Monarch Butterfly Migration

Thanks to the nice weather, I worked out in the yard for a good bit last weekend. As I worked, I saw and heard our normal back yard wildlife — feisty squirrels, black-capped chickadees, house finches, Northern flickers, dragonflies and big yellow swallow-tail butterflies. Then I saw something unusual — an orange butterfly. I assumed it was a Viceroy, because it flew right past the big patches of milkweed we’ve let grow for the Monarchs that might wander through our yard (Bees and Butterflies).

Then I saw another. And another. None of them were landing anywhere in the yard, but I decided to try to photograph them anyway. Maybe one would alight just long enough for me to snap a shot.

As I watched them more closely,  I began to have a niggling feeling that maybe I should check my butterfly identification books. In the meantime, I took a few photos.

Monarchs are orange with black stripes. They differ from very similar Viceroys in that Viceroys have a stripe along their lower wing. Otherwise, they are almost identical. So the photo on the left, taken in our back yard, is a Monarch! I’m glad it stopped by.

Starting in March, Monarchs migrate from Mexico and Southern California to Canada every year, reaching their northern limits in late June. We get our first Monarchs about the same time.

monarch on milkweed (9)-1

Monarch feeding on milkweed in our backyard.

There are lots of astonishing facts about Monarch and Viceroy butterflies. One fact about the Monarchs is that, although they migrate long distances every summer, no one butterfly goes the whole distance. Instead, the overwintering generation heads north in early spring. They mate, lay their eggs and die somewhere along the way. The next generation of monarchs hatch and head north. They mate, lay their eggs and die somewhere along the way. It takes at least four generations to get to the northern-most point in the Monarch migration! The fourth generation then makes the return trip south, and overwinters in the same trees its ancestors did last year. As with other butterfly species (Painted Ladies migrate across North America!), nobody knows how they do it.

You can watch Monarchs as they travel at this website: Lerner Monarch Butterfly Migration Map Spring 2018. They even have a site where you can report your observations! What to Report

 

 

Pika Patrol, Part Two

My husband, my son, his girlfriend and I went up to my Pika Patrol (Pika Patrol, Part One) site over the weekend. After thrashing about a bit learning how to use the GPS, we found the appointed talus slope. Located on the north shore of Grand Lake just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, researchers had determined that pika had been present there in the past.

The four of us searched the talus for half an hour. We listened for pika calls — they sound like the squeaky toys they resemble. We heard sharper chipmunk calls.

Chipmunk-1_edited-2

You can tell this is a chipmunk by the lines on it’s face. Their call is a sharp bark.

We looked for piles of hay drying outside their dens. We found pine needles.

Orange Lichen-4

Instead of fresh grasses and flowers, we found old pine needles.

We saw the distinctive orange lichen that indicates where pika have peed. The extra nitrogen in pika urine allows this particular lichen to grow. But the lichen had a dry, flaking appearance.

Orange Lichen-1

The orange lichen looked dried out and flaky. Spider webs criss-crossed many crevices.

After half an hour of searching every nook and crevice we could find, we had to admit that there were no longer pika there.

We weren’t the only ones to come to that conclusion. Every pika monitoring site has three teams that visit it each fall to verify each other’s results. Nobody found any current signs of pika at this site.

At about 9000 feet, the Grand Lake site is the lowest site that the Pika Patrol monitors. According to a map I got from the National Park Service, this area burned in 1879, opening up the forest canopy. Pika were able to move down, and occupy this site for a time. But as the trees grew back, the meadow where the pike foraged turned back into forests, and trees grew in the talus field itself.

Start

A couple of my handsome and lovely assistants hold signs stating where we started our search, and which direction we were facing. There were aspen, spruce and lodgepole pine sprouting up around the edges of the talus slope.

If summer temperatures have gotten higher, this would have impacted the pika as well. At temperatures of 75o or above, pika must retreat to their burrows, rather than gather forage. For a site like this one, where grasses and flowering forb plants were decreasing anyway, the combination might have been too much.

It was disappointing not to find pika, but negative results are science, too.

 

Colorado River Canoe

One of the things that I love about Colorado is that you can drive a few hours in any direction, and be in an entirely different environment. Normally, I spend a lot of time in the high country.

But last week my husband and I traveled to Grand Junction, in the western part of Colorado, to canoe an easy stretch of the Colorado River with a group of friends. Instead of the alpine tundra, we traveled through the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.

The Colorado River starts in the Kawunechee Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park at 10,000 feet (3048 meters), and quickly drops to the Colorado Plateau (4444 feet or 1355 meters where we put in) around Grand Junction. From there it meanders southwest through Utah to cut the incredible Grand Canyon of the Colorado in Arizona.

On our canoe trip, we expected to see bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons and other water birds, and we weren’t disappointed. The only one I got photos of, though, was a great blue heron along a shallow stretch of the river. And this late in the year, a good portion of of the River was shallow.

Great blue heron (2)

A Great Blue Heron fishing in the Colorado River.

I am becoming a bigger and bigger fan of traveling by canoe or kayak, mostly because animals come down to the river to drink or feed, and you, traveling slowly and quietly, can approach them fairly closely. That allowed me to get close enough to the heron to get a good shot.

Great blue heron (1)

Herons, more than almost any other bird, show me that birds are descended from dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, we drifted a little too close, and he took off as we passed.

I also got shots of a lot of animals we didn’t expect to see.

At our lunch spot for the second day, some of our canoe group floated around the bend in the river. They came back very excited about seeing desert bighorn sheep. People with cameras headed back to shoot the sheep.

Desert bighorn sheep are a subspecies of their better known cousins, bighorn sheep.

bighorn herd

Herd of about thirty desert bighorn sheep. Almost as many were down along the river (background) and in the junipers behind us.

Both types of bighorns love steep, rocky areas, but desert bighorns are lighter in build, and have horns that are a little more spread away from the sheep’s head.

bighorn sheep-47

Desert bighorns are lighter built, and have wider-spread horns.

 

Our second campsite was in a canyon cut into the surrounding mesa. The rocks along the entire trip were old — 250 million years old, or more. Laid down in a sandy desert of their own, they were a beautiful red that intensified in the evening light.

Black Rock Campsite at evening

My brother loves to experiment with his camera, always trying new things. On this trip, he took pictures of the night sky. We lose a lot when we have street lights on every corner.

Milky Way (2)

Milky Way from the Colorado River near the Utah border. In the top center of the photo is a faint streak in the image. At first, I thought it was something on his lens. Instead, it was probably a shooting star.

 

When we started our trip, we were warned to watch out for scorpions, which like to crawl into shoes and packs at night. The warnings were justified — we found a scorpion in our second camp. Seeing it made me very glad I had put my sandals on when I had to get up in the middle of the night.

Scorpion

This little guy is only about an inch and a half long, but his sting would still pack a wallop. (That’s a technical term for “really really really hurt badly.”)

As we were packing up to leave break camp the second day, we were incredibly luck to spot a family of  otters playing across the river. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a family group of otters is called a “romp” (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Arapaho/wildlife_and_habitat/northern_river_otterindex.html). How appropriate. They did indeed romp through the water, over the rocks and down the bank. Watching those guys play may have been the highlight of the trip.

We didn’t get any shots of the family of otters, but as we were pulling out of the campsite, we did see the male taking a dust bath.

Otter dust bath-3

River otters rely on their incredibly dense fur to keep them warm and dry. That means they have to take really good care of it. This guy is rolling in dust, probably trying to get rid of parasites.

River otters are on the Federal Endangered Species list. When I was researching them at the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife website for this post, I saw a notice asking that if you saw an otter, to please let CDPW know about it. I complied, happy to be a tiny part of the otter’s recovery efforts.

Otter dust bath-1

CDPW asked me to estimate how big this guy was. I said about 48-50 inches and 30 pounds, which is about as big as river otters get.

Further down the River, my friend started calling to me and pointing vigorously at the bank. Finally I could hear her yell “Wild turkeys!”

Wild Turkeys-04

If you heard my interview with Colorado Public Radio (Colorado Matters Over Trail Ridge Road), you know that I get really excited about wild turkeys.

Wild Turkeys-03

My husband did an admirable job keeping the canoe from tipping over while I took photos.

I’ve struggled for a couple of days with how to end this post. In the end, I decided that this trip affected me more than I expected it to. It made me realize, again, that although we are surrounded by a lot of ugliness in our daily lives, there’s a lot of beauty in the universe as well, if we just stop to take a look at it.

Milky Way (1)

The Milky Way arcs over a campsite lit by a candle.

 

Alpine Flowers

A couple of years ago, when I was giving presentations for my book (A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky), a member of the audience asked me where she could find wildflowers in the alpine tundra. I was a little nonplussed, because you can find wildflowers in the alpine tundra everywhere. But you have to change your frame of reference to do it.

Alpine wildflowers are small. There just isn’t time in the short, high-altitude summer to get big, especially when flowers cost the plant so much in terms of energy. And they are spread far apart, to ensure that they get plenty of sun and water. So you’re not going to see meadows dense with flowers blowing in the wind.

The showiest flower you’re going to see in the alpine is Old-man-on-the-mountan.

Old-man-of-the-mountain

Old-man-of-the-mountain

The name “old-man-on-the-mountain” refers to the dense white hairs on its leaves and stem. These hairs retain moisture and heat, while acting as a sunscreen against ultraviolet radiation that is extra strong at high altitudes.

Old-man-of-the-mountain

Old-man-of-the-mountain

This alpine sunflower always faces the sun. It is the only annual of the alpine tundra; it puts all its energy into it’s flower instead of the rest of the plant.

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

purple fringe

Purple fringe is another showy plant I saw in the tundra. It has such general growth requirements that it grows anywhere from the montane to the alpine.

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

This gorgeous plant is termed a “pioneer plant”, because it grows on disturbed soils like you see in the photo.  If it had it’s way, it would be a weed — growing everywhere. But other plants come in after it, and are able push it out, which is why you don’t see it often.

alpine avens

Alpine avens is one of the most common flowers you’ll see in the alpine tundra. If I’d come a little earlier, I would have seen all these heads in bloom.

alpine avens
alpine avens

Alpine avens is in the rose family. Pika enjoy eating the plant.

 

Alpine paintbrushAlthough I would call this plant white, I think it is a Western yellow paintbrush. Even it has a covering of hairs. It must be a strategy that works for alpine plants.

Mountain dryad

Mountain dryad

Mountain dryad is also in the rose family. The leathery leaves help it hold moisture. It is a favorite food of Ptarmigan.

mountain dryad going to seed

Mountain dryad going to seed

The wispy seed heads of mountain dryad have been said to “resemble white-haired waifs, waiting to be carried away to distant lands.” Who said scientists were all hard facts?

whiplash saxifrage

Whiplash saxifrage

Whiplash Saxifrage is one of the first tundra plants on disturbed ground, like a rock slide, or where pocket gophers have burrowed just beneath the surface. It moves in quickly by putting out runners, or whiplashes, like a strawberry plant does.

Gold flowerThe sunflower (or Composite) family is huge, and notoriously hard to figure out. Botony students have a name for sunflowers they can’t identify: A DYC (Darn Yellow Composite). I don’t know exactly what it is, but it too has a covering of short white hairs over its long leaves.

 

 

Pika Patrol, Part One

What do you do when you are forced out of your home? How do you find another place to live, when the sites you need are already full?

American Pika, small rodent-like rabbit relatives who live in the alpine tundra of the Rocky Mountains, are facing this problem as warmer temperatures force them ever higher. The problem is that there is only so much “up” that pika can go.

pika

Pika are small critters most closely related to rabbits. They have been called “unmercifully cute”, which is probably an understatement.

I spent Saturday in the alpine tundra on Loveland Pass (elevation 11,990 feet, or 3655 m), west of Denver, with scientists from the Denver Zoo and researchers from CU Boulder, learning how to measure pika habitat.

Pika are exquisitely adapted for life in the alpine tundra, where winter temperatures are often 0o F (-18o C), and winds average 50 mph (80 kph).  Storms bring blows of 100 mph (160 kph) or more, and drop to -40o F (-40o C). Only a very few animals stay in the tundra through conditions like that: Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, ptarmigan, marmots — and pika. And what’s more pika are active all winter long.

Loveland Pass Pika-3

Master of all it surveys — a territory of about 12 meters, or 36 square feet.

How do pika survive these extreme conditions? In a sense, they don’t; they avoid them. Pika live beneath six feet (2 meters) or more of snow. At these depths, the temperature is about 28o F (-1 C) and dead calm. The little critters run through tunnels among the talus rocks to graze on leftover alpine plants. But there aren’t enough of these low-growing plants nearby for pika to survive the winter. So during the fall, the animals gather vegetation and stash it in rock crevasses to build haystacks. They then eat the haystacks throughout the long winter.

Loveland Pass Pika-4

A pika gathering forage for it’s hay stack.

Pika nests-09

The beginnings of a pika hay stack. The Zoo people tell us that by the time the pika is finished, this little crevice will be overflowing with a bushels-worth of hay — about 62 pounds (28 kg) of forage! It takes pika 14,000 trips to gather this much hay.

Here’s the problem for pika: their body temperature is about 104o F (40o C), and they have dense fur to hold this heat in. While this helps them stay warm through the winter, it means they are vulnerable to overheating when temperatures hit 70o F (21o C) in the summer. They can survive short warm spells by descending into the passages beneath the talus. But if pika are chillin’ in the rocks, they aren’t gathering forage to make hay for the winter. As global temperatures rise, pika can overheat, or they can starve. Tough choice.

Loveland Pass Pika-1

You can get a sense of how dense pika fur is in this photo.

The one thing pika can’t do is move. Their habitat is limited to the tops of  mountains above tree line. If it is suitable for a pika, one already lives there. There isn’t any more.

Scientists at the Denver Zoo want to know how pika are responding as global temperatures rise. So they called for volunteers to come learn how to measure pika habitat. Over forty people showed up at the top of Loveland Pass Saturday morning. After leading us up the alpine trail for a couple of hundred feet, we all sat in a learning circle.

Loveland Pass Pika

A Denver Zoo staff person explains how the survey works.

We were a bunch of strangers — retired biologists, teachers, a family who wanted to do something together, longtime hikers — but all were passionate about pikas, or Citizen Science. People came prepared, and asked good questions: How big is a pika’s territory? What makes good territory? How did the zoo pick the sites?

Erika Garrotte Pika Project

We get answers to our questions.

Biologists have a couple of ways to study animals in the field. They can watch them, which takes a lot of time and yields limited information. They can catch them, which is stressful for everybody involved. Or they can study bits of the animal that are left behind — hair, feathers, and even more exciting — animal feces. As a matter of fact, biologists tend to get a little fixated on scat. The animal has no further use for it, and it can tell a scientist a lot.

So we learned how to look for scat, recognize that it was fresh, gather it, and send it to the researchers.

Pika nests-3

The orange lichen on the foreground rocks is a type that needs more nitrogen. It thrives where pika pee, which makes it a good indicator of pika dens. In the center of the photo is a small pile of pika scat, waiting to be collected by Citizen Scientists.

The researchers can break the little pellets apart and see what the pika are eating. Flowers are higher in protein for growth, while grasses are higher in carbohydrates that provide energy. Another thing that pika scientists can measure is the amount of stress hormones in the scat. If the animals are stressed, they are probably having a harder time surviving. The big reward, though, may be the DNA gathered in the scat. DNA can tell scientists who is moving where, and who doesn’t survive.

Pika nests-7

Pika fecal pellets glued to the top of a rock with urine.  See? I’m fixating.

As the morning progressed, I and the other volunteers put what we had learned to the test. We measured, we crumbled pika poop between our fingers. When we found a hay stack on our own, we whooped with excitement. I had a wonderful day at 12,000 feet, looking for pika with total strangers.

But the funny thing is, they didn’t feel like strangers. As I looked around at the people who were passionate enough about this Citizen Science project to volunteer to spend the day learning how to find pika poop, I saw that they people were just as enthralled with science as I was. I thought “This is my tribe. These are my people.”

So now that I’m trained, it’s time for me to go monitor some pika habitat. I’ll probably wait until September, so that the pika have a chance to gather some hay, and I’ll have a better chance of finding them. But I can hardly wait.