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This year we’ve been sharing a monthly, in-depth look into our eco-system. Join Master Naturalist Kelsey Bruns and Scientific Illustrator Katie Helser for an in-depth look into Rock Creek’s fascinating biodiversity and its cultural significance.

Season's Greetings from our Wild Wonderland!

12 Wild Wonders of Rock Creek

1.Juvenile moose shed: Many species, including moose, use riparian zones for habitat, yet only 2% of Montana is considered riparian. Rock Creek has increased importance and bio-diversity due to this designation.

2. Lodgepole pine needle: Trees provide cover and shelter for many mammals and avian species.

3. Hand-tied fly: Our guides teach fly tying in order to enable our guests to catch one of seven Rock Creek fish species.

4. Draft horse hair: Entwined in the bird’s nest, draft horse teams, like Casino and Big Jake and Bob and Buster, pull our sleighs, wagons and stagecoaches.

5. Bird nest: Winter is a perfect time to see the prevalence of nesting on Rock Creek because the leaves fall away and reveal these homes for native and migratory species who shelter and breed on Rock Creek.

6. Pair of male and female bluebirds: Bluebirds are often the first sign of spring. Though they are often caught in our first snows, they winter as far south as Mexico. See below for more on this species.

7. Wolf lichen: This species plays an important part of nitrogen fixation which is a building block to life. More on this in an upcoming field guide

8. Timothy hay: One of the many types of grasses that comprise local hay crops, feeding our horses, sheep and cattle during the winter.

9. Golden eagle feathers: These birds prey on small mammals which keeps their numbers balanced. Like any species, too many of one thing can disrupt the balance of an ecosystem. Read about our recent golden eagle rescue.

10. Mountain ash berries: Prove food to many of our mammals and avian friends in Rock Creek Valley.

11. The Ranch at Rock Creek Brand: You may see it on our Christmas card, our hats and our staff name tags. Brands play an important role in identifying animals that belong to a ranch. Brand inspectors are still employed to catch rustlers.

12. Snow: Extremely important for yearly precipitation totals, ensuring our native plant survival throughout the year.

2019 Field Guide: Year in Review

The Ermine

The ermine, or short-tailed weasel is often spotted here at The Ranch among rocky forested areas or the wood pile outside the Rod and Gun Club. Its range is wide, from many of our Northwestern states and all the way to northern Canada. Though the species only weighs 6-9oz. depending on sex, it’s a fierce predator that can eat a third of its body weight a day. It can be identified by its long slender body and low profile.

Though you may see it with a mostly brown body, white underparts and a black-tipped tail mid-summer, these days the ermine is white in coloration with a black-tipped tail. Like many creatures, the ermine is physically effected by the length of daylight and temperatures in our Montana seasons. This is called photoperiodism.

Longer, warmer days equals more pigment and darker fur. Shorter, colder days result in less pigment and white fur. In return, this adaptation has allowed ermines and many living organism across Montana to survive the harshness of the seasons.

The Common Snowberry

The common snowberry has a wide range in North America. It is found here in our Douglas fir forests, which border the east and west ridge lines of The Ranch. It is a shrub measuring only a few feet high that can blanket much of the forest with its oval-shaped leaves. Its foliage provides shelter and a nesting habitat for many birds in mating season. May through September it blooms allowing native bees to harvest the pollen and to pollinate.

By September, greenish-white to pink berries form. These berries remain attached throughout most of our Montana winter and thus provide a very important food source for many of our resident winter forest birds, including grosbeaks and grouse. During winter food shortages, elk and deer often eat its leaves and twigs. The snowberry is an important resource for our forest animals throughout the seasons.

The Mountain Bluebird

One of the most charismatic and striking birds at The Ranch is the mountain bluebird. The males easily catch your eye with their intense blue coloration and paler blue and whiteish underparts. The  females are ash grey overall with whiteish underparts. While the females seem more drab, they remain unique with white tips along their covert feathers that give them a beautiful, scalloped look.

Their preferred habit is in sagebrush and grasslands at elevations over 5,000 feet. At The Ranch, you can find these birds perched on fencing or hovering over a pasture during a summer insect hatch. In addition to catching prey in flight, the mountain bluebird hovers above prey before diving to devour its meal. They nest in cavities of trees or in the bluebird houses you find along Rock Creek Road and the entryway to The Ranch. The mountain bluebird graces us each year in March with its return from spending winters as far south as Mexico. We always know they will return, but the first vibrant blue you see after a long winter is always welcomed with the thoughts of spring flowers in the near future.

The Pasque Flower

The Pasque flower is one of my favorite first signs of spring. It seems as if they sprout and bloom overnight. One day you are walking through the woods in what feels like winter. The next you find a blanket of the most beautiful variations of blue to vibrant purple flowers shooting up and demanding spring to be here. The Pasque flower, or prairie crocus, a member of the buttercup family rises to be 5-8 cm with a hairy stalk and basal leaves.

These spring beauties can be found in grasslands, open forests, plains, and mountainous regions. Locally on The Ranch we find them bountiful within our 3-D archery courses. They bloom for many weeks to remind us that spring is here, and we gleefully welcome it.

The Morel

True morel mushrooms are delicious, edible mushrooms, and thus, they are widely hunted throughout the world. Morels can grow in numerous habitats, but we are most familiar with the ‘black morel’ because it grows under conifers on The Ranch’s hills.

These mushrooms fruit in early spring and can keep fruiting until their habitat becomes dry. Like all true morels, black morel mushrooms are characteristically hollow on the inside.

The morel’s fruiting body can grow 5-25cm, with its head being up to half that height. The head has a honeycomb look with brown ridges and pits turning to black as the fruit grows old. After wildfire season, morels literally rise from the ashes.

No one really knows why morels are known for their momentous growth after fires, but it may be from the rush of nutrients available from organisms that perished in the fire. In a way, it’s mother nature giving back what’s been lost.

The Salmonfly

The Salmonfly hatch in Montana is one of the most legendary fly fishing spectacles in the world. At the peak of the hatch one can step into Rock Creek and feel as if you are in a scene from Jurassic Park. The giant salmonfly is the largest of any mayflies, stoneflies, or cadisflies in all North American Western rivers. Flying adult salmonflies can be as large as three inches long.

Due to their size, their flight pattern is awkward and erratic, making them easy pickings for fish and the passing bird.

Before their emergence into a flying insect, the salmonfly has an egg and nymph stage. These combined stages of life can last up to four years under the water. The progression of the hatch after depends on water temperature. Depending on weather conditions, a hatch can progress upstream a couple miles everyday for weeks or it can all be over in a matter days. Anglers from all over come to fish this wonder in hopes of catching their story-worthy fish on Rock Creek.

The Green Monument Plant

The green monument plant is one of the most famous monocarpic plants you find in southwest Montana.  A monocarpic plant is one that only flowers once, sets seed and then dies. You can find the green monument plant in our foothills in the sub-alpine ecosystems. The common name of this species is beautifully descriptive of its design. Yes, it is green, and this monumental plant can live up to 80 years before it flowers.

The floral structure, which can reach 5 to 7 feet in its flowering year, is a spectacle to see and appreciate. After this flowering, its life cycle is complete. And since this plant only has one time to germinate, it does it well by producing hundreds of flowers. Take a moment to examine the green flowers in the illustration above.

The petals have multiple shades of green with white bristles and striation along the petal as if they are directing pollinators, like bees and butterflies, to the food source. These plants are quietly eccentric and wildly beautiful. 

The Douglas Fir

Fire is a powerful force that many Montana plants and animals depend on for survival. 

Though a forest may look dead after a wildfire, there is growth, rejuvenation, and succession that is taking place within that black soot and toothpick trees. Many plants in our Northern Rockies have evolved with fire and thus need it to survive. Trees like Ponderosa and Douglas fir have thick bark, which insulates the inner tissue of the tree from the heat of the fire. When a forest does burn, plant biomass turns into ash which releases many nutrients. These nutrients enable new plants to grow vigorously with an influx of sunlight due to the lack of canopy after a fire.

As they mature, the plants provide food for animals, who can move quickly out of an area to safety. The new habitat that forms from fires provides more sunlight for shrub growth and cavities that shelter our small animal friends.  

A fire is not an ending to a forest in Montana but rather a part of a continuous circle of our unique ecosystems. We have not had many wildfires in our 2019 season. This is neither good or bad but rather a part of the process of our natural world.

Our Experts

Katie Helser is a scientific illustrator based out of the Mission Valley in western Montana. Katie’s illustrations focus on the details of the natural world. Having spent many summers exploring Rock Creek, Katie has a deep appreciation for its untamed beauty ecological importance allowed her to re-establish her relationship with the area and further recognize the importance to keep wild places clean and healthy for the next generation to enjoy and be inspired by.

You can visit khelser@instagram to see more of Katie’s work, or email her at khelserillustrations@gmail.com

Kelsey Bruns has been working in the wild for 15 years. Her heart is in conservation and educating future generations about the importance of protecting our natural world. Since earner her degree in environmental sciences, she’s also become an experienced apiarist and certified Montana master naturalist.

Her skills have allowed her to enhance The Ranch’s sustainability program – managing an apiary of five honey-producing hives and teach guests the natural history of our property. As the activities manager, she helps guests and staff enjoy our beautiful Rock Creek Valley through over 20 included activities available at the Rod & Gun Club.

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