It’s August, and so it is time for Pika Patrol! Every year, as part of the Denver Zoo’s Pika Project, my husband and I hike up to a couple of places in the tundra to see how the pika are doing.
More moisture in the air made it a beautiful day for a hike — cool, and humid enough to smell the spruce trees.
Normally on a hike through the spruce-fir forests of Colorado, my husband and I might see a few small mushrooms. This year they lined the trail all the way up — we counted tent different kinds! All of them were pretty good sized. I’m not a mushroom fancier, so I have no idea what any of these are called. I would assume that most of them are poisonous, though. Make sure you know what you are doing if you start picking mushrooms to eat.
Dense forests are notorious for the lack of plants that grow under the deep dark canopy, but we still saw a few flowers.
This is one-flowered wintergreen, in the heath family, the same as blueberries and kinnikinnik (bear berry). It gets it’s name from the fact that it stays green well into the cold months, not because it has a refreshing minty taste. It tastes like rubber.
This Indian paintbrush found an open spot of sun in which to grow.
Butterflies are not my strong suit, and that goes double for fritillary butterflies — they are all little squiggly lines. But I think this is an Arctic fritillary butterfly. There were lots up there.
It was our usual struggle to get to the tundra (the earworm playing in my head the entire hike was the music from the last Lord of the Rings movie, where they light the beacons on the mountain tops to call for their allies help — evidently my brain thought I was doing something brave/heroic/dangerous. My body just thought I was doing something stupid — again.) But eventually, we came out into the meadow and stopped to listen.
Usually at this point, we can hear the pikas’ little squeaky-ball calls from here. But not this day. This day, we heard no calls.
Discouraged, my husband and I climbed up to the big rock in the center of the photo and took off our backpacks for a snack and water before we went any further. But as we rested, we finally heard, then saw a pika, then two.
Three years ago, when we first made this hike (https://amylaw.blog/2019/09/12/pika-patrol-2019-edition/), we saw so many pika that we couldn’t begin to count them. And although they weren’t interested in us, we weren’t a concern for them, either. They just kept scampering over the rocks as fast as they could, hauling plants back to dry in the sun.
This year, we feel like we saw maybe six pikas, and they kept their distance.
After our break, we climbed into the talus (loose rocks) to look for hay piles. And we found them everywhere!
And each haystack was stuffed with grass.
Here’s what I think is happening: In 2019, our first year looking at this site, there were too many pika for the area to support. They were frantically scrambling to find and cut enough forage to take them through the winter. They didn’t care that we were there because they didn’t have time to bother with us. 2019-2020 was a dry winter, and I suspect many pika didn’t make it.
2020 was tinder dry. There was no grasses to be had, or even moderately nutritious plants. They gathered what they could, which was not much. I think more pika died.
This year, we got decent snow through the winter, then twice the moisture in the spring, as evidenced by the bounty of mushrooms. The remaining pika have been filling every cranny they can find with luscious, rich, nutritious grasses. They can leave the alpine sorrel and cow parsnip alone.
So I think the pika population crashed during the last two warm, dry winters, but the remaining pika are doing well with the help of an exceptionally wet 2021 spring.
But this is a good demonstration of just how sensitive these little guys are to climate change.