November 17, 2022
It’s a cold, sunny morning in the parking lot of Missoula’s Greenough Park. There are eight of us gathered here, carrying binoculars or magnifying glasses. We’re here for the Montana Natural History Center’s monthly naturalist saunter. Our goals for the morning are simple: be curious, observe, and get to know some of the stories of this place.
It snowed lightly last night. Now the thermometer at the airport reads 23°F, but it’s probably colder here, in the narrow valley of Rattlesnake Creek.
I was in a hurry this morning, and now I’m mentally kicking myself for arriving so unprepared. I ran out of time to put my boots on. Instead I’m wearing a pair of worn-out hiking shoes and just two light coats. The only camera I have with me is my phone. My gloves are lightweight and slightly damp from the day before. But if a song sparrow can survive a whole winter out here with nothing but its feathers, I can probably be out here underprepared for an hour or two.
Naturalist Ser Anderson is leading this morning’s saunter. It’s is an opportunity for us all to get to know the winter landscape better. Whenever we’re out in nature, we all bring different perspectives and notice different things.
“It makes this a really valuable experience to gather together,” Ser says.
Dippers and chickadees
It doesn’t take long to see this in action. By the time we’ve been walking for a minute, we’re already learning from each other about the creatures of this urban park. We stop at the footbridge over Rattlesnake Creek, where Ser has seen a pair of American dippers nesting for several years. Ser scans upstream and down, looking for a well-camouflaged, stream-dwelling gray bird with a buzzy call. But the dippers seem to be in another section of the stream today. Ser tells us that they see dippers here year-round. If Rattlesnake Creek freezes during a cold spell, these cold-hardy stream-dwellers will move downstream to the Clark Fork River. Otherwise, they seem to prefer foraging in the smaller streams, such as Rattlesnake Creek.
Nate Johnson notices a narrow line of tracks across a snow-covered island in the creek. Could these be dipper tracks? It’s a thin trail through the snow, and the prints seem to alternate with each other. The trail is much too narrow for a mink or a muskrat, and the pattern doesn’t look right for a deer mouse or a vole. We can’t be sure, but an American dipper seems like a good guess.
While we’ve been scanning the creek for the elusive dippers, a mixed flock of black-capped chickadees and pygmy nuthatches has been keeping us company, flitting around the trunk of a large cottonwood near the creek. It’s another mixed-species winter flock, something we can expect to see frequently through the rest of the winter. Besides chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, and woodpeckers, Ser mentions that they sometimes see jays joining these mixed-species groups.
Birds and plants in the cold
The wind is blowing plumes of snow off of the crest of Mount Jumbo above us. In spite of the sun, it’s cold. My toes are starting to complain. The rest of my body is asking me why I didn’t put another coat on this morning. I’m nowhere near the slippery slope towards hypothermia yet, but the morning would have been much more comfortable if I had planned ahead a bit more.
The cheerful calls of the chickadees seem to mock my discomfort. If they’re cold, they aren’t telling me. And even more amazing are the dippers. They plunge and swim through the ice-cold waters of the stream throughout the winter. For the dippers, this penguin plunge is their buffet: caddisflies, mayflies, other aquatic invertebrates, and perhaps even small fish are their year-round foods.
We stop to look at a patch of common snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) growing next to a young grove of Norway maples (Acer platanoides). This unusual mixture is part of what makes Greenough Park interesting, Ser tells us.
“It’s a fascinating combination of native species and non-native species,” they say.
Native plants like snowberry, yarrow, and cottonwood mix with garden escapes like Norway maple and European mountain-ash (Sorbus aucuparia). It’s a reflection of how much we’ve changed the landscape, colonizing it with houses, European plants, and pavement. But it also shows us how resilient native plants can be. A half-wild park like Greenough can be a refuge for biodiversity. It’s not pristine – but compared to a lawn or a parking lot, there’s a lot of habitat here.
Snowberries and hawthorns in Greenough Park
Fruits still hang from the snowberries in luminous white clusters. What eats snowberry fruits?
“Not much until they’re desperate,” Ser tells us. They’ve seen pine grosbeaks eating these fruits in January, when there’s not much else to eat. Indeed, this seems to be one of the biggest advantages of snowberry fruits. They may be mealy and mildly toxic to humans – and apparently they’re not especially tasty to birds – but they stay around throughout the cold season. Unlike the fall fruits, like elderberries and chokecherries, snowberries are still here when the cold gets bitter and any calories are important, whether they’re especially tasty or not.
Fall and winter fruits continue to accompany us on our meander through Greenough Park. We stop to look at a snow-capped nest in a hawthorn (Crataegus sp.). It’s conspicuous now that the leaves have died back. A bulky cup woven of grasses, it’s perched high in the hawthorn, close to the main stem. It’s the size of a large orange, almost directly over the busy pedestrian trail. Winter nest identification is a difficult skill, and no one in our group is very experienced with it. But based on the size, construction, and location, we suspect that this nest belonged to a pair of American robins.
The hawthorns in the park seem to have lost their fruits already. Did the birds eat them this fall, or was this just a bad year for hawthorn fruit set? Ser reminds us that, besides fruits, hawthorns offer a variety of other advantages to wildlife. Black-billed magpies commonly build their bulky stick nests among these thorny branches, where they’re well-protected from predators. And northern shrikes may impale their prey – mostly mice and voles – on the thorns.
Red-osier dogwoods and Rocky Mountain maples
Just a few yards from the hawthorn, we take a look at a red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), its deep red branches standing out against the snow. Its small, bitter white fruits are gone already. But earlier in the fall, Ser often sees pileated woodpeckers eating them. It’s a comical sight. The bulky, red and black woodpeckers can’t perch upright on the slender dogwood branches, so they tip upside down as they snatch the juicy fruits. And the pileated woodpeckers aren’t alone. Around Helena, I’ve seen white-crowned sparrows, American robins, and black-capped chickadees stocking up on red-osier dogwood fruits during fall migration.
But that season is past now. Half a foot of snow covers the ground, and the dogwood branches are bare. But even in the winter, we can learn to recognize these bushes by the personalities of their branches and buds. Ser points out that the winter red-osier dogwoods can resemble another of our native shrubs, Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum). Both have branches that depart from the stem in opposite pairs, and both can have beautiful, reddish twigs.
So how can we tell these two apart? The buds provide one secret. Red-osier dogwood buds are elongate. Ser describes them like a pair of tiny prayer hands. Rocky Mountain maple buds, on the other hand, are rounder and fatter, protected by more bud scales.
Getting to know the bedrock
We slow down again as we pass by an exposed rock outcrop, jutting out towards the trail. Marilyn and Don Cook admire the rocks and marvel at how they came to be here.
“My mind stops functioning past a few thousand years,” Ser says. It’s a similar experience for me: the immensity of geologic time is impossible for me to truly comprehend. But even though none of us are geologists, and our understanding is limited, it’s worthwhile to take a look at this outcrop. We notice that the rocks are arranged in rusty orange strata that dip towards the south.
Later, I look at a geologic map and learn that this outcrop belongs to the Snowslip Formation, a layer of sediments laid down over a thousand million years ago. Tipping rock layers like these are a common sight in the Rocky Mountains. Originally, these rocks were deposited in level layers, the sediments carried off of the eroding mountains. But over time, immense and slow pressures tipped them, angling them southwards, as regional forces faulted and folded the bedrock up into new mountains.
But even without the geologic map – and without the ability to imagine a billion years – we can tell that these rocks are offering a unique habitat for creatures in the present. The south and east faces of this outcrop are bare rock, baked every day by the sun and scoured by rain and gravity. But where the rocks extend northwards in an overhang, where the water drips slowly and the sun doesn’t shine, a miniature garden of mosses and lichens are growing. In the early spring, perhaps the American dippers will venture here, gathering these mosses to build their sheltered nests under the footbridges that cross the creek.
Greenough Park’s waxwings
A soft, high-pitched chorus in the cottonwoods draws our attention away from the rock face. It’s a flock of cedar waxwings, their pale yellow bellies glowing in the morning sun. Ser spots a couple of Bohemian waxwings with them. Once in a while, we can hear the musical trills of the Bohemian waxwings mixing with the softer lisps of the cedars. It’s a different sort of mixed-species winter flock than the chickadees and the nuthatches: these birds are focused on fruits.
Cedar waxwings nest here in the summer, and some of them remain around Missoula through the cold season. They group up in the winter and shift their diet, from mostly insects to almost entirely fruits. The Bohemian waxwings, the larger, grayer cousins of the cedar waxwings, are strictly winter visitors to Montana. They nest in the boreal forest, moving south as the weather gets cold. Like the cedars, now they’re very focused on fruits.
So what are the waxwings doing in the top of this cottonwood, perching among its bare, fruitless branches? We notice a pattern of movement: a few at a time, the waxwings are gliding down from the cottonwood into the undergrowth. At the same time, others are flying back up to this conspicuous perch. Sure enough, as they land again, we can see that the waxwings are carrying bright orange fruits in their beaks. They’re feeding on the European mountain-ashes – one of those garden escapes that is common in Greenough Park. And if the waxwings are any judge, it seems that the mountain-ash fruits are tastier than the snowberries. Presumably, this flock is digesting their meal high up in the cottonwood so that they can watch for sharp-shinned hawks, merlins, and other predators.
Elderberries and nightshades
Fruits and birds continue to accompany us as we wander through the park. We stop to look at the elderberries (Sambucus cerulea). The transition from fall to winter happened so fast this year that we can still find clusters of their powdery-blue fruits, drooping in the cold. Normally, the birds clean up the elderberries before winter arrives.
We pay attention to the hollow, pithy elderberry stems. They break off easily, giving these shrubs a rather disheveled appearance. But though they may not look very tidy, the elderberry stems are important. While many of our native bees nest in the ground, an important assortment spend most of their lives in twigs just like these. For example, bees in the genus Ceratina may overwinter in elderberry stems, hidden from sight, waiting quietly for spring to arrive.
We can still hear the waxwings trilling and lisping as they feed on the nearby mountain-ash fruits. A black-capped chickadee flits past us, probing busily for insects and spiders among the shriveled brown alder leaves that still hang from the branches. A song sparrow gives its chimp call from the thicket near us.
A slender, woody vine droops with shiny clusters of juicy red fruits near the trail. What is this? It’s bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), a relative of tomatoes. Native to Europe and parts of Asia and northern Africa, it’s mildly toxic to humans. From what we’re seeing today, the birds don’t seem very interested in it, either. But as we’ve already seen, the birds’ interest in different fruits can change greatly through the season. Near Helena, I’ve seen white-crowned sparrows eating nightshade berries in the fall. And Ser thinks they remember seeing song sparrows eating these fruits, as well.
Hints of mammals
Snowberries, mountain-ashes, red-osier dogwoods, nightshades – could there possibly be more types of fruit in Greenough Park? Then we pass by a small apple tree hanging over the trail. Yes, that’s right – a domestic apple in this semi-wild park. How did it get here? Did a bird plant it? A bear? A person?
In any case, no fruits are left on it now. Some branches are broken out of the top, and we can see a series of deep scratches gouged in the smooth bark.
We debate who the culprit might be. Could it be a raccoon? But we agree that the accumulation of signs – fruits gone, branches broken, and heavy claw marks – seems to point towards a bear.
The claw marks in the tree are another sign that far more is happening in this park than we’re likely to see in one morning. In fact, it’s likely that each day we’re here will bring us different stories.
Alysha Goheen lives near Greenough Park and comes here almost daily. Recently, she tells us, she was excited to see a pair of raccoons traveling along Rattlesnake Creek during the daylight. She’s seen raccoons here before – including, on one memorable night, a female with eight kits – but to see them during the day is something unusual.
“It’s really nice to be able to come out here daily throughout the season,” Alysha tells me.
Learning the stories of Greenough park
Today, we’ve seen neither raccoons nor their tracks. It seems that they’ve stayed denned up since last night’s fresh snowfall. Alysha’s story of the raccoon is yet another illustration of the benefits of a naturalist saunter like this. All of us have developed a more thorough connection with this park today because of each other’s perspectives and stories. From Alysha, we’ve learned of the neighborhood raccoons and their habits. Ser has brought us the stories of the American dippers and a thorough appreciation for the park’s diversity of fruiting shrubs and the creatures they support. Marilyn and Don have reminded us to wonder at the unfathomable, billion-year-old stories of the rocks we stand on. And Nate has shown us what may well be dipper tracks along the stream.
Even on a cold, wintry morning, the stories we can find when we saunter outside are endless. Next time, I’ll make sure to dress a bit more warmly. But although my fingers and toes are slightly stiff, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this morning. Today I’ve gotten to connect a little bit more with the place where I’m living. I’ve made some new friends and gotten to see their passion and curiosity as, together, we celebrate the beginning of winter in Missoula. Next month, I hope to be back. What stories will we encounter in December? Maybe I’ll see you there.
Lonn, J.D., McDonald, C., Sears, J.W., & Smith, L.N. (2010). Geologic map of the Missoula East 30′ x 60′ quadrangle, western Montana. Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Open-File Report 593, 2 sheets, scale 1:100,000. Retrieved from https://mbmg.mtech.edu/mbmgcat/public/ListCitation.asp?pub_id=31350&