Browsing "Colorado"
Aug 30, 2016 - Colorado    No Comments

Behind the Scenes

Pikas are the most adorable critters ever. If you’re having trouble imagining them, think of dog squeak toys but extremely soft and a thousand times cuter. My name is Katara, and I am a freshman at CU Boulder! Unlike my fellow team members, #teamPika16, I was unable to pursue a personal pika project this summer because I had pneumonia during the first couple of weeks of fieldwork. Instead, I’ll talk more about the action behind-the-scenes of what you do after you’ve been observing a pika.

To all of the volunteers that observe pikas as part of the Front Range Pika Project, my thanks go out to you! Observing pikas is one of my favorite things. It’s peaceful, quiet, and if you’re really lucky you’ll get a curious one.
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Pikas are the most adorable critters, but they blend in SO well. Can you spot the pika?
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Ok, here it is!
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Once we trap a pika, the little guy, or gal, gets put into an anesthesia chamber. From there we take tons of measurements, ranging from foot size to sex to molting fur. Sometimes the pika has to go back into the chamber as it starts to regain consciousness; this mostly happens with juveniles. We sample blood, too (to study disease), and if we get enough we’ll use a centrifuge on site to separate the plasma from the red blood cells. The battery for the centrifuge is surprisingly heavy, and we have to haul it, along with other equipment, up to the field site every day. All of the physical samples promptly get labeled and placed in a freezer for later use.

The team hard at work!
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After handling the pikas carefully, we release them in the same area where we found them, so that they can find their way home. KataraPhoto4

Aug 11, 2016 - Colorado    No Comments

My Summer with the Pika

When people ask me what my summer plans are, I try really hard not to brag. But it’s hard to contain my excitement when I’m talking about my dream job. Granted, working as a “pika research intern” isn’t most people’s first choice of summer employment, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do than observe these precious alpine critters for three months. I get to do this because I am lucky enough to be part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program run by the University of Colorado and funded by the National Science Foundation. This program is designed to both inspire and teach undergrad students how to do real ecology field work by matching us with mentors.
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You may be asking yourself – what is a pika? Why bother researching them? If you’ve ever found yourself scrambling up a rocky slope – called talus – anywhere near the Cascades, Rocky Mountains, or Great Basin, then you’ve probably heard a pika yelling at you. Although barely the size of a Big Mac, pika are territorial and will issue a series of squeaks warning you to stay away and telling nearby pika that there is an intruder. Right now they are of particular interest because they may be sensitive to climate change. Pika are well adapted to survive the frigid winters of the high mountains, but when summer temperatures skyrocket, they risk overheating. Thus they could potentially serve as an indicator species and help scientists monitor the extent and effects of changing global temperatures.
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Typically, pika researchers in the Colorado Front Range only observe pika behavior from about 9 AM to 3 PM. This is mostly because afternoon thunderstorms consistently chase researchers off the high mountains. Pika also live in places that are difficult to access and few people want to wake up every day at 4 AM to drive and hike several hours to their field site. I’m curious about pika behavior at dawn and dusk, those times that no one is around to watch them. I want to figure out if these 9 AM observations are representative of other times of day. And thanks to the REU program, I live close enough to my mentor’s sites that I can work around the weather and do these observations myself.

Here is a day in the life of a pika researcher (aka me):
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4:30 AM – Wake up, eat a bagel, put on every layer of warm clothing I own, and hike to my research site. Sometimes I get to stay up at the Tundra Lab, a facility nestled in the saddle of Niwot Ridge (11,600’), which means I get to witness unbelievable sunsets and sunrises.

6 AM-8AM – Behavioral observations. This consists of me huddling against the wind and staring desperately at the rocky landscape around me, hoping to spot a pika.

9 AM – Meet up with the rest of my #teamPika16 crew and help my mentor with trapping. My commute to work is the best – an hour’s hike through the woods to a GPS point my mentor emailed me the previous night. We trap pika mainly so we can tag them, gather data, and track their survival year to year.

6 PM-8 PM – More behavioral observations. This is my favorite part of the day because pika are so curious they will often come within a meter of me and try to chew my boots.

Repeat.
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Although my average work day starts early, ends late, and usually involves 10-13 miles of hiking, I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. That beautiful sunrise photo on your desktop screensaver? That’s what I wake up to every morning. The pine fresh air freshener that dangles from your rearview during your city commute? I hike through pine forests that put those synthetic scents to shame. Yes, the office dog may be adorable, but pika can be just as friendly. And there’s nothing as magical as feeling the quivering weight of a pika sitting on your boot. Every day I wake up to new wonders and adventures that make me grateful to be alive.

~ Lauren Benedict

Jul 31, 2016 - Colorado    No Comments

Calling All Pikas!

Hi there! My name is Angela DeLuca and I am an incoming senior at CU-Boulder. I have spent this summer working with #teamPika16 in Colorado. Working as a field research assistant has been one of the most inspiring and eye-opening experiences I have had as a university student. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday the team and I gear up (bright and early) to observe and/or trap pikas in various sites with breath-taking views.
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Each of us has been working on an individual project – mine is focused on identifying vegetation growing near pika habitats. These cute furry animals collect flowers and grasses during the late summer and store them to keep themselves fueled for long, snowy winters. To carry out this study I first try to find a “historical” pika hay pile (meaning a hay pile that pikas have been using for multiple years) by hiking up and down the talus slope. Then I find the most upslope path from the haypile and measure every half-meter. At every half-meter I stick a pin flag in the ground and try to identify all of the species of plants that are touching the flag. At first I had almost no idea what any of the names of alpine wildflowers and species were, but now I’m starting to get the hang of it! I continue to do this for 25 meters. After that’s done, I then do the same for the downslope, and to the left and right side of the haypile. One hay pile vegetation analysis can take me around two hours if I am working alone, but luckily I have the mountain views and wonderful teammates to help me! It really amazes me how different the species of vegetation are at the various sites – my personal favorite flowers are Alpine Avens (which pikas adore).
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As much as I love getting up close and personal with flowers and trees for hours, the highlight of this experience has been to really learn about the habitat and behavior of pikas and how sensitive they are to their surroundings. Getting to help trap and release them in the name of science is so wonderful!

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Jul 22, 2016 - Colorado    No Comments

On the Experience of a Pika Researcher

I remember the first time I encountered a wild pika. It was atop Piegan Pass in Glacier National Park, MT during the summer of 2006 and in that moment I remember with clarity promising to the pikas that I would return. A physical return to Glacier National Park is in the future hopefully, but my return to their rocky alpine habitat this summer has been far more rewarding than I could have hoped. Just look at Niwot Ridge where I work! Being an active part of the #teamPika16 has been, and continues to be a great way to give back to these amazing and emblematic animals of the fragile alpine environment.

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As a graduating environmental studies student, I can’t think of a better, and at the same time worse, way to end my studies. It’s the best because who can complain about working with a great crew in a beautiful environment with quite possibly the cutest animals on the planet? But it’s the worst because I now am faced with leaving for the real world knowing that had I been more vigilant like some of the younger team members, I could have lent myself to the cause longer and more thoroughly. Of course I can continue in the field, but who knows where life will take each of us. Still, I am filled with hope that everyone on the team, new or experienced, can help contribute to the science behind these alpine denizens.

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I’m studying the pika’s microclimate by burying temperature sensors in the rocky taluses where each pika lives. The sensors take data while I take a break…and while I learn to use computer programs to analyze all those data!

There are so many different projects being undertaken by #teamPika16 right now, from vegetation plotting, to microclimate studies, to pika behavior monitoring, and more! All of this being done mostly by us amateur-student scientists, just showing how much there is to learn still about the species and its challenging mountain environment. We have fun and do serious work at the same time, leaving us all with few complaints. We’ve been grounded for a few days, awaiting a new shipment of plague vaccine (that’s right, we vaccinate the pikas against bubonic plague, just in case). But when the vaccine comes in, we’ll be back in the alpine where we belong!

-Jeremy Bonnell

Dec 8, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

My Journey

Deciding what I wanted to do with my life was easy. Since I was small I was fascinated with animals. I loved collecting clams and fireflies, assembling rolly polly kingdoms and bringing orphaned baby birds home to my mom. My greatest love, however, was dolphins. I was obsessed with them. I spent many hours sprawled out on my floor surrounded by books bound and determined to learn about each species and how to identify them. This passion continued through middle school and high school and when the time came to choose a college and a major the choice was relatively simple: I’d study zoology at Colorado State University with the hopes of becoming a marine biologist. During my freshman year at CSU I applied for an internship at Sea World in San Antonio to be a marine mammal apprentice. I was invited to interview and flew down over Thanksgiving break for the opportunity of a lifetime. I didn’t get the position, but the experience provided me with the reassurance that I was on the right path to a career I would be passionate about. Later that year I began volunteering at a local wildlife rehabilitation center. Working there opened me up to the idea of not working with dolphins, and introduced me to the wildlife I had right outside my backdoor. I continued to chip away at school and eventually applied for a study abroad year in South Africa.
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In July of my junior year I flew to the country that would provide me with an immense amount of growth, experience and knowledge, all of which propelled me through the rest of college in into my career. During my university orientation in South Africa I met an American girl who had been living in the country as a “safari guide”. She invited me to visit the game reserve she worked at where they rehabilitated cheetahs, serval and African wildcat. Over the course of the year I volunteered there a number of weekends, assisting with the husbandry of the wildlife they had, while learning about land conservation. Simultaneously I took an ecology class at the university where I was exposed to the world of wildlife research. We conducted labs on mark-recapture, camera trapping and telemetry to name a few. When I got back to Colorado I switched my major to Wildlife Biology in the hopes of learning more about management. A professor of mine announced a field technician position conducting pika research in Rocky Mountain National park one morning during class and I knew I had to have it. I contacted Chris Ray that day and she invited me to volunteer with her that upcoming summer.
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That first summer of field work was truly magical. Niwot Ridge is a beautiful place; surrounded by rugged peaks and blue skies, I knew I had gotten myself to a place I wanted to be. Chris was a wonderful and patient mentor that summer. Asking for the REU position the next year was a no brainer for me and she graciously obliged. Conducting my own research that summer was a great experience. I graduated the following fall and have been working as a seasonal technician ever since. Some of my favorite jobs have included trapping Canada lynx in Leadville Colorado, working on a mountain lion and bear project in Colorado, conducting raptor and grouse surveys in Wyoming and most recently working as the bear management technician in Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Getting these jobs wasn’t always easy. They required persistence and good references. The wildlife world is relatively small so making good impressions and working hard has been important. Persistence was especially important as for most jobs employers see 50+ applications. Showing interest and initiative has gotten me work that I may not have otherwise gotten. Passion is also critical. Working seasonally is tough and getting a full time job is even tougher. This field is highly competitive and working seasonally for 5+ years is not unheard of. Going to graduate school seems to be necessary for full time work. I’m currently applying to graduate schools with the intention of studying human-wildlife conflict (with bears if I can swing it). Ultimately I’d like to work for state or federal government as a wildlife manager. From pikas to bears it has been an exciting and fulfilling journey I am thrilled to continue!

– Sara McLaughlin

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Jul 27, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

Test Your Pika Knowledge!

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“Heya! My name is Hilary, and I’m a rising junior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Being a New England girl, I’d never seen a pika before this summer and I hardly know anything about this amazing species. I’m studying the microclimate that pikas live in, down under the rocks. Over the past couple months, I’ve learned a great deal about pika. Take my quiz to test your pika knowledge. For the record, I probably would’ve failed if I’d taken this quiz two months ago.”

Take Our Quiz!

Jul 22, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

The Life and Times of a Research Assistant

This is “Max 3” reporting for blog duty. You’ve already heard from “Max 2” (Max Plichta), and “Max 1” is exempt on account of being 7 years old. I am headed into my sophomore year at CU, studying biology and anything else I can cram into my schedule. It’s certainly been an exciting and busy summer for me working both at the Mountain Research Station and maintaining trails in Jefferson County.

LongUnoccupiedPikaHaypileSite_NWTLTERI’m from Wyoming, and anyone who is familiar with that state has encountered hurricane-force winds on a biweekly basis. I really thought I could relax and enjoy the mild Colorado weather I had escaped to…until today. With winds clocked at 50 mph, on several occasions we were nearly kited off the West Knoll by the tarps we were carrying. But while dodging flying clipboards and crouching low to the ground, we managed to get a whole lot done. I used a GPS unit to map out about a dozen pika haypiles, when I wasn’t checking traps. Here you see me and an old  pika haypile site on Niwot Ridge.

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Pika survival was poor last winter, and wind keeps the pikas under cover, so we found a lot of empty traps today. The only pikas we trapped today were the ones trapped yesterday, and those pikas were pretty irritated. Patience was running thin, until the end of the day when. . .we caught a new pika! Unlike Pikachu, the pika is sensitive and must be handled with great care. It takes a whole team to anesthetize, tag, sample blood, tissue and hair, weigh and then release a pika. Fortunately we have been working together for this first half of the summer and the capture, sampling and liberation of this pika went very smoothly, resulting in exciting new experiences for me and Jasmine. Jasmine (another member of #teamPika15) named him Poncho Libre. Here I am communing with Poncho.

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For Poncho, the experience might have been exciting but it was probably not so fun. I’ll ponder that while I take this next week to backpack through Rocky Mountain National Park. Thanks for reading.

Jul 7, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

It’s All About The Data

Hi everyone, my name is Jasmine Vidrio and I’m a senior at the University of Colorado. This summer I’m having the wonderful opportunity to work with pikas. I also get to spend my summer with some amazing scientists! Below are my pika peeps from left to right: Hilary Brumberg, Drew Eline (she actually works with marmots), my advisor’s son Max, Max Wasser (yep, another Max), Jasmine Vidrio (me), and Max Plichta. (Yes, there are a lot of Maxes!)

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This has been one of my first opportunities to work in the field with wild animals, and I’ve spent a lot of time hiking up to Niwot Ridge looking for signs of pika. Being in the field is amazing; I get to spend all day surrounded by beauty. But last week I was reminded that although fieldwork is spectacular, it also needs to be productive.

Before last week, I had never had to enter my field data–or anyone else’s–into a spreadsheet. In college we are often given data sets to work with, but I never understood how much work goes into transferring written notes into an Excel sheet. Let me tell you right now, neat handwriting is IMPORTANT! I had to transfer some of my own field notes into Excel and that was a bit of a struggle. But when i had to transfer someone else’s field notes, it was actually scary. Here’s a shot of a GOOD page in the notebook I was reading; but even this had missing data and strange entries!  I don’t dare show the BAD pages–wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.


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Maybe the person who wrote those notes knew exactly what they were trying to say on that day, a year ago, when they scribbled across those pages, but I had NO clue what some of the words were or what that person’s original intent was! Although this may seem silly to an outsider, it made me realize that a whole day of observations could be wasted if I take horrible, messy field notes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of fieldwork because, as you can see in the picture below, fieldwork can involve some otherworldly conditions.

Endless Snow

It’s not like working in a lab, and it can get a little messy. It’s easy to forget that at the end of the day the dataset is the most important thing. Data are the tools that scientists use to validate their findings. As a scientist, I want someone to read my notebook and extract critical information with ease. So I’ve made my goal this summer to be neat, precise, and detailed in my observations.

Wish me luck–my advisor just asked me to enter some more data!

Jun 28, 2015 - Colorado    No Comments

A Beautiful Sunset and a Curious Pika

Hey everyone, my name is Maxwell Plichta. This is my second year working on the pika team but my first blog post of the summer. The start of the season has been great, and I can already tell we have a great team. Earlier this week, I spent my first night of the season in the Tundra Lab. The Tundra Lab is a research facility that sits on Niwot Ridge at 11600 ft! Every time I spend a night at the lab, I see something new and incredible. Last year I saw my first elk, then my first sphinx moth, but this time I saw the most beautiful sunset. I’ve included a picture below. I spent the night at the lab so that I could stay up late and wake up early to observe pikas! 

Typically at dawn and dusk the pikas are super active and very fun to watch. This particular morning I woke up and observed a very curious pika who came right up to me and began nibbling on my pants. The pika also tried stealing my Camelbak to snack on later; I’d say it was a little large for him. Although the curiosity of the pika was not very good for data collection, he was very fun to observe. As a researcher I want to observe the pikas doing their natural routine when I interfere with this routine it can bias the data. In order to ensure good data, I need to make sure I am plenty far away so that I don’t attract too much pika attention. I cannot wait to spend another night in the Tundra Lab–stay tuned for that story!  You can also follow me and the rest of the 2015 University of Colorado pika crew on twitter @pikaresearch #teampika15.

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Aug 27, 2014 - Colorado    No Comments

The Breakfast Club

Our study sites at the Brainard Lakes Recreational Area are beautiful. Add a couple of moose into the picture and it’s absolutely breath taking. We have had numerous moose sightings throughout the summer. The moose love eating breakfast just as we happen to arrive at the parking lot. I was able to snap a picture driving by! I always seem to notice the same three adult males, all eating together. I would expect there to be one male accompanied by a female, possibly two. Wierd, huh! I have seen two females in the area as well. One adult and one calf. These moose sightings have become part of the Colorado pika team’s routine.

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If you have never seen a moose, it is a great experience. In the picture above, the shrubs are just shy of five feet tall. The moose is standing roughly six feet tall at shoulder height! The average weight for a male moose varies from 600 – 1000 pounds. A female moose can weigh from 500 – 700 pounds. It is incredible seeing such a big mammal, especially when you’re close to them. The moose tend to eat breakfast right by the road. I have been within 25 feet of this big guy above (of course with the comfort of my Jeep behind me). All in all if you happen to stumble into one of these guys while recreating at the Brainard Lakes area snap a picture. There will be plenty of tourists joining your photo!

~Christian Prince

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