09 February 2015

Traveling in the Backcountry: the essentials

A cold sweat chills me from under my backpack straps. The rhythm of my ascent up the clean white mountain side hypnotizes me. Slide-clack slide-clack. My skis cut a new climbing track up the wind-drifted slope. I climb up along a sub-ridge with a friend, past twisted sub-alpine fir trees barraged by wind since germination. It's a struggle to keep grins off our faces despite the steep grade and wind-hardened snow. It's a bluebird day in the Rocky Mountains and that is hard to beat.

Exploring backcountry terrain in winter is inherently risky, so there are a few things I bring along in my backpack and in my brain to try to minimize that risk or avoid it altogether.

  • Shovel - a light and sturdy aluminum shovel is absolutely essential for a good winter backcountry kit. Not only is it necessary for digging test pits to evaluate potential avalanche hazard, but shovels are great for digging out tent pads, fire pits, and are even great to sit on if you want to stay out of the snow. 
  • Cord - bringing a length of nylon cord (4-6 mm thick, at least 10 m long) is a great idea. It's a necessary part of proper test pit procedures, can be useful in rescue scenarios and has a host of other uses.
  • Probe - it is really important to continually check the depth of the snow pack you're traveling across. Probes are collapsible, graduated aluminum tubes that can be poked down through the snow to measure its depth. They are also essential for a successful rescue in the case of an avalanche burial.
  • Avalanche beacon - always be wearing your beacon and have it turned on from the time you leave the trailhead to the time you get back. Make sure every member of your party knows how to use their beacon, and make sure to practice with them (and the rest of your safety gear) before you get into potential avalanche terrain. Keep in mind: beacons will not guarantee your safety. Do not rely on them.
  • Small repair/survival kit - you never know when gear is going to malfunction. Bindings, boots, and snowshoes can break. Bringing a small bag with a multi-tool, knife, headlamp, extra batteries, ski scraper, lighter/matches, and thermal blanket can really be a life saver--especially if you're a worrier like me.
  • Avalanche forecast - always, always, always check the avalanche advisory from your local avalanche center before you decide where you're headed, or even whether you're going out at all.
  • Knowledge and common sense - the best way to survive an avalanche or exposure in the backcountry is not to get in a bad situation in the first place! Be up to speed on safe snow travel, route-picking, avalanche avoidance, and snow science, and know the area you're going to play in. If you've never been there before, go out with or talk to someone who has.
  • A Plan - make an itinerary for your day. Write down notes or thoughts after you read the advisory, map your route if you've never been there before. Record what you see while you're out for future reference. Let someone know about your plan back home. Talk about your plan while you're out with your partners. I have found that this helps me maximize my experience in the backcountry. I don't waste time deciding where to go, and it helps me make more confident safety decisions.

We crest the main ridge. We're entering the slope a few hundred feet east at a safe entry point that's not too wind drifted.Wind blows snow into our faces. One last safety check. Boots tight, bindings secure. I watch my friend descend onto the face, a sheltered slope still clinging to some good snow. He makes arcing turns as he paints a portrait of sheer bliss.

Butterflies fill my stomach and the sun-laden snow seems even brighter. He makes it down and signals for my descent from a safe location. One last check of the boots and I roll over the edge.

28 January 2015

Educating our Educators: equipping teachers with tools for place-based education

Being involved at the Montana Natural History Center has given me the unique opportunity to interact with a variety of people from across Montana. From preschool teachers to university professors, and from field scientists to young aspiring naturalists, there are two common and binding characteristics that I have observed: a strong sense of place and love of learning.

Last weekend wrapped up the final session of the 2014-2015 A Forest for Every Classroom (FFEC) program. This program is a collaboration between a host of government agencies, education non-profits, universities, and environmental organizations that provides place-based education training for educators. FFEC's mission states that it is "a dynamic professional development program for educators focused on place-based approaches to education. Teachers who participate in FFEC gain experience, form relationships and increase their own knowledge so that they are able to foster student understanding of and appreciation for their natural and human communities."

I am fortunate enough to have gotten to attend two of these sessions as MNHC's FFEC intern. Over days we spent in the pristine larch groves and snowy track-riddled forests of the Swan and Blackfoot Valleys, I canoed across fog-hooded lakes before sunrise, listened to stories about horsepacking through wilderness and toured active timber harvest sites. Our group also had the opportunity to experience the tribal material culture that is as much a living part of that landscape as the mink we tracked in and out of a frozen creek.

During my time with these teachers, I began to see something that goes unnoticed by many in America today. I saw a deep connection integrally tied to landscape and hardworking people who were trying to find the best ways to communicate that to young people of all ages. I saw kindergarten teachers learning how to integrate place-based education into play time and high school teachers learning how to integrate more out-of-classroom learning into their curriculum. I saw teachers from small rural schools interacting and networking with each other, sharing ideas and building friendships.

I think these educators, with their diverse backgrounds and personalities, embodied most what I truly appreciate about people: true empathy. Their commitment to providing young Montanans with quality leaning opportunities is wholly noble and undoubtedly supported by A Forest for Every Classroom.

12 September 2014

Guest Post: Mystery Butterfly

Observations & photos submitted by naturalist Kim Birck, late July 2014.

Yesterday a butterfly I’d never seen before visited my yard. It had the colors of a swallowtail, but no tails, and it didn’t match anything I could find by doing a Google image search for “black and yellow butterflies." So I posted a (low-resolution) smartphone photo to Facebook and got an immediate reply from a cousin in Wisconsin--“Could it be a Mourning Cloak?” Though the Mourning Cloak is Montana’s state butterfly and does frequent my yard--and its general morphology is somewhat similar--I’d already ruled out Mourning Cloak using the eNature.com online butterfly field guide.  

However, eNature was no help in figuring out who the mystery visitor actually was. The categories I might have chosen from their list--swallowtails or “boldly patterned”--produced no results. This was a very cooperative butterfly, however, hanging around all day and posing prettily on the bee balms (Mondarda sp.) that have proliferated where the native vegetation catches overspray from the lawn sprinklers. So I was able to get several good shots with a real camera, and e-mailed one to my friendly local naturalist at the Montana Natural History Center, Brian Williams. 

Twelve hours later, I had a reply: “Hi Kim, Great picture and good butterfly--it's a female Great Spangled Fritillary. Charles [Miller] and I were out in the Rattlesnake yesterday and saw one ourselves! Perfect timing on your question too, I've been working on my fritillary ID skills the last two weeks.” 

I Googled Great Spangled Fritillary, and on the Wikipedia page found the reason why it was so hard to identify: “Females tend to be darker than males and individuals from the western reaches of this species range tend to be brighter orange.” Talk about an understatement! All the Great Spangled Fritillary images I’d ever seen were brown and gold. Who knew the sexes were practically dimorphic? Today, a couple orange-colored males were chasing each other around the yard, and one landed on the same flower as the female I was photographing. She took off, but here’s the male.

He appears a bit the worse for wear as the markings have faded, near his wingtips, especially. 

Here are views of the undersides of their wings: Male:

and Female:

After seeing them fluttering around, I had a few more questions for Brian: 

"How do you distinguish Great Spangled from the OTHER Fritillaries? Could GSF be easily confused with the Northwestern Fritillary?" 

He responded: "Well, identifying the fritillaries besides Great Spangled is my summer's million-dollar question. Luckily, the Great Spangled is the one (of 10 or so, it seems), that is most readily identified. The best characteristic is the nature of the silver spots on the bottom of the hindwing--in the Great Spangled, the spots are relatively few, small, and well-spaced compared to all the rest of the fritillaries (like your photo, which is indeed a Great Spangled). The Great Spangled is also a bit bigger than all the other fritillaries. So, while at first glance, the Northwestern and Hydaspe Fritillaries are similar to Great Spangled in overall color, it is possible to distinguish them in the field. Beyond Great Spangled, the question is much more muddied. Charles and I have been collecting fritillaries for a display and I've actually been submitting photos of our pinned specimens to the website 'Butterflies and Moths of North America' to get positive identifications. Good fun!"

(Now we know what naturalists do when they aren't leading field trips!) 

Natural History Information from the Butterflies and Moths of North America Website
Great Spangled Fritillary 
Speyeria cybele (Fabricius, 1775) 
Family: Nymphalidae 
Subfamily: Heliconiinae 
Identification: Large. Upperside of male tan to orange with black scales on forewing veins; female tawny, darker than male. Underside of hindwing with wide pale submarginal band and large silver spots. 
Wing Span: 2 1/2 - 4 inches (6.3 - 10.1 cm).
Life History: Males patrol open areas for females. Eggs are laid in late summer on or near host violets. Newly-hatched caterpillars do not feed, but overwinter until spring, when they eat young violet leaves. 
Flight: One brood from mid-June to mid-September. 
Caterpillar Hosts: Various violet species (Viola). 
Adult Food: Nectar from many species of flowers including milkweeds, thistles, ironweed, dogbane, mountain laurel, verbena, vetch, bergamot, red clover, joe-pye weed, and purple coneflower. 
Habitat: Open, moist places including fields, valleys, pastures, right-of-ways, meadows, open woodland, prairies. 
Range: Alberta east to Nova Scotia, south to central California, New Mexico, central Arkansas, and northern Georgia. 
Comments: The most common fritillary throughout most of the eastern United States. 

18 March 2014

Under the Microscope: The Spring Equinox

This time of year, as the last snow melts from yards and mountainsides, I always find myself getting excited for the spring equinox, which happens to be this Thursday, the 20th.  Although picnics and gardening may be weeks or even months off yet, the spring, or vernal, equinox marks the point in the year that daylight hours will start to become longer than nighttime hours.  No matter how many snowstorms happen between now and June, I take comfort in knowing the days are finally becoming longer than the cold winter nights had been.

Technically, the equinoxes occur when Earth’s orbit and axis tilt cause the Sun to pass directly over the equator, shining its light equally on the northern and southern hemispheres.  This has the effect of giving most places on Earth roughly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night, which is where the term “equinox” comes from:  in Latin, “equi” means equal and “nox” means night, making it literally “equal night.

The Equinoxes only happen twice per year, around March 20th and September 22nd, and mark the generally accepted beginnings of spring and autumn, respectively.  It’s easy to forget though that just as our northern hemisphere is slowly blooming into spring, the southern hemisphere will be celebrating the autumn harvest.  Another interesting fact:  the sun rises precisely from the east and sets precisely in the west on equinoxes.  

As the days lengthen the average temperature rises and nature is quick to take note.  Trees begin budding and grass shoots and wildflowers begin poking through the last of the slush.  Before too long insects are hatching, the birds are returning and larger wildlife are migrating out of their wintering grounds.  The number of daylight hours keeps on increasing until the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, which is on June 21st this year.  The days then gradually get shorter through the autumnal equinox, up to the winter solstice on December 21, 2014. 

In Missoula, there is still a chill in the air and ice on the Clark Fork River’s banks.  But thanks to the passing of the equinox, summer’s warmth really can’t be too far off.