Dialogue with a Pika
Fall is on its way. It’s not only evident by the aspen leaves turning gold, but the alpine tundra turning a glorious shade of red. The change from Summer to Fall signals a change of wildlife subjects from my favorite alpine animals (pikas, marmots, and mountain goats) to the rutting elk. Winter comes fast to the alpine zone; my favorite pika lives close to the summit of Mt Evans (right around 14,000ft), part of the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, just west of Denver, and my access to him ends just after Labor Day. That’s OK – I have elk and other animals in the Fall, but I miss the pikas terribly over the 8 months or so that I can’t visit them.
This year, the elk rut is moving along pretty slowly. Everyone has their own theories as to why it’s slow (warmer than usual Fall, culling 1,400 elk earlier this year has too radically reduced the population, we offended the ungulate gods, bad karma), but there’s just not a lot of action. Plus, RMNP has put up fences across almost every square foot of the park, making it difficult to get clean backgrounds on the elk images it is possible to make.
My plan? Take Trail Ridge Road in RMNP and search for pikas until the first snows hide them away until next Summer. I have a new favorite spot along Trail Ridge where pikas are plentiful and easily accessed. Most rangers don’t have a problem with me sneaking out into the talus in search of pikas, but friends have been stopped at that location and told they can’t be out there. It’s worth it to take your chances and hope you have an understanding ranger.
I had a little Tiny Tim flashback the last time I was there . . .
Tiptoe through the talus
With a tripod for a pika
Oh tiptoe through the talus
I catch myself humming along to that tune at times, hopping from rock to rock, searching for a good place to set up my gear (I get a little loopy above tree line sometimes, in case you couldn’t tell).
I just can’t get enough of pikas. They’re fist-sized little animals, closely related to rabbits, who live among the rocks. Since they don’t hibernate, they spend their short summers gathering food to last them the winter. A six-ounce pika can gather in excess of 50 pounds of food. To gather that much, their days are filled with running from their underground dens, yanking out mouthfuls of plants and flowers, and running back to their dens, all at super-sonic speeds. because they move so quickly, and because they’re the same color as surrounding rocks, and because they’re so small, it’s tricky to even spot them, much less get a clear image of them.
If you find a good location, plant yourself and spend a few hours just watching them; they’re endlessly fascinating little animals. When you first arrive, they tend to hide and observe you until they’re sure you’re not a threat. Despite living in loose colonies, they tend to be very territorial, even with other pikas, and will bark out a warning. You’ll hear a surprisingly loud EEENK!, and be able to locate them by their barks. Give them a while to adjust to your presence, they eventually they’ll mostly ignore you and go about their business of gathering food.
I’d spent about half an hour sitting on a relatively flat rock (my butt doesn’t tolerate sharp, pointy rocks like it used to, despite the extra padding I’ve managed to add), when I noticed a pika keeping an eye on me. As soon as I made eye contact, he belted out a challenge, letting me know I was in his little kingdom. “EEENK!!” With that, he ran from his perch and ran past me, returning quickly with a mouth full of food, less than a few feet from my position. As soon as he emerged from his den, he ran back to the rock where he perched before and barked at me again. “EEENK!!”
He ran past me several more times, gathering food. He then disappeared for a while. Just when I was about to leave, he came running right up to me and sniffed my tripod foot. Then he started to chew on my tripod.
“Hey! Stop that!”
“EENK!” (chew, chew)
“Really, stop that” (moving my foot slowly towards him to shoo him away (pun always intended)
“Don’t you EEENK at me – stop chewing on my tripod!”
He then started to chew on the sole of my shoe. I tried to get the camera off the tripod so I could get an angle for a shot, and as soon as I got it in position, he ran off. He passed by my location several more times carrying food, and barking out an occasional “EEENK!!” from his high perch. Just before the wind got too bad and my butt got too sore, he ran back to my position, hopped on my shoe, and let out another EEENK, and ran off again.