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.