Pika Patrol, Part II

In late August, my husband and I went up into the mountains of the Front Range to monitor pika as volunteers for the Front Range Pika Project in conjunction with the Denver Zoo. At that time, we were shocked at how dry the high country was. Last week, we went on Pika Patrol for a second time this year, this time to a spot in the Sawatch Range. It was a beautiful day for a hike — clear skies and temperatures in the 60s.

Pika habitat is always high in the mountains — right at or above tree line. This site is in the bare rocks within the trees in the center of the picture. There was an avalanche chute to the right. This wasn’t the steepest chute we’d ever seen, but when we turned around we saw the results of an avalanche that had roared down it in the recent past.

Avalanche chute bare area to the right, pika site within the spot of talus on the trees at center.

This is the scene 180 degrees from the the photo above. You can see the downed trees in the background — all had been snapped off. The trees in the center of the photo were lucky to survive, but they had a lot of damage from the debris the avalanche carried. The trees at their bases were broken when they hit the survivors.

Damage to mature trees from recent avalanche. Note broken trees at base.

In spite of the irrational feeling of unease that the avalanche chute created — there was no snow anywhere around us — my husband and I decided the easiest way to get to the site would be to hike up it, then cut across to the site. As we made our way up the chute, my husband pointed out some trees that had been somewhat protected from the avalanche by a small outcrop of rock.

These trees were lucky that they were in the lee of the rock outcrop.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good picture of another tree 100 feet down slope of these that was snapped off at about the same height. That suggests that the avalanche was moving fast enough at this point that it didn’t drop very much in the next 100 feet.

At about this point, we turned to the left and headed into the trees to get to the talus slope within them. This small area of broken rocks in the forest didn’t seem very promising as pika habitat, but it wasn’t long before we heard the squeaky-toy call of a pika.

Pika at site.

This little guy scampered over the rocks around us.

Pika seemed to have a hole in its ear.

I wonder if it had been tagged by researchers at some point, because it had a hole in one ear.

Respectful of us as big creatures, but not really intimidated.

The pika stayed about twenty feet away from us as we made our measurements of its habitat. It was respectful of us a big creatures, but it never really seemed too afraid of us.

Beginnings of a pika hay pile.

One of the measurements we are supposed to make as part of the Pika Patrol is whether or not the pika have made their signature “haystacks” (Pika Patrol, Part One). It concerned me that we didn’t see any as we were scrambling over the talus where we saw the pika. But as we made our way down the treacherous rocks, we literally fell onto one. It was very small — evidently it had just been started. And there were plants around (like the grasses in the foreground) that the pika could harvest and dry. But it didn’t seem like much for as late in the year as we visited.

A month ago I was alarmed by the dry conditions we found on Berthoud Pass (2020 Pika Patrol) . This site looked in better shape, but it had several things going for it — it was surrounded by trees that would raise the humidity, and we had that freak snowstorm in early September that dropped a fair amount of moisture. But it was still a warm day in the subalpine, and there wasn’t much evidence of foraging for the winter.

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.

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.

 

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.