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.

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.

Snow pack. Or Not.

In mountains where snow builds up — any snowy mountains — there is a unique form of water storage. It is the snow itself, and it is called snow pack. Here in Colorado, we rely on the delayed release of water from snow pack melt to slowly recharge the resevoirs into early summer.

Fall River Cirque Early Summer

June 14 2015. Fall River Cirque, Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Above is what snow pack in the alpine tundra looks like. This photo was taken three years ago on one of my favorite places in the world, Trail Ridge Road, in Rocky Mountain National Park. The snow pack actually isn’t deepest in the alpine; that honor goes to the spruce-fir forest, the highest forest that can grow in the Colorado Rockies. And on this drive, there was a lot of snow in the spruce-fir forest. It’s just easier to see the snow without the trees.

South Park pan

May 30, 2018. Mount Evans looking south to South Park.

We’ve been hearing this winter and spring that it has been dry in the high country — little snow pack has built up. Last week I went up to Mount Evans, west of Denver, to see for myself. Above is the snow pack — or lack of — in the Front Range. As I drove up, there was no snow in the spruce-fir forest. None. At all.

I realize that the comparison isn’t exact — Mount Evans is 50 miles south of Rocky Mountain National Park.

But I went up to Mount Evans two weeks earlier than I did Trail Ridge. There should have been more snow up there. A lot more snow.

This Winter’s Weather Patterns

I’ve been obsessing for the last couple of posts about how dry we’ve been this winter. This image from the NOAA GOES satellite says it all: Screenshot-2018-3-4 Western U S Infrared, Enhancement 4 - NOAA GOES Geostationary Satellite Server.png

The blue is storm clouds — Winter Storm Quinn, to be exact, that dumped feet of snow on the Sierra Nevada. It hit the Colorado border and turned north to hammer Wyoming and Montana. Now it is making another U-turn and started into the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas. These states are under a winter storm warning.¬†Quinn will make its way to the storm weary east coast later this week.

What do we get? Nothing. Nada. Zip.

And this is the storm pattern we’ve had all winter.

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.

 

Cornices

My brother and I took a quick trip up to the top of Berthoud Pass to take some photographs of snow cornices earlier this week.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a cornice is “the decorative top edge of a building or column”. A secondary definition, though, is “an overhanging mass of windblown snow or ice usually on a ridge“.

Cornices are overhangs of snow. This one is on the east side of Berthoud Pass, looking south.

Cornices are overhangs of snow. This one is on the east side of Berthoud Pass, looking south.

Cornices are made when winds reaching speeds of over a hundred miles an hour pick up snow and carries it to the edge of a cliff. When the howling winds cross the cliff edge, it puts the “pack” in “snowpack”, pounding the snow into a ledge of concrete-hardness. The snow builds up on the ever-lengthening ledge and, by spring, has formed a frozen white wave on the mountain top.

Cornices are created when the wind picks up snow on one side of a ridge and drops it on the far side. The wind then packs the snow down.

This photo is of a cirque, or bowl, at the head of a now melted glacier south across the valley from Berthoud Pass. You can see how the snow blown off the slope and into the cirque would have added to the glacier.

The area bare of snow has a much different ecosystem than the one just to windward of it. The bare area has to endure screaming winds, sub-zero temperatures and little moisture. Under the cornice, it is comparatively warm, wet and still.

This bowl, on the west side of Berthoud Pass, is ringed by frozen white waves of cornices.

This bowl, on the west side of Berthoud Pass, is ringed by frozen white waves of cornices.