, they are experiencing about a 2% per year population decrease due to habitat alteration resulting in the disturbance of their nesting sites.  Since they nest on eroding banks, controlled streams/rivers are preventing the natural formation of those banks that are necessary for building their nests.  These are really neat birds, fun to watch and amazing in a lot of different ways.  It’s worth a trip out to a nearby body of water to catch a glimpse of this beautiful bird!

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Walk in the Woods

Whether a green plumage of life in the summer or a convoluted tangle of limbs in the winter, the Cottonwood Tree represents a special and vital part of the Yellowstone Valley ecosystem.  They can always be found near water, playing a fundamental role in the health of riparian zones (areas of intense diversity that are only found near water).  Walking among them, one feels the life that emanates from the great towers, from the great Bald Eagles and Ospreys that sit upon an upturned branch looking across the river for dinner, down to the small insects like the cotton borer that crawl within the tree, eating their way along the bark and leaving behind intricate lines similar to those of a lost civilization. 
Their great limbs provide a bird haven, for the foliage is so thick that often all you can do is listen to their calls and hope to catch a quick glimpse of a feather as they flit amongst the branches.  As you listen, you will also hear the constant chatter of a squirrel as it scrambles around, looking for food and constructing their homes that from below look like a lump of leaves resting amongst the branches.  Even in death, the Cottonwood is a constant provider, giving flickers and downy woodpeckers a place to live and scrounge for bugs.  Walking further into the grove, you might find an old burnt spot where the foliage below has been burned away, but the Cottonwood still stands strongly, its thick bark protecting it from all but the most intense of flames. 

Suddenly and unexpectedly you find yourself at the river’s edge, appearing to mingle amongst the Cottonwoods as if it too were one of the giants.  The river, a constant and powerful force that is always looking to expand its borders and delve deep into the inland, is held at bay as the Cottonwood’s great roots stand strong against the great current.  It is these roots that act as guardians of the riparian zone, refusing to be swept away by the whims of the water, and it is these roots that trap the water underground to keep it and the plants around it sustained in times of drought.  However, no force is truly impenetrable, and eventually the rivers wash away the great Cottonwoods, sending them downstream to complete yet another great service.  As a great Cottonwood floats down the river, looking like a great battering ram 5 feet in diameter easily over 100 feet tall ready to crush even the mightiest of castles, it eventually hits a point in the river and jams itself in.  Over time, more and more trees become part of the great dam in the river and slowly but surely they cut down the speed of the river, thus creating a resting point for fish and a brand new riparian zone.  When the water is slowed by these great dams, it pools behind them into great wetlands, which act as a natural purifier for the water.  As it comes to a standstill, the water slowly percolates through the soil and gathers in underground aquifers, ready to be utilized by stretching roots of a plant or to bubble out of a spring, cleaner and fresher than any water treatment plant can make it.  The wetlands created by the dammed Cottonwoods are also ripe territory for new Cottonwoods to grow and start the whole process over again, all it that is required is seeds, and Cottonwoods have plenty.  Have you ever seen the snow fall in the summer, thick and fluffy?  Well, either you were in Montana, you were actually seeing “cotton” seeds from a Cottonwood tree or both.  For the entire month of June every female Cottonwood tree produces thousands of seeds encased within a fluffy cotton-like substance that is carried by the wind far and wide covering entire landscapes with a layer of “snow”. 
Working your way back from the water’s edge and back in the direction you hope is the one you came in, you can feel the history of the Cottonwoods, whose lifespans reach over 100 years.  You can imagine Lewis and Clark making their great trek across the unknown, floating down the river in great canoes made from the ancestors of the trees towering above you.  The Cottonwood Tree is a giver, providing life for many.  But it gives more than just a place to perch, more than just a dam in a river.  It is a giver of happiness, of lessons, of good times to be had, of legacy.  The next time you take a walk in the woods, look up to these Giving Trees, ask yourself, “what to do they give me?”.  More importantly, ask yourself “what do I give them”.   

By Jeremy Brooks
High School Naturalist in Training
Summer 2013