August 27, 2016 Estes Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park

I arrived at the Saint Mary Lake Campground on Tuesday after an uneventful drive from Twin Lakes, uneventful due to my new ignition wires and plugs. Most likely, I never would have made the long, torturous eight mile haul up the grade to the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 if I hadn’t replaced them. This is an expensive (though still less than the other Estes Park campgrounds), private campground laid out like most such campgrounds, rows of sites one after another, way too crowded, way too bright at night, and noisy during the day. Full hookups cost $45/night, making it the most expensive place I have stayed in 4 years, but the location is convenient, and, as I said, the $45 is actually cheaper than the other campgrounds around Estes Park.

RMNP Beast of Burden
RMNP Beast of Burden

There have been no bright, blue sky days since I have arrived so I haven’t been able to get any great mountain shots yet, but I have found a little wildlife during my early morning drives into the park. Despite the fact that school has started and most families are now done with their summer travels, there is still a lot of traffic through the park, way too much actually. I read that last year the park had 4.1 million visitors, more than Yellowstone or Yosemite.

MNP Bull Moose
RMNP Bull Moose

I have run into a couple of bull moose along the way as I climb to the higher elevations in the park.

Mom and Calf
Mom and Calf
Mom and Calf
Mom and Calf

The last time I was here was in the spring, in fact, entrance into the park was closed a couple of days due to a spring snowstorm. During that stay, I found many elk and bighorn sheep around town and along the lower elevations of the park, due to the deep snow in the upper elevations. This year, the animals are still up high and I am not encountering any large numbers of elk and I have yet to see a single sheep.

RMNP Bull Elk
RMNP Bull Elk
RMNP Bull Elk
RMNP Bull Elk

Along the highest point of the park road I spied this guy grazing along the downhill slope, about half a mile from the road. I parked and hiked down to where I could get a shot, carrying my tripod and 600mm lens on my shoulder.

RMNP Bull Elk
RMNP Bull Elk

Forgot that I was at 12,000′ elevation, so when it came time to hike back up the 30 degree slope to get back to the car, I was finding it a little difficult to breathe. Managed to make it, but I think I would prefer finding these guys at a little lower elevation. Guess I’ll have to wish for snow to drive them down the mountain.

RMNP Bull Elk
RMNP Bull Elk

Now this guy was at a little lower elevation, very early in the morning.

RMNP Bull Elk
RMNP Bull Elk

Looking at his left ear, I would have to guess that the bulls may already be sparring, and he must have caught an opponent’s antler, tearing that ear.

American Pika

Pika
Pika

A little background on these little cuties ( from the internet ).

“Pikas (Ochonta princeps) are small mammals related to the rabbit family, even though they look more like a hamster. Pikas are sometimes known as conies or rock rabbits. These cuddly-looking characters have small, oval bodies that are only around six inches long and weigh six ounces. Their ears are moderately large for their bodies and round in shape. Pikas have a very short tail that is usually covered by a coat of thick brown-gray peppered fur. They have sharp curved claws and padded toes to scamper around alpine rocks.

Excellent hearing and vision keep them very aware of danger in their surroundings.   Pikas are very vocal animals and use both calls and songs to communicate with each other and to protect their territories. A high-pitched “eek” warns other pikas of predators. Their voices are easily heard, but the animals, camouflaged against the rocks, are more difficult to see.

American pikas only live in mountainous alpine terrain above 11,000 feet in elevation. They live on rock faces, talus slopes and cliffs near mountain meadows. Pikas live in colonies often connected by burrow mazes underneath these rocky areas. Even so, individuals are very territorial over their own den and surrounding areas, and are usually seen darting around rocky areas alone.

The pika breeding season is in late May or early June while snow is still on the ground in their mountainous habitat. Pika territoriality is at its lowest during this time and males sing to female mates. The female gestation period is 30 days and litters of two to six hairless, blind infants are born. Femals can have a second litter during the same season, and raise their young alone. After one month, the babies leave their mothers to establish their own dens, even though they won’t fully mature for another few months.

Pikas are herbivores and eat a variety of plants including sedges, grasses and wildflowers. After breeding season, pika activity intensifies as they must make the most of a short tundra growing season.

The maximum life span of a pika is three to seven years. Pikas do not hibernate, so they must spend the short alpine summers gathering food for the winter ahead. This frenzied activity consists of gathering large quantities of plants in their mouths and scurrying back to designated storage areas called “haystacks” to let the plants dry. Haymaking is their primary activity, and this is when pikas become extremely territorial and vocal to defend their haystacks.

They can remain active all throughout the day if the outside temperatures stay cool enough. When winter arrives, pikas bring all of their haystacks into their dens and will remain in the burrows most of the winter. One pika must gather enough food to fill a bathtub. Their survival depends on a successful harvest as they remain active underneath the winter snows.

The primary threat for the pika is climate change because as it gets warmer, pikas must go higher up the mountains until they top out and have no where else to go. When temperatures exceed approximately 70 degrees Fahrenheit, pikas can die within hours if they cannot escape from the heat. Pikas are early warning signs for global warming in western North America since they are a species that depends on mountain ecosystems for survival. Go to the National Park Service (NPS) Pikas in Peril website to learn about recent pika research that included Rocky Mountain National Park. Researchers and NPS staff are trying to address questions about pika vulnerability to future climate conditions.”

Pika
Pika
Pika
Pika
Pika
Pika
Pika
Pika
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika "haying"
Pika “haying”

I spent about an hour one rather cool morning ( 30 degrees ) at a spot on the park road known as ” the rock cut ” taking shots of several pikas that had dens in the rock fill on the lower side of the road.

Pika "haying"
Pika “haying”

They would race down the talus type rock slope and quickly venture out no more than 20 feet into the grass, chop down a mouthful of grasses and sometimes flowers, then race back up into the rocks to their dens.

Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den

After just a few minutes stowing their harvest, they would reappear and repeat the same process, each round trip taking about two or three minutes. They each did this continuously for most of the hour I was with them, only disappearing once for about ten minutes, just after a group of Harley idiots roared up and stopped to use the restrooms across the road from where I was shooting. Now one of my pet peeves are these infantile jerks with their roaring machines scaring off all kinds of wildlife, but I’m not quite sure why they would scare off these little guys. They certainly are not familiar with gun shots from hunters since they live well within the national park, so unlike deer, elk, and moose, that probably do associate the motorcycle racket with gunfire, I don’t know why these little guys are scared off by the motorcycles. But they did eventually come back out and resume their harvesting a while after after the bikes left.

Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den

Kind of challenging trying to catch these little guys in motions, they are only 6 or 7 inches long, flying up the rock slope, hopping from rock to rock at top speed. Being preyed on by hawks, as well as coyotes and Long Tailed Weasels, they obviously don’t want to be caught out in the open dilly dallying around.

Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den
Pika Taking Winter Stores to the Den

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8 thoughts on “August 27, 2016 Estes Park, Colorado”

  1. Lovely photos as always. I love watching pikas scurrying around and storing up their food. They are just too cute! Looking forward to getting up to Rocky Mountain in a couple weeks. Have some family visiting CO for first time and will be showing them around. Actually I sent them a link to your blog with the photos of Million Dollar Hwy and they were amazed. We will be down in Durango for a few days next week.

  2. Okay, those Picas are so freaking cute, how do they not have their own PBS show? Did you use a really long lens to get those close ups?

    1. Hi Sheryl! Those shots were taken with my 600mm lens. These guys are quite small, maybe 6 or 7 inches long at best, and they are down a steep roadside embankment, so I can’t get very close. Oh, and they move REALLY fast, there’s a few things up here that like to eat them, including the long tailed weasel that I saw darting after one of them today. Almost got a shot of the weasel today, but will be going back to try again.

  3. I have lived in CO all my life and never heard of a Pika. Thank you so much for the most interesting article and pictures on these cute little critters.
    I passed thru Estes Park last weekend and boy oh boy, the crowds were AWFUL. I was last there about 40 years ago and it was very much different then.
    I enjoy your blog.

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