2022 Pika Patrol Part 1

Every year, my husband and I look forward to hiking up to the high country to check on the pika that live there, as part of the Colorado Pika Projects‘ monitoring efforts. We’ve been doing it for five years now, but when pressed by friends as to what it is that we enjoy so much, we are a bit at a loss. Is it climbing up 1500 feet in two miles? Is it thrashing around through the willows when we lose the trail? Is it gasping for breath in the thin air as we try not to slip and fall on the sharp, unstable, talus slopes where the pika live? Those don’t sound very convincing.

How about doing something that few people have the opportunity or skills to do, that furthers science? That one sounds about right. But I think the lack of oxygen at high altitude must help me forget the effort involved in between hikes, too.

This year, we had to delay our first hike scheduled for mid-August due to bad weather. The last of our unusually heavy monsoon rains along the Front Range would have made it too dangerous to be out on the talus at 11,500 feet looking for pika. But last weekend, we made it up to the site.

This year I decided to take my new telephoto camera lens with me. I bought it over the pandemic, trying to do my part in to keep the economy moving in those dark days of 2020. I thought it would be fun to get better photos of animals. What I didn’t anticipate was how heavy it would be — about 4.5 extra pounds. And because it was so bulky, I wouldn’t be able to use it anywhere except in the open tundra, where I could see the animals before they moved off, attach the lens, and get the shot. I talked myself out of taking it last year, but this year, I was determined to try it.

The trail showed the effects of the rains the previous week with pot-holes filled with water, and lots of previously dry run-off diversions running fast. The flowing water meant that we had to hunt around a lot for spots to cross the streams.

Crossing the little rivulets was exhausting and annoying. And I hadn’t packed the big lens well, so it was pulling on one side of my pack, making the strap dig into my shoulder. But as we were searching for yet another ford, we run across an American dipper, formerly called an ouzel, after a European bird with similar habits. I had never seen a dipper in the wild before.

American dipper sitting in the middle of an icy torrent. Taken with my trusty medium sized lens.

The key part of the niche for dippers is the rushing water — they live along fast running mountain streams from Mexico and the desert Southwest to the Brooks Range of Alaska, always looking for small invertebrates like insects or worms, or fish eggs. When they find something that looks tasty, they dive into the creek to grab it. If they don’t get it on their first try, their big feet enable them to grab rocks along the bottom of the creek to walk to it. This is all in water that I treat with respect for being too fast/strong current/icy cold to be safe.

Dippers are plump grey birds with white eyelids and a very short tail.

A little further on, we saw further evidence that it has been wet in the high country this summer — a couple of different kinds of fungus. Last year we saw an astonishing variety of fungi. This year, we saw all those, plus some new ones.

I’d heard of the shelf fungus on the log, but had never seen the coral fungus or whatever the little stems were in the image to the right. By this time, we had been thrashing through the woods looking for a good spot to cross the ridge to the pika site for so long that I didn’t take time to compose a good shot of the little fungi stems. That’s how tired I was. I was really beginning to regret lugging that stupid big lens with me.

After scrambling through the timber and across a little ridge, we finally got to the edge of the talus slope where we monitor pika. We heard their squeaky-ball calls even before we left the trees.

Pika landing after scampering across the rocks.

I whipped my pack off, attached the big lens and started snapping.

This shot was taken from across the meadow. Taken with the big lens. Compare the clarity of the whiskers here with those in the photo below.

The good thing about that big lens is that I could shoot from much further away. That meant that the critters didn’t care that we were there, and kept going about their normal activities. And the resulting photos were much clearer, even from a greater distance.

Pika from last year. I’m not zoomed in as close, and already the photo is blurry.

Well, heck. I was kinda hoping the big lens wouldn’t make as much of a difference, and I wouldn’t have to drag it up next time. But if I want good photographs of little critters from a distance, I have to use it.

This chipmunk didn’t care that I was snapping away.

In addition to pika, we always see a couple of chipmunks up there, probably because it is close to the forest.

When I got tired of photographing pika and chipmunks, I started scrambling over talus, looking for pika hay piles. This year, I was smart and took along some gardening gloves to protect my hands from the sharp edges of the rocks.

My glove next to an alpine daisy, for scale. Taken with a small lens.
That’s as big as this daisy will get. Taken with a small lens and close-up adapter.

Alpine plants are known for having huge flowers relative to the rest of the above-ground plant.

Finally, my husband pointed out that the dark clouds were rolling in across the tops of the high peaks. The tundra is not a place to be caught in a thunderstorm. We finished up and headed back down.

On the way, we passed this reminder of the dangers of lightning in the high country.

Lightning-struck tree on the trail.

It is always faster to go down than up, and we made good time. But we did see some beautiful pleated gentians that I stopped to shoot. As I did so, I realized there was a bumble bee on one of the flowers.

Bumblebee on pleated gentian.

Then the bee disappeared! When I looked closer, I saw it deep inside the flower, turning around to dust itself with pollen all over it’s body.

Bumblebee twirling around inside the cup of the gentian flower.

When it was done, it popped back out to groom the pollen off its body and into packets for transport back to the hive.

Bumblebee climbing back out of the flower.

I guess between seeing the dipper in the stream on the way up, and the bumblebee doing a deep dive into the flower, I have my answer as to why we keep doing this hike.

But maybe I can sneak the big camera lens into my husband’s pack for the next hike.

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