Due to complications last summer, my husband and I weren’t able to volunteer with Front Range Pika Project last fall. We were determined to make it this year.
If you have been following my blog for several years, you might remember that two years ago, in 2017, my husband, my son, my son’s girlfriend and I visited a pika site near Grand Lake, on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. We were disappointed that year to find the site abandoned.
This year, I was a little faster on the sign-up, and found a more promising site. This one was on the lower edge of the tundra, at 11,961 feet. The trail to get to the site was just 2 1/2 miles long!
What I forgot was that the parking area was at 10,440 feet. When we do the math, that’s an average grade of 14%. Hmmmm…..
By the time we’d gone 100 feet up the trail, my husband and I realized this was going to be a lot harder than it would have been twenty years ago. But we took it slow, and stopped frequently to rest. It took us two hours to go the two and a half miles, but we did it.
As we came onto the tundra, we had to skirt around a wetlands created by snowmelt draining off the surrounding peaks. The snows pile up here in winter.
We heard squeaky-toy squeaks of pika calling before we got to the talus. And once we got to the talus, pika were very obvious.
We immediately saw a little pika scampering across the rocks. It was running to a small patch of plants at the base of the talus.
Good pika habitat needs a pile of rocks jumbled together to form lots of nooks and crannies. It needs lots of plants nearby to eat, and to cut for hay. And it needs deep winter snows to protect the pika from predators, howling winds and bitterly cold temperatures. This was very good pika habitat.
What I hadn’t expected is that the pika had two speeds: still, and running. There was no walking between tasks. They hustled.
Pika gather the plants and dry them, turning them into hay. They then eat the hay through the winter. That means that pika have to gather enough plants to feed themselves for 8-9 months of the year.
It takes about 62 pounds (28 kg) of forage to feed a pika through the winter. That translates to 14,000 trips to gather this much hay. No wonder they hustle.
What these little guys can’t take are temperatures over 75o. They are climate-change indicators. If their world warms too much, they will not survive.
I had always wondered how the dinosaurs died out. I couldn’t understand how just getting hit by an asteroid, or having volcanoes spew out ash could wipe them all out. Then I heard about some research that pinpoints the moment the asteroid hit. That seemed like a promising place to start my research.
Scientists still debate the specifics of what happened, but it probably went something like this…
The dinosaurs are dead.
They died sixty-six million years ago when an asteroid the size of the island of Manhattan slammed into the ocean off the coast of Yucatan, Mexico. The asteroid punched a crater 112 miles wide and a dent one mile deep into the Earth’s surface. It caused a magnitude 11 earthquake – one of the biggest ever – to shake the Earth’s crust.
The intense heat generated by the crash vaporized the asteroid, as well as granite in the Earth’s crust. The silica in the granite turned into molten glass.
The crust rebounded like a trampoline after the asteroid hit it. A cloud of superheated air shot into the sky at twice the speed of sound. The cloud carried the melted particles of glass into the upper layers of the atmosphere.
Within minutes after impact, the larger globs of red-hot glass began to pelt from the sky. The burning rain lasted for several hours. It started fires that burned all over the world. We can still see a layer of ash from these fires in the rocks today.
Shock waves from the impact went through the core of the planet at over ten times the speed of sound. They reached the other side of the Earth in an hour-and-a-half. The energy from these waves punched pulverized rock up twelve feet off the coast of Australia. Volcanoes in nearby India had been erupting for some time, but now their eruptions became extreme. More poisonous gasses and dust spewed into the darkening sky.
In North America, the shock waves hit the shallow, narrow gulf that stretched to the Arctic. Waves of water higher than a thirty-story building flooded the nearby land. Close on the heels of the floods, gale-force winds knocked down trees, and the molten glass began to rain onto the devastated land. Stranded fish sucked some of these glowing sand-sized particles into their gills as they gasped for breath in shallow puddles. The flood waters finally crested, then reversed course. The water rushed back, covering the dying trees, fish, and animals with mud.
An almost-mile-high tsunami raced away from the impact crater at nearly ninety miles per hour. The waves spread to every ocean in the world. They threw fish and sediments onto land. Any animals in their path were drowned.
In the next few days, the vaporized rock and volcanic ash blanketed the globe in acidic soot and dust. The toxic clouds completely blocked out the sun. Plants couldn’t photosynthesize, and died. Global temperatures dropped.
The finer dust particles remained in the atmosphere for a decade. Rain finally deposited the acidic dust into the sea. The oceans became more acidic. The acids killed most animals that required hard shells, from ammonites down to plankton. The ocean ecosystems collapsed, as well.
Seventy-five percent of all life — plant and animal — died as a result of the impact. That was the end of the dinosaurs.
Or maybe not.
The burning winds, earthquakes, floods and fires left a few survivors scattered across the globe. But these survivors had to deal with great hardships.
The Earth was a cold, dark, hungry place in the first years following the impact. Without sunshine, plant life, including forests, died. Animals that needed trees for part of their life-cycles died, too.
The fires and darkness left little to eat – rotting trees, fungus, insects, seeds. And of course, survivors had to be able to find the food in the dark. At first, meat-eaters feasted on dead and dying animals. But soon they suffered, too, as their prey died off. Only smaller animals made it through the hungry times of the long cold night.
A decade after the asteroid hit, the skies cleared enough for shade-tolerant ferns to grow again. Eventually other plants and trees sprouted, too. The few animals who made it through the impact and years of starvation and cold finally had something to eat besides fungus, decaying trees and a dwindling number of ten-year-old seeds.
Sea life was impacted least. Creatures who lived deeper in the oceans suffered less than those closer to the surface.
On land, survival was more random. Those who made it through had two common traits — they were small, and they lived on the ground. This included some frogs, turtles, crocodiles, snakes and lizards. These cold-blooded animals probably survived in the tropics. It was warmer there, even in the dark.
Almost as many mammals died in the extinction as dinosaurs. Mammals evolved at the same time as the dinosaurs. But mammals had always been mouse-like creatures. They never grew to the enormous sizes of the dinosaurs.
Their small size meant that mammals required fewer calories. Being small helped them live through the hungry time. And they were used to eating more different foods than most dinosaurs, including seeds, and maybe fungi.
Early mammals lived in many different environments. The mammals that lived in trees died out when the asteroid hit. But a few scurried through the plant litter on the ground, retreating to burrows in times of danger.
As they evolved, many mammals came out in the cool night, when the cold-blooded reptiles slowed. This gave the mammals several adaptations that helped them stay alive when the asteroid hit. They had bigger eyes to see in the dark. Warm blood let them stay active in the cooler hours, and fur insulated their bodies to retain body heat. After the asteroid, their fur also may have protected the mammals from the razor-sharp edges of shattered volcanic glass that littered the ground.
As plant life slowly returned, mammals rebounded quickly. They adapted and filled the empty niches left by the extinction of so many other animals.
Mammals were joined in the empty landscape by a few other creatures. One tiny group of dinosaurs was able to solve the same problems that plagued mammals. Some of these creatures were ground-dwellers, so they survived the loss of trees. They learned to lay their eggs in protected areas such as rocky ledges or hidden depressions in the soil. They had fingernail-like beaks instead of skin-covered muzzles. The hard beaks may have helped them to find seeds in the razor-sharp layer of ash laid down by the explosion.
In many ways, these animals were like mammals. They were warm-blooded. They became smaller. They made it through the decades long cold spell with a layer of insulation — feathers — that had evolved before the asteroid.
Yes, birds are dinosaurs, the only group of dinosaurs to survive the asteroid extinction. Dinosaurs didn’t die out, after all.
What we’ve learned from the asteroid extinction is both reassuring and terrifying. Life can survive huge changes that happen in an instant. But there is no way of predicting who will make it through. And the life that survives won’t be the same as it was before.
The asteroid impact was the fifth global extinction the Earth has seen. We are entering the sixth, carbon dioxide global extinction. If we take action now, we can limit the loss of species, and prevent global ecosystem collapse.
But we must take action now. We must do everything we can to limit carbon dioxide production. And it must be all of us, together.
I went out to get the mail during the heatwave last week, and saw sparkles in the air. Then I realized it was a dragonfly. I was sure some six-year-old girl must have dusted it with golden glitter. Further inspection revealed that this was an all natural glitter-glam golden dragonfly, known to scientists as a meadowhawk dragonfly, Sympetrum sp.
Honestly, it was more sparkly than this — I just couldn’t capture how much this dragonfly winked with gold.
Gotta love how nature surprises and delights! I don’t know anything about dragonflies, but now, I want to learn!
Monarch butterflies are beginning visit our milkweed plants, which always makes us happy.
Although milkweeds can be a trap for honeybees (https://amylaw.blog/2016/07/17/bees-and-butterflies/), they are required for Monarchs to feed and lay their eggs. Monarchs are in steep decline due to habitat loss and herbicide use, so we try to help them out when we can, by growing milkweeds in the odd corners of our yard.
My son and his girlfriend are in Fairbanks, Alaska, for the next few years for graduate school. We went up to visit them earlier this month.
Fairbanks is only two and a half hours away from Denali National Park. So we all piled in the car and went!
There is only one road in Denali, and you can only drive your car a short distance on it into the Park. After that, you take one of two kinds of bus: a free shuttle bus that will drop you off for a hike, or a tour bus with a driver-guide who will help you spot wildlife. This being our first time in Denali, we chose the wildlife tour bus.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Many, if not most, National Parks in the lower 48 have gone to this system because of the tremendous overcrowding that is set to destroy the very things we love most about the Parks — silence, wilderness, the sense of being alone.
But the whole thing had a very managed feel to it, something of the Disneyland experience. And that was a problem for me. I wanted to discover Denali, or any National Park, on my own.
One of the most common animals in Denali are moose. They thrive on the willow thickets that line the rivers. There are a lot of willow thickets.
Moose are possibly the most dangerous animals in Denali NPP. Bears, either black or grizzly/brown, will generally stay out of your way, as long as you don’t get between them and their cubs. Moose will stomp you to death just because they are feeling grumpy.
A little further on, we saw these Arctic fox kits, playing outside their den. It won’t be long before they join their parents for hunting outings.
Then we saw one of the parent foxes hunting something on the road in front of us. This is one of the advantages of not allowing private cars on the road — fewer chances of hitting animals. The animals aren’t as wary of the road and come closer.
Glacial rivers are often “braided”, meaning that they don’t have a main channel except when they are running high. This is because they suddenly go from steep slopes to fairly flat valleys. They don’t have enough energy on the flats to carry the sediments, so the sands, silts and clays build up as the river constantly looks for the easiest way down.
Here, you can see how muddy the river is below the glacier.
While stopped, I took the opportunity to get some close-ups of Arctic tundra plants…
This is Arctic sandwort, in the carnation family. Carnations are surprising well represented in tundra plants. Although it is just a few inches tall, it stands higher than most tundra plants in the Colorado Rockies. This was true of the tundra plants in general. The reason is that there is much less wind in the lower elevations of Denali, at least. That really surprised me.
A little further on, we saw a sow grizzly and her yearling cub. This was when I was glad we had taken the tour — I don’t think I would have seen the grizzlies without the driver pointing them out. But once I knew to look for blond, almost white, dots on the slopes, I saw them easily.
This was our best view of Denali. Most of the time, the Big Mountain is socked in with a weather system it creates all on it’s own. You can see what I mean by looking at the mountains in the foreground — each one has a puffy cloud above it, created by the humid air having to rise to get around the mountain. As the air rises and cools, clouds form. As high and isloated as it is, the moisture-laden air almost always get caught at Denali.
Our closest view, while not as clear as just a few minutes before, is still better than most folks get. Denali is the bit of blinding white under the red arrow. But it gives you an idea of just how much higher Denali is (20,310 ft, or 6190 m) than anything else around. It dwarfs the next highest mountain, Mt. Foraker (17,400 ft or 5304 m) in the Park, and pretty much anything else in North America including #2 in elevation, Mt. St. Elias (18,008 ft or 5,489 m) in Southeast Alaska.
From this overlook, we turned around.
A caribou, browsing on a willow thicket along the side of the road. Caribou are the wild North American version of reindeer. They are such unusual animals that I could easily do an entire blog on them. Among many other characteristics, they are unique among deer in that both males and females have antlers.
Caribou on the tundra with the Alaska Range behind them. This photo calls to my northern European Neolithic genes.
And just a few miles on, we spotted a grizzly taking a nap among blue chiming bells, literally just off the road. You can see how light their fur is.
Back at the Visitor’s Center I took more pictures of flowers. I’m not sure how I like this business of other people having cameras…
But I got a great photo of chiming bells, in the heather family. This charming plant was all over the lower part of the Park.
Final conclusions: Animals were closer to the road — in some cases on the road — than they would have been with people zipping up and down it. The driver-guide was able to spot wildlife we didn’t know how to see yet, and she answered questions about what we were seeing. The tour still had a slightly industrial feel to it, but it was a reasonable compromise to having hordes of tourists tromp across the tundra without being aware of it’s fragility, or it’s dangers.
It’s been almost a month since I last posted about the eagle chicks. A lot’s happened in that time.
Before they can live independently, the chicks need to learn how to eat on their own. The parents have brought the chicks a rabbit to eat, but then they left. The chicks have to figure out how to get into the carcass on their own.
With those razor-sharp beaks, you wouldn’t think that would be a problem, but it seems to have stymied them here.
They must have figured it out, because when I checked in a couple of hours later, the rabbit was pretty much eaten.
And so it went…they practiced flying, and hopping and tearing into prey…
…with an occasional tug on a sibling’s tail…
…until one day, there were no chicks in the nest.
According to NOAA’s drought monitor (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/), almost no place in the US is currently in drought, which, if you follow these things, is pretty amazing.
But here in Colorado, we have been really wet. How wet? Take a look at this:
100% of Normal would be an average year — we are getting all the snow we normally do. So when it says that the San Juan Mountains are at 728% of normal that means they have over SEVEN TIMES as much snow as they normally do.
In Colorado, we tend to like the extra snow in the mountains; we view it as a bank account we can draw on — more is better.