Pika Patrol, Part Two

My husband, my son, his girlfriend and I went up to my Pika Patrol (Pika Patrol, Part One) site over the weekend. After thrashing about a bit learning how to use the GPS, we found the appointed talus slope. Located on the north shore of Grand Lake just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, researchers had determined that pika had been present there in the past.

The four of us searched the talus for half an hour. We listened for pika calls — they sound like the squeaky toys they resemble. We heard sharper chipmunk calls.


You can tell this is a chipmunk by the lines on it’s face. Their call is a sharp bark.

We looked for piles of hay drying outside their dens. We found pine needles.

Orange Lichen-4

Instead of fresh grasses and flowers, we found old pine needles.

We saw the distinctive orange lichen that indicates where pika have peed. The extra nitrogen in pika urine allows this particular lichen to grow. But the lichen had a dry, flaking appearance.

Orange Lichen-1

The orange lichen looked dried out and flaky. Spider webs criss-crossed many crevices.

After half an hour of searching every nook and crevice we could find, we had to admit that there were no longer pika there.

We weren’t the only ones to come to that conclusion. Every pika monitoring site has three teams that visit it each fall to verify each other’s results. Nobody found any current signs of pika at this site.

At about 9000 feet, the Grand Lake site is the lowest site that the Pika Patrol monitors. According to a map I got from the National Park Service, this area burned in 1879, opening up the forest canopy. Pika were able to move down, and occupy this site for a time. But as the trees grew back, the meadow where the pike foraged turned back into forests, and trees grew in the talus field itself.


A couple of my handsome and lovely assistants hold signs stating where we started our search, and which direction we were facing. There were aspen, spruce and lodgepole pine sprouting up around the edges of the talus slope.

If summer temperatures have gotten higher, this would have impacted the pika as well. At temperatures of 75o or above, pika must retreat to their burrows, rather than gather forage. For a site like this one, where grasses and flowering forb plants were decreasing anyway, the combination might have been too much.

It was disappointing not to find pika, but negative results are science, too.


Aspen on Mt. Evans

We love our quaking aspen in Colorado, and never more than at this time of year. They are turning now, and they won’t last long.

I took a drive up to Evergreen last week and found a little meadow ringed with quakies, some of which hadn’t turned yet.


Aspen are in the cottonwood family. You can see this in their round -yet-pointed, saw-tooth leaf shape. Aspen leaf.jpg

But you can tell aspen from other cottonwoods because of their white bark, and the unique “eye-shaped” scar that forms when they drop a branch. As a child, I used to worry that aspen were watching me. Not paranoid, though. Not.


I saw these trees on the way down from Mount Evans, one of my favorite places to go when I need to get to the high country (Alpine flowers on Mt. Evans, Tundra Fall).


Now that the mountain pine beetle infestation (BioBlitz 2012 — Climate Change in the Soil) has burned itself out, aspen will have an opportunity to fill in the open spaces left by dead lodgepole pine. Aspen reproduce mostly by suckers, and so don’t have the dangers associated with being small and vulnerable for years. The slopes that were covered by rust colored dead pines will in a decade wear a mantle of pale green in the summer and gold in the fall.aspen-from-mt-evans-05

BioBlitz 2012 — Mountain Pine Beetles

For the afternoon session of Rocky Mountain National Park BioBlitz 2012, my son and I learned about mountain pine beetles from Dave Leatherman, retired Colorado State Forest Service entomologist. We met in an old ponderosa savanna near the Lawn Lake Alluvial Fan.
Mountain pine beetles have been in the news for the past few years as they decimate pine forests across the Rocky Mountains. As we walked, Dave explained why. The beetles bore under the bark and attack mostly lodgepole, but also ponderosa, bristlecone and limber pine trees. The trees need to be more than five years old because the beetles need thick bark to protect them in deep winter freezes.
The beetles use pheromones, or chemical attractants, to attract mates to the chosen tree. If there are enough beetles, they can jump to piñon pine or other conifers. In many areas, whole mountainsides are covered with rust-colored dead pine trees which, as they dry out, become perfect fuel for forest fires.
You won’t actually see mountain pine beetles unless you happen to notice them on the few days of late summer that they come out of one tree to fly to another, or you start pulling bark off of infested trees, as Dave did. Their entire lifecycle is lived underneath the bark of their dying victims.

The black fleck in the center of the photo is a female mountain pine beetle. The black curve to the left of the photo is the lens cap of my camera, for scale.

What you might notice are pink or yellow popcorn-like globs of sap stuck beneath pinprick holes in the bark of the tree. At the base of the tree, you’ll find sawdust. These signs are exactly what they look like: holes, called pitch tubes, where the female beetle burrowed in, the boring dust falling to the ground beneath the tube, and pitch or resin that the tree has oozed out in an attempt to pitch the beetles out (drown the beetle).
The beetles carry bluestain fungus into the trees on their bodies. We used to think that the bluestain fungus was what actually killed the trees. But instead, it seems that the bluestain fungus takes up nutrients from the tree and concentrates them. The beetles need those nutrients to survive. The beetles burrow through both the inner bark of the tree and the fungus. As the beetles eat, they cut the tubes the tree needs to move sap. Dave said that within three days after the first beetle arrives, they have done enough damage to the tubes that the host tree is doomed.
Because they live under the bark, spraying the trees with insecticide doesn’t kill the mountain pine beetles. Once tucked into an older tree, it takes five days of -30 degree weather to kill the beetles.
There are always mountain pine beetles in pine forests; they are a natural part of the forest ecosystem. In true predator fashion, in a healthy forest they attack trees that are weak or sick. But beetle numbers explode when pines get crowded, as they have over the last one hundred years.
Mountain pine beetles have killed over 3.6 million acres of pine in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. The epidemic will probably end when there are no more lodgepoles older than five years to infect – an expected 90% of the lodgepoles will die. As the beetles run out of lodgepoles, ponderosa and limber pines are attacked as well.
But as the lodgepoles die, woodpeckers and other predators will feast on the beetles, and owls will have more nesting sites. As grasses and shrubs sprout beneath the dead trees, grazers like deer and elk will have more to eat. And in five years, as aspen move into the open space, the mountains will be dazzling in their autumn colors.

Pitch oozing out of a hole make by a mountain pine beetle.