2020 Pika Patrol

Over the weekend, my husband and I went up to the mountains for the first time this summer. We’ve been trying to isolate ourselves, and the mountain trails have been busy with people trying to get out of their houses while being safe.

We headed up to do our annual Pika Patrol for the Denver Zoo and the Front Range Pika Project. (Pika Patrol, 2019 Edition) We both really enjoy these trips because they force us to get out away from cell phones and cars and the internet, and just be.

It was smokey as we stepped out of the car at the trail head. Colorado is in a drought, and we have four major forest fires burning in the mountains right now. There was a forest fire just west on the other side of the mountain — literally. It produced clouds of smoke that plagued us the entire hike.

But the hike started out well, in spite of the smoke. We were delighted to see these white columbines in the rocks at the side of the parking area. My trusty plant books say that white columbines are a normal, if rare, variation on our more common Colorado columbine.

Traditional blue and white Colorado Columbine.

We walked a few paces and found a nice group of beautiful traditional blue and white Colorado Columbines as well.

The trail up to the site we that we monitor is off of US 40 near Berthoud Pass. Starting at 10,500 feet, the trail is steep — a 50% grade, which means that for every 2 steps forward, we took one up. We did this for about two hours. Every year, I tell my husband, this is it. This is the last time we do this site.

This year, the hike was even harder due to smoke polluting the thin air.

Looking down from the talus to the meadow where pika gather plants for hay. Smoke from a forest fire on the other side of the mountain we are on covers everything from the alpine down the to the plains.

After plodding up the mountain, we reached the meadow that is the beginning of the pika observation site. Last year, as we approached, we could hear the pika’s squeaky-ball chirps. We did this year, too. But instead of a chorus, there only were a few isolated calls.

Chipmunk gathering the nutritious heads of grass-like sedges.

Instead, we saw chipmunks on the alpine tundra, something I have only rarely seen before.

We took a few minutes to dig out our data sheet, and start recording our observations. It was hot for the alpine — 75o — and so dry the plants crunched beneath our boots.

Pika on rock in between foraging trips.

As we puttered around, we began to see a few pika dashing over the rocks. They went out to the nearby meadow, and came back with a mouthful of forage. But we didn’t find any hay piles yet. It may be too early — they still have a month or so before the snow usually falls.

Pika scat and trimmed plant stems. The leaves have been harvested to be put into hay piles.

We found a few places where the pika had left their scat, and collected some for DNA analysis by FRPP.

But compared to last year, there just weren’t many of the little critters around. We speculated on why there were not as many pika as there were last year. We came up with several possibilities:

  1. We came up a month earlier this year. The pikas may not be very active gathering forage for their hay piles yet.
  2. We came up a month earlier, and it was too warm for the pikas. While we were in the alpine, it was 75o, the upper limit of the temperature range that pikas can operate in.
  3. It was just too hot for them, and they had died.

We are hoping that it is either possibilities one or two, or both. But it was hot, and dry. Alpine plants are not tall, but they are usually green and lush. This year, they have taken a beating with the drought, and that will probably impact how much forage the pika can gather.

Even before we became concerned about the conditions we found at the pika site, we had planned to visit another pika site in the Upper Arkansas Valley (that hopefully won’t be so much of a death march). We’ll go up a month from now, when it is hopefully cooler. And we’ll hopefully see plenty of pika building plenty of hay piles for the winter.

We all know we’ve been cool and wet, but WOW!

It has been a wet winter and spring where we live. If you are in the continental United States, it’s been cool and wet where you live, too. This has been the wettest 12 months in the history of the United States. (https://www.wunderground.com/cat6/Wettest-12-Months-US-History)

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.

Drought Map, Courtesy NOAA
The tan and yellow indicate that the area is drier than normal.

But here in Colorado, we have been really wet. How wet? Take a look at this:

This is the % of Normal Snow.

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.

But many farmers in the Midwest have yet to get into all their fields to plant this spring. The ground there is saturated, too muddy to support tractors, and the seeds might rot in the ground if they could plant. (https://weather.com/news/weather/news/2019-05-14-one-of-longest-lived-mississippi-river-floods-since-great-flood-1927)

The Mississippi River has been over flood stage since March. (https://weather.com/news/weather/news/2019-05-14-one-of-longest-lived-mississippi-river-floods-since-great-flood-1927)

Unfortunately, we better get used to it. Extremes in weather patterns are the new normal.

Snowpack Levels Low

Many people don’t realize that the western part of the United States is generally arid to semi-arid. The Pacific Northwest gets biblical amounts of rain, of course, because of the coastal mountain ranges wring the water out of the wet air. Every range of mountains east of the coast catches the ever drier air, and squeezes a bit more moisture out of it. In summer, this water usually falls as rain.

But in winter, the moisture falls in the mountains as snow. The snow builds up over the course of the winter into a thick covering called snowpack. The snowpack only begins to melt in the spring. Depending on how deep the snowpack is, it often lasts into mid summer, giving regional cities and farms a long lasting reservoir of water.

The most important river in the Southwest is the Colorado River, fed by the Green, Upper Colorado, Gunnison, Uncompahgre and San Juan basins. The entire Southwest, including Arizona, Los Angeles, San Diego and the Central Valley of California depend on the rain and snow that fall in these basins that feed the Colorado.

So about this time of year, I begin to watch the snow pack in the mountains to see how dry our summer is going to be. Red is below average, green is above average, white is average, and grey is non-reporting either because it doesn’t have snowpack or there was a glitch.2018-2-23 NRCS Map Jan 2018.jpg

In January, it was looking pretty grim. (January Snowpack) Only the Northern Rockies were in good shape. That didn’t actually surprise me, because we in Colorado hadn’t had any real snow falls in November, December or January.

But starting in February, we’ve had a bunch of little storms. Most of them have dropped less than 3 inches of snow, but it has begun to build up. (February Snowpack) The snowpack isn’t deep enough to make anybody breath easy yet. But the storms have added enough to give us hope that we won’t have water restrictions this summer.

2018-2-23 NRCS Map 4 2018 Feb

NRCS National Water and Climate Center

It all depends on the next three months. Spring is our wettest season, by far. If mother nature is kind, we can make up the deficit.

Fingers crossed.

 

Birds flee drought areas

I have seen more different birds at my feeders

Male American Goldfinch on top of feeder.

than I ever have before in the summer. In addition to the usual house sparrows, house finches, American and lesser goldfinches,

mourning and collared doves, house wrens and dramatic raids by Cooper’s hawks, we’ve had white-crowned nuthatches, chickadees, spotted towhees and black-headed grosbeaks – birds that pass through our yard

Female Black-headed Grosbeak atop another feeder.

Female Coopers Hawk has breakfast

spring and fall, but don’t usually linger here in summer. Huge hordes of hummingbirds have come through our yard in the past few weeks, getting an early start on their migration. It’s been a treat.
And yet…I have to wonder why we are seeing so many different birds in our yard, birds that usually move on to richer nesting grounds. The answer, I think, is that the animals’ breeding grounds this year are in bad shape. Drought – we have had just 5 ½ inches, less than half the precipitation that we normally do at this time of year. Heat – while we normally have 26 days above 90 degrees, this summer we have had a blistering 70 days. Fire – huge infernos have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in the mountains and High Plains. The state has taken a beating. And the wildlife have to adapt as well as they can to these harsh conditions. Competing with a dozen other bird species in suburban backyards must look like a good deal when compared to nothing to eat and no cover in nearby wildlands.