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.

Forest Fire Smoke

My husband and I love to sleep with the windows open in the summer time. We enjoy the night sounds, and the cool breeze coming in.

Not last night. Last night, we had to close the windows due to really irritating smoke, either from somebody’s barbecue, or a forest fire.

This morning, I went out and found this map of smoke plumes from forest fires from the US Forest Service. https://fire.airnow.gov/?lat=39.710920000000044&lng=-105.08206999999999&zoom=12 It wasn’t a barbecue.

I had to zoom out to get an idea of what’s going on with the smoke situation, but it looks like we are being smoked by a fire on the Utah-Colorado border.

It took me a little while to figure out their key: Circles are permanent air quality monitors, triangles are temporary air quality monitors. Green means good air quality, yellow not so good, and orange really horrible. The little flames, of course are the fires.

It is interesting to note that the air quality along the Front Range has got a lot of yellow circles, and one red triangle. Our air quality, 200 hundred miles away and across a mountain range 10,000 feet high, is worse than it is in Grand Junction, 30 miles away.

When I look at the Fire and Smoke Map (above) as well as the InciWeb site https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/, I can see that the Pine Gulch Fire is about 21,000 acres, and at 7% contained, is still growing. We could be in for a smokey couple of days.

The other fires north of the Pine Gulch Fire have been contained. They won’t be declared “out”, however, until the first snow falls, and puts out the last smoldering roots underground.

NASA Computer Simulation Shows 2017 Hurricane Tracks

This computer simulation from NASA shows just how interconnected the world is.
https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/details.cgi?aid=12772&button=recent

The computer simulation runs from August 1 through November 1, 2017. It follows hurricanes that tracked over the Atlantic Ocean this fall, letting you see how dust from the Sahara ends up in Miami, and smoke from the wildfires in California and British Columbia migrates all the way to Europe.

The first time through, listen to the narration. It explains a lot of what you are seeing, points out the storms and how unusual they were.

The second time through, watch what’s happening in just one region. You can see storm fronts come through, then dissipate as other systems disrupt them. It looks like the planet is breathing.

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.