My husband and I went up to our second pika site, this one on Halfmoon Creek above Leadville, Colorado, last week, looking for the little rabbit-relatives.
If you recall, last year we unexpectedly had to walk an extra six miles to the site and back due to a Forest Service road closure. This year, the road was open and we were able to drive much closer. So that was one obstacle down.
After last year’s death march, the hike up was a breeze. Beautiful day, great company.
But after scrambling around on the unstable talus slopes for half an hour, we found no sign that pika were living in the scree field this year — no sightings, no chirps, no new scat, no new urine markings.
My husband and I, frustrated wildlife biologist wannabes that we are, thought a lot about why there were no pika this year. What we came up with was that this site is no longer good pika habitat.
At it’s most basic, good habitat is made up of a place where animals can get the food and other things they need while being safe from predators or other threats like the cold. The Halfmoon Creek site has scree that would protect the pika in the bitter winter cold. But we think that there were too many big trees surrounding the site — it is just a football field on a steep, unstable slope, surrounded by trees. The big trees did two things — 1) blocked the sun preventing grass and other forage from growing and 2) provided cover for hawks, weasels and coyotes to sneak up on the pika, working their way close enough to catch the little critters.
The lack of pika was very disappointing, although not unexpected. In the three years we’ve been to this site, we’ve seen one pika, and a little more sign.
Years ago there were enough pika to set up monitoring at Halfmoon Creek, but warmer summer temperatures from climate change may be letting the trees survive. Now the trees are too big, and the pika are essentially gone.
We bushwacked our way back down, this time crossing over into the avalanche track just to the east. A couple of years ago, I talked about the intense power of the avalanche, so I won’t go into it too much here. But it was nice to see some of the plants that grew in the open space the avalanche had made.
This is fireweed, common to subalpine communities all over North America, and indeed around the world. There are a few plants who’s scientific names I really enjoy saying, and this is one — Epilobium angustifolium — EP i LOB ium ANGUST i FOLIUM. Just rolls right off my tongue. And you wonder why I call myself a science geek.
Fireweed shares the Evening Primrose family with domesticated fuchsia plants. As it’s name suggests, it comes up in disturbed areas, like where there has been a fire, or in our case, an avalanche.
We scrabbled our way across the slope when I saw some small blue berries nestled in among red leaves.
I looked closer and saw to my delight that they were indeed blueberries! We do have native blueberries in Colorado, but obviously you have to be fairly determined to see them.
The coolest part about finding the blueberries was that when I got down on my belly to get this photograph, they smelled like blueberries.
All I could think of was the number of animals that were going to really enjoy these — jays, raccoons, bears …
I got up and did quick check to see that no hungry ursines were about to make a lunch of me. Instead, we started down the slope.
As we stumbled back down, my husband pointed to a line of rocks that edged the open area we were crossing.
These rocks were picked up by the avalanche when it started on the slope above, and carried along as the snow roared down. On the lower slope, the avalanche slowed, and the rocks dropped out along the sides.
There is always something new to see in the high country, even if it isn’t exactly what you started out to find.
Avoid avalanches, be aware of bears, and stay happy.