Pika Patrol, 2019 Edition

End of summer. It’s time for Pika Patrol!

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.

View as we left the forest and came onto the tundra. The pika site is the talus slope at the base of the mountain. In winter that area will be covered with six to ten feet of snow.

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.

Pika in a rare state of not running.
The jumble of rocks it is on is called ‘talus’.

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.

The pika is cutting down plants until it has a mouthful.
You can see the trimmed tops of the plants in the foreground.

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.

In this shot, you can see that they are members of the rabbit family, not the rodent family.

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.

The pika brings the cut plants back to the talus, and drops them in piles outside their holes. You can see some of the plants at the entrance to a den. The plants dry into hay, which the pika eats through the winter.

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.

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.