Thursday, July 2, 2009

Towndsends's Big-Eared Bat

While most people fear the things that go bump in the night, my job actually charges me with studying the critters who make some of those bumps. I really look forward to my night work during the summers. I head out just as the night thrushes are finishing up their last calls and end my night with the sounds of morning birds calling as well. Its an experience that everyone should have at some point in their lives. But I'm getting sidetracked here. The reason I work at night for about a month straight over the summer is because I do a capture-mark-recapture survey method on various bat species in my area. I set up a harp trap system right outside of old caves, abandoned mines, and abandoned barns specifically targeted to certain species like the Townsend's Big-Eared Bat for instance.

The Townsend's Big-Eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), aptly named for its uniquely ample ear-size, is actually a species of special concern so it's really neat to have them as native species in Western Montana and available to study. Several of the subspecies of this particular bat on the east coast are even listed federally as endangered. Townsend's Big-Eared Bat is a medium-sized bat with extremely long, flexible ears and small yet noticeable lumps on each side of the snout. It is brown on the back, and wood-brown on the sides. The underparts are a slightly paler shade of brown. These bats can be identified by the nearly uniform color of their bodies. It's total length is around 10 cm (4 in.), its tail being around 5 cm (2 in.) It's wingspan is about 28cm. It weighs around 7-12 grams. This bat is often distributed near rocky areas where caves or abandoned mine tunnels are available. They may also occasionally inhabit old buildings.

During summer, males and females occupy separate roosting sites. Males live a solitary lifestyle away from females. Females and their pups form maternity colonies which often number from around 12 to 200. During the winter these bats hibernate, often when temperatures are around 32 and 53°F (around 0°C and 11.5°C.) Hibernation occurs in tightly packed clusters, which could possibly help stabilize body temperature against the cold. Males often hibernate in warmer places than females and are more easily aroused and active in winter than females. The bats are often interrupted from their sleep because they tend to wake up frequently and move around in the cave or move from one cave entirely to another. During hibernation, C. townsendii grow incredibly fat, which compensates for the food they do not eat during the winter with a low metabolism.

As far as reproduction goes, Townsend's Big-Eared bats do something quite interesting known as delayed fertilization. The mating season for Townsend's Big eared Bats takes place in late fall. As usual, courtship rituals are done by the male. Until spring, when ovulation and fertilization begin, the female stores the male's sperm in her reproductive tract (hence the term delayed fertilization). Gestation lasts from 50 to 60 days. When the pup is born, it is pink, naked, and helpless. Only one pup is birthed per female, although 90% of females give birth.

Monday, June 29, 2009

First Aid Kits

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that being out in the woods is not necessarily the safest place to be in the world but that certainly shouldn't stop you from going out and enjoying yourself in the wild. An important thing to always take with you, however, is a first aid kit. Now I know what some of you may be thinking "I don't need that", but I tell you its a handy thing to have around no matter what the circumstances. Even if you are just going on a day hike with your friends having a small supply of first aid materials can sometimes make a big difference. A first aid kit doesn't need to be a behemoth of a box that can weigh any pack down, but it should include a few items that can come in handy when faced with cuts, scrapes, and the occasional spained ankle that even the most skilled of mountaineers have encountered from time to time.

Now some people prefer to buy a first aid kit for their pack, which is perfectly fine and there are several companies out there that make a great wilderness survival first aid kits, but I'm a person that ends up carrying quite a bit in my pack and the lighter I can make it the better. I prefer gather up a few of the basic products, put them in a water resistant zip lock bag, and place the bag in a very accessable side pocket of my pack. One of the best packaged first aid kits that I've come across is this one below with these contents. This particular kit is very lightweight and relatively small for what all it contains.
(20)3/4"x3" Adhesive plastic bandages
(10)3/4"x3" Fabric bandages
(5) 1"x3" Fabric bandages
(2) Knuckle fabric bandages
(2) Fingertip fabric bandages
(2) 2"x4" Elbow & knee plastic bandages
(10)3/8"x1-1/2" Junior plastic bandages
(2) Butterfly wound closures
(4) 2"x2" Gauze dressing pads
(2) 3"x3" Gauze dressing pads
(1) 5"x9" Trauma pad
(1) 2" Conforming gauze roll bandage
(2) Aspirin tablets
(2) Ibuprofen tablets
(2) Extra-strength non-aspirin tablets
(6) Alcohol cleansing pads
(6) Antiseptic cleansing wipes (sting free)
(2) Antibiotic ointment packs
(2) Insect sting relief pads
(2) First aid/burn cream packs
(1) 1/2"x5 yd. First aid tape roll
(1) Sunscreen pack
(1) Lip ointment pack
(1) 2"x2" Moleskin square
(1) 6"x11/16" Finger splint
(1) Medium #2 safety pin
(10) 3" Cotton tipped applicators
(1) 4-1/2" Scissors, nickel plated
(1) 4" Tweezers, plastic
(2) Exam quality vinyl gloves
(1) First aid guide
Kit Dimensions: 7-3/4"x5"x2-1/8"

Usually I pick and choose from the above contents for my own personal first aid kit depending on where I'm going, what I'm doing, and the possible hazzards I encounter in a given area. If you are hiking or camping with several people I do recomend having a kit similar to the one listed above because the more people in your party the more likely to encounter accidents you would not expect when traveling in the woods on your own in an area you are familier with. Also don't forget to replace items when they have been used, you don't want to be stuck in the woods without bandaids because you used them all up the last time you were out. When in doubt its better to be safe than sorry.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Predator/Prey Relations

You've all seen those documentary clips in National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel of a pride of lions taking down a sick wildebeest or perhaps a pack of wolves encircling an elk calf in early spring. While these images may seem graphic and perhaps even violent from the human perspective, predator-prey relations are a major part of the natural world and even vital to the health of many wildlife populations. For this reason predation has been and most assuredly will continue to be a fascinating topic for wildlife biologists, ecologists, and wildlife managers alike.

Many biologists view predator-prey relations as natures version of an arms race, meaning that the physical and genetic changes that both predators and prey undergo are for bettering their abilities to outdo one another and survive. At any given snapshot in time either the predator species or the prey species will have more "technology" under their belt in terms of survival. For wildlife prey we see speed, poisons, coloration, armor, alertness, and deceptions pitted against a variety of such traits in the predator as well. An understanding of predation is important because the public is vocal and curious about what happens to predators and prey, but for wildlife managers its an understanding of predations role in populations dynamics that is key. Some of the most controversial issues in wildlife and conservation biology hinge on the extent to which predators affect prey numbers and visa verse. When predators and prey have evolved together, they interact on more equal footing. So the easiet and at times the most complicated of questions on this topic is...does predation affect prey numbers?

The best short answer for that is... sometimes. I know I know... what good is that answer! But the simple truth is that there is a balancing act going on at all times between predator numbers and prey numbers. We don't have to look very far to see examples of predators limiting prey population size (sometimes even to extinction). But for the most part, predation usually causes oscillations in prey abundance ranging from very high numbers to low numbers and everything in between. Some prey species persist and even flourish in numbers with predators in their midst. What we have to keep in mind is that prey are active participants in the life and deth process, always evolving and behaving in ways to reduces their chances of being killed. The best generalization that can be made on population responce is that predation can certainly regulate and help limit numbers of prey, but its unlikely to drive prey populations to extinction unless introduced species are involved or the prey population is small and fragmented to begin with.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Kokanee Salmon

For those readers that do a little angling in their spare time I thought it would be fun to talk about a really neat fish that we are lucky enough to have up here in Montana as an introduced species to our local lakes, the kokanee salmon.
The kokanee salmon (Oncoryhnchus nerka) is actually the landlocked version of a sockeye salmon found in the Pacific ocean. Kokanee salmon are the product of evolutionary changes in sockeye salmon that were prevented from migrating to the ocean, and thus adapted to surviving exclusively in freshwater lakes. The kokanee salmon never migrate out to the ocean to feed so they have become a little smaller than their sockeye counterparts due to a more limited diet (plankton, insects, bottom organisms, and larval fish), but visually they are the same.

The migration of the kokanee salmon during spawning season is much more limited than that of the sockeye. Kokanee return to the site of their birth within their freshwater systems between August and November, normally along inlet streams of the lakes or shoreline gravel beds. Mature kokanee turn bright orange-red before the spawning season. The male displays more prominent coloration and develops a hooked jaw and humped back. The female selects a suitable nesting site, called a redd, and creates the egg bed by fanning or knocking gravel away with her tail. The male fends off intruders while the female works the redd. After the female lays up to 2,000 eggs in various batches, the male fertilizes them. The kokanee hatch in late winter and remain in the gravel feeding on the egg-sac nutrients. The fry will then emerge from the redds in the spring.

The kokanee is not an anadromous salmon, thus it inhabits only freshwater lakes and tributaries. The fish prefers cool, well-oxygenated water with temperatures of 50 to 59 F. Kokanee are generally found near the surface of the water as long as the temperature remains in their preferred range or cooler. As the surface water warms, kokanee may choose deeper water. Most kokanee live in a lake for most of their lives, so you can usually see them spawning either near the edge of a lake or in the small tributaries that feed into the lake of origin.

Kokanee salmon are a popular sports fish. Their red, oily, high-quality flesh can be cooked in a variety of ways or canned. It is important to clean and ice the kokanee soon after the catch, because its high oil content can cause it to spoil quickly. One of the best methods for catching kokanee is trolling with small, brightly colored lures at the depths where the fish congregate. This can be near the surface during cooler months and in deep waters during warmer seasons.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

To All Outdoor Dad's

This simple post is dedicated to all those dads out there celebrating their father's day with those they love in the woods, on the rivers, and even in the backyards barbecuing and having fun. I wish you all the best and enjoy the day to the fullest. And on a more personal note to those who have lost your dad's, know they are looking down on you and still have you in their hearts.

In Loving Memory of MY DAD!

July 31, 1943 - January 27, 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

Morels and False Morels

Something that I've started doing since moving to Northwestern Montana is going mushroom hunting. While this is a fun venture it can also be a little hazardous if you don't know what to look for. Around here the best edible fungi to eat is the morel. The only problem is that there are also false morels that can be toxic if consumed. Keep in mind however that no morel should ever be eaten raw as they do contain small amounts of toxin which are eliminated in the cooking process. Hopefully this next post will eliminate the chance of getting the wrong 'shroom and you all can have some fun in the woods.

True Morels:
The best known morels are the yellow morel, the white morel, and the black morel. Each grow in different types of habitats though all morels have a close association with land touched by forest fire. The yellow morel and white morels typically are found under deciduous trees rather than coniferous such as; ash, sycamore, tulip trees, elms, cottonwoods, oak, etc. The black morel can be found under either deciduous or coniferous trees. Since I am located in the northwest part of Montana I'll be talking about the Black Morels because of their abundance in this region.

Black Morel (Morchella elata)
This tasty little mushroom is usually found in recently (2-3 years) burned areas in coniferous and aspen stands between April and June. It has a conical to egg-shaped cap that is has a distinctive honeycomb pattern whose ridges are black-brown with pale cream colored hollows. There is no set size to black morels since they truly do depend on the habitat around them for growth. I've seen them ranging anywhere from thumb-sized to fist-sized in any given location. The best part of morel hunting is eating them. The two cooking methods that are typically used with black morels is to either sautee them with butter in a pan or to deep fry them as you would a typical mushroom. Morels can also be canned or freeze dried for later use when they are not in season. When freeze dried, all you have to do is reconstitute them in a little water and then cook as you would fresh morels.

False Morels:
One can tell the difference between a true morel and a false morel by the careful study of the cap. Instead of having a true honeycomb pattern as with true morels, false morels will have a "wrinkled" or "brainy" pattern and the cap will generally be larger and darker than a typical true morel. The caps of false morels also flair out more than a true morel whose cap will touch or almost touch the base of the stem.

So with that I leave you and wish you happy morel hunting in your years to come.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

White Pine Blister Rust

I want to make this blog as comprehensive as possible and informative as well, so today I'm going to discuss White Pine Blister Rust which is, as the name implies, a rust fungi that is one of the most destructive diseases to our local forest and timber stands. I am a person who likes the microbial side to biology so I apologize in advance if I get a little carried away but I do hope that you as a reader can appreciate this post and want to learn even more.

White Pine Blister Rust (Cronartium ribicola) is an invasive fungal species that was accidentally introduced into N. America in the early part of the 20th century. The disease can cause serious damage to all the American white pine species such as; Western White Pine, Sugar Pine, Limber Pine, and Whitebark Pine. Originating in Asia the pathogen, has little or no effect on their local pines because of co-evolution between the fungus and Asian pines. Blister Rust in parts of northern Montana has killed off entire stands of Western White Pine and Whitebark Pine, both of which are extremely important to the habitats and food sources for several species including the Clark's Nutcracker and the Grizzly Bear. The Forest Service has been working for several years on genetic improvement projects to make more resistant trees to this particular disease but that information is for a another posting.

The pathogen itself C.ribicola is heterecious, which means that it needs two host species to complete its life cycle; an aecial host and a telial host. Aecial hosts are pine trees while telial hosts are those plants found in the currant or Ribes families. So what happens is the disease gets passed from pine tree to currant bush and back again... over and over. One idea to get rid of the fungi was to eradicate all naturally growing currants in our pine stands but it was an impractical theory in practice.

The earliest identifier of C. ribicola infection is flagging, or patches of needles on the limbs turning a flaming red-orange color. There are other pine diseases that can cause this same "symptom" so it is often overlooked. The disease is usually first confirmed by finding cankers on infected branches. These cankers usually are a swollen and cracked portion of the limb that show a yellow orange substance between the cracks. If the infection is just limited to one or two limbs, those limbs can be pruned and there is hope for the tree itself, but if the canker if found on the main stem of the tree there is little help for it. Within 1-2 years the entire tree will turn bright red as the bole dies. Once infected the tree is also prone to other pest attacks as well. Because this agent passes so quickly between the two host species it takes very little time for an entire stand to be wiped out.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


In the last two posts I've been talking about some great resources for educating oneself in aspects of wildlife and the outdoors, but I think its time to dive right in and start discussing the critters, plants and pests that make the natural world so interesting. For the next few day's I'll be discussing a few bird species of interest to the region and then see where it goes from there. Hopefully by the weekend I can get into some carnivore studies and genetic improvement projects.

Here in Northwestern Montana we are lucky enough to have a nice variety of predator birds to admire. One of my personal favorites to study about is the osprey (Pandian haliaetus) because it is one of the most specialized hawks around. Not only is this bird of prey spectacular to look at but its amazing to study as well. Their feeding/hunting behaviors alone are well worth any amount of time spent researching them.

General characteristics:
Osprey are a diurnal fish-eating bird of prey and are part of the family Accipitridae. This large hawk can reach up to 2 ft in length, weigh around 4 lbs and can have a 6 ft wingspan. Though the wingspan can be huge for a bird of its general size the wings themselves can have a crooked appearance from being held slightly arched in flight. Osprey are brown on the upperparts and predominantly white on the head and underparts, with black eye patches and wings. A short tail and long, narrow wings with four long, finger-like feathers, and a shorter fifth, give it a very distinctive appearance. One interesting tid bit is that the osprey is the only raptor species that has a reversible outer toe which allows for better gripping of slippery fish with two toes in front and two toes in back. There are four generally recognized subspecies although the differences are small. The sexes appear fairly similar, but the adult male can be distinguished from the female by its slimmer body and narrower wings. The breast band of the male is also weaker than that of the female, or is non-existent, and the underwing coverts of the male are more uniformly pale.

Osprey can tolerate a wide variety of habitats as long as there is a nesting site near an open body of water with enough fish to provide an adequate food supply and is found on all continents except for Antartica. The Osprey breeds by freshwater lakes, and sometimes on coastal brackish waters. Here in Montana osprey nests are typically found in dead trees or on other prominent supports near water such as large rivers and reservoirs.

Fish make up 99 percent of the Osprey's diet. The osprey's hunting habits are very unique. Most often the bird perches on conspicuous poles or trees near the water which allows a wide field of view to find their prey under the surface of the water. Once a potential fish is spotted the osprey takes off and flies directly over the water. Swooping down from above the osprey selects its fish at about 50 ft above the water, after which the bird hovers momentarily then plunges feet first into the water.[After catching the fish considerable effort is needed to get airborne again. As it rises back into flight the fish is turned head-forward to reduce drag. The Osprey is particularly well adapted to this diet, with reversible outer toes, sharp spicules on the underside of the toes, closable nostrils to keep out water during dives, and backwards-facing scales on the talons which act as barbs to help hold its catch.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009 and Other Online Sources

I am definitely a product of a generation that uses technology and the internet to the fullest so its no surprise that I use a lot of different online sources to get information that I need for various projects I have going on both for work and my own independent learning. Whether you are a biologist, a botanist, a forester, or a parks manager there is a litany of great online sources that can be your best friend.

One that I find to be one of the best and which was recommended to me by a professor at the University of Montana is This particular website is like having every single publishable field guide in the world at your fingertips. It has a little bit of everything for everyone. I use primarily for recording my observations from day to day and doing preliminary research on species habitat and behaviors before going out in the field. If you are interested in birding this site also presents sound bites of every bird species' call and discusses everything from diet to wing patterns when flying. Again, when I was taking ornithology this site came in handy but I've continued to use it ever sense. Signing up for an account is quick, easy and free. Over the years I've built lists of animals of interest for the habitat and region in which I work. I've also recommended this site to a number of silviculturists and foresters in my office because of the section dedicated to plants and plant disease. If you have kids that are interested in the outdoors I suggest bringing them to as soon as they can be trusted with a computer because there are tons of educational activities and games that help them to learn about everything from rock formations to determining what scat came from what animal. All in all, you really can't go wrong with this one just do a little exploring on the site to see all the resources it contains.

Another site that covers some similar bases as, called WILDpro, is actually under authorship of the USGS. This is a free membership site that puts out information on hot topic issues such as Westnile virus, chronic wasting disease, and wildlife first aide and care.

For those of you with more academic interests, say publishing papers or at least going through the peer review process, the best tool you are going to ever have in your back pocket is some sort of scholarly article search engine. Now most of the better engines require a small fee for their services but they are well worth it. I'm a fan of Proquest and DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals) but its just because the are the ones that I have been using for a long time and both cover a variety of journals. Another commonly used engine is JSTOR, but again the membership can get pricey. Most education and work organizations have contracts with specific academic search engines but if you find that your school or place of work does not and you don't want to pay an annual membership fee both Google and Yahoo have developed "scholar" settings on their search for just this situation. You may not always get full text articles but often enough if you have the citation you can go to that specific journal's webpage and look at back issues to find the full original text. This process takes a bit more leg work but its just as effective.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Field Guides

Anyone that spends any decent amount of time in the outdoors has run across moments where they saw something and wish they knew more about it right then and there. Or saw an animal or plant that they wish they could identify. An easy solution for that problem is to carry a few field guilds along in your pack. I've gotten some great use out of these compact little references and find that they are worth their weight in gold, especially when I'm going into a situation or location that I'm not as familiar with.

Several non-profit and conservation oriented organizations publish a variety of field guides that narrow their focus either by region, topic, or both. Field guides can give you tons of information through illustrations and examples such as identifying edible or poisonous plants, types of geologic formations, species identification, and so much more. Though I've gone through my fair share of these handy books the two that I keep in my pack at all times are "The Sibley Guide to Birds of Western North America" by David Allen Sibley and the "Field Guide to the Rocky Mountain States" put out by the National Audubon Society. My junior year of college I took a very in depth ornithology class and found the Sibley's guide to be the most comprehensive and most fitting to the way I learn and identify birds but each guide has its pros and cons. As for my "Field Guide to the Rocky Mountain States", it was a Christmas present from my brother (another outdoor oriented Bennett) who knew a lot about the work I do and came with high praise. It covers pretty much everything found in the wildlands of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. Over the years its gotten banged up and folded pages but still is so very useful in the field. Thank God for waterproof pages.

While these two books are indelible to me I do recommend that if you are seeking out a field guide (or several) for yourself that you find ones that are appropriate for what you do in the outdoors and the locale that you typically spend that time. Though they may share some common flora and fauna, a field guide for Northwest Montana isn't going to do you much good if you live in Southern Louisiana, or vis a versa. So when you are at your local book store or outdoor supply place be sure that you take your time and find what best suits you.

Come back to read tomorrow when I'll be discussing interactive online sources such as, that help both novice and experienced wildlander alike learn and keep track of their observations in the field. Happy Reading!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Wildlife Biologist's Welcome

My name is Tracy Bennett and I am a wildlife biologist in Northwestern Montana. I have spent the past three years working not only as an independent contractor for various studies in this neck of the woods but have also worked on and off with various public land agencies since I was in junior high such as BLM, Wyoming Game and Fish, and most recently the USFS. Though its only been a few years since I've started my professional career as a biologist, I have loved wildlife and the backcountry for as long as I can remember. My intent with this particular blog is to share my experiences with others with similar interests and use this as a tool for teaching and learning. I encourage fellow biologists, wildland conversationalist, wildlife managers, and those with a general love of the outdoors to comment and ask questions as this site grows.
Hopefully we can build a good following here and share insights of the trade and promote growth. I have worked on various projects ranging from habitat improvement projects for old growth species, to genetic improvement projects with whitebark and western white pine on our national forests, to a number of fecundity and monitoring projects of large carnivores. I have a broad interest base and over the next few months would like to begin this blog with some of the research I've done and I'll hopefully get some feedback from you all as well.
Again welcome and happy reading.