Colorado Report: American Pika (Mountain Tribbles)

July 3, 1015

On my third morning in Colorado I felt properly acclimated to the mountain air, and Alan and I were chomping at the bit to get above the tree line to look for Amercian pika, or what I refer to as mountain tribbles. Pika, about the size of hamsters, are more like little rabbits than rodents, and that is why they share the same Order with their long-eared cousins. I tried to find and photograph pika in the high mountains of Montana a few years ago but had no luck. Not to be dejected, I made pika my number one priority for this Colorado trip. I wasn’t even deterred when we called the Colorado DNR for assistance in finding pika, and the nice lady advised us that we were more likely to hear one than see one. We did know one thing for sure. If we were going to find pika, we would find them high in the mountains in their preferred habitat of rocky rubble.

Alan knew just where to find such rubble so we loaded up the 4Runner and headed for the jeep trail that goes all the way to the top of Elliot’s Ridge in the magnificent, Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area. As we started up the mountain, we found a few campers here and there—after all it was a weekend morning—but the sight of humans diminished as we got higher and the roads got rougher. By the time we made it near the top, the phrase “jeep trail” became quite applicable as we sliced through deep ruts and bounced over extreme water breaks. Our climb in the vehicle ended at a small parking lot surrounded by snow. This Missouri boy was pumped!

We parked, stretched, and gathered my equipment, including a 500 mm lens, tripod and camera, and started our walk toward the ridge where Alan knew we would find the rock rubble we were seeking. After climbing over a snow bank, we picked up a trail that proceeded upward and traversed Elliot’s ridge. As we continued upward, I could feel the burn as I followed Alan in the thin air. Alan has a couple of decades on me but it was everything I could do to keep up with him in those mountains. The man is in great shape!

When we made it to a point where we already had a sublime, 360 degree view of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, Alan stopped and I was happy to catch my breath. He pointed upward and said, “Now it is time to switch back and climb straight up to the rocks, high above our head and off the trail.” Still excited at the prospect of finding pika, I said, “Lets do it,” as I tried to subdue my heavy breathing. When we finally reached the rocky ridge, we were at 11,600 feet. Next, we proceeded to “Billy goat scramble” through the rocks, some as large as a car, stopping occasionally to listen for the tiny squeak of pika. Finally, Alan said, “I’ve got one!” I replied, “One what?” and he said, “Pika!”

Unfortunately, the pika was sitting on a rock directly in line with the sun, so I had to slowly flank its location in an effort to get the sun behind me. At first it didn’t seem to have any concern but when I finally made it around the critter and tried to set up my tripod, it disappeared into the crevices. I was devastated because I thought I had missed my chance, but I just sat there for 10 minutes until the little guy jumped right back up on the rock. I still wasn’t close enough so I slid forward on my butt at an excruciatingly slow pace, pushing my tripod forward a few inches at a time. I finally made it to a good shooting range and the pika just sat on its rock, seemingly disinterested.

The next step was to wait until the sun disappeared behind the high clouds so the light wouldn’t be too harsh for a shot. After about 10 minutes, the sun faded behind the clouds and I made the featured image. After that it was high fives for Alan and me! You should have seen the smiles on our faces.

We spent a few hours on top of the mountains watching mountain bluebirds, more pika, and marmots, before we started back. On the way back, we found a second pika on a shade-covered rock (see image below).

Danny_Brown_Pika (2)

Note the fluorescent green lichens on the rock near the pika. My research revealed that the lichens thrive on the concentrated pika urine that is deposited at favorite locations on the rocks. It was awesome to see something in real life that I had read about in books. Be sure to click on the second image to enlarge it so you can see the furry feet of the pika. They are covered with fur, even on bottom, to fight the incredible cold on top of the mountains in winter. I suppose the little tribbles don’t worry much about the cold. After all, they can’t even survive in temperatures much over 85 degrees.

Another fascinating thing about pika is their preparation for winter by cutting grass and building little “hay bales” to dry on the rocks. Later they take the dried grass below the rocks to their burrows for storage. Alan and I didn’t run across any tiny hay bales; we will look harder for them the next time.

As Alan and I walked back down the mountain, we thought about how few humans the pika ever see up there in the rubble atop Elliot’s Ridge. Maybe they just thought we were mountain goats, but maybe we made their otherwise routine day as exciting as ours.

Thanks for looking,

DB

Gallery of Images:  Here

Email:  NatureFrames@Rocketmail.Com

8 comments on “Colorado Report: American Pika (Mountain Tribbles)”

  1. This is an awesome story, Danny. Bravo on finding the Pika and getting some images. They are cute little things!

    • Thanks Brenda. I’m glad you liked it as not too many people ended up reading the Pika story. Some times the timing is bad, but I really enjoyed writing it.

  2. So neat! Loved the little guy!

  3. Having seen the pika without ever being able to photograph it in Yosemite, I can imagine what a challenging task this must have been! Thank you.

  4. Since I first discovered the pika many years ago, it’s been a constant favourite.


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