Pika, pika poop, Yosemite toads and thunderstorms: just another day in Tioga Country

Thunderstorm over Gaylor Lake (photo by Beth Pratt)

“Mist rising—streams falling—
snow melting—
rocks weathering
us descending.
Clark’s Nutcracker hollering
A day to be alive and wandering through.”

Gary Snyder always perfectly captures the wonderment of a day in the Sierra with his poetry. To complete the story of my amazing hike on Monday, I would just need to add a few lines about pika, pika poop, thunderstorms and Yosemite toads to the verse. 

Gaylor Lake at 11 am (photo by Beth Pratt)Gaylor Lake at 3 pm (photo by Beth Pratt)

My friend Ranger Dick, a Yosemite Ranger for over thirty years, has a saying that "weather is always better when you are outside in it." I agree. At the end of my hike, I sat comfortably under a small grove of pine trees on Gaylor Ridge and listened to the thunder reverberating across the lake, rushing and pounding the surrounding cliffs. The thunder was a physical thing, I could feel it shake and tussle with the granite. 

I wandered in the basin, looking for pika and Yosemite toads, and to my delight found both. A rocky slope near Gaylor Lake has become my almost never miss place for pika sightings--one even ran over my foot one year. Sure enough, as I approached I heard the distinctive warning chirp of the pika, and saw him dash over some rocks. I sat and watched a few of the adorable critters for some time, along with marmots and ground squirrels. And I even found some pika toilets from the winter--huge piles of poop!

Run away! First pika sighting of the year (Photo by Beth Pratt)

At lower Gaylor Lake, I listened for the trilling of the Yosemite toad, a melodious love song that signals the beginning of spring. But the low snowpack--and very dry conditions--had accelerated their annual breeding schedule and I heard only a few lonesome calls instead of the usual deafening chorus. It's not going to be a good year for the toad (and probably Sierra frogs in general) as the conditions in the Gaylor basin resemble mid-summer instead of spring. I found only one pond with egg masses and tadpoles, and many of the usual sites were dry already.

Pika poop (photo by Beth Pratt)

Yosemite toad (photo by Beth Pratt)The storm over Tenaya Peak and Tenaya Lake (photo by Beth Pratt)

Pikas Gone Wild!

Pika on rocks at Gaylor Lake (photo by Beth Pratt)Ever since I heard that cheerful chirping over fifteen years ago when I first hiked the John Muir Trail, I have been a huge fan (and advocate) of the intrepid little pika--as regular readers of this blog already know from my frequent entries about the critter.

I observe pikas occasionally during my wanderings in the Sierra, yet it's usually a quick glimpse of the animal scurrying over the rocks. It's more common to hear rather than actually see the pika, as his distinct "squeak, squeak" is unmistakable. One of the pika's nicknames is whistling hare and the term pika itself may be derived from the Russian word meaning "to squeak."

Pika in mid-squeak (photo by Beth Pratt)This has been the year of the pika for me, as the last three hikes have resulted in unprecedented encounters. While I lunched below the Dana Plateau, one little guy joined me for lunch for an hour and munched on lupine stalks while I ate my vegan chocolate chip cookie. At Townsley Lake near Vogelsang, a pika sat next to me on a rock for about five minutes and then joined his friend-they both gathered food for about 30 minutes while I sat and watched. And at Gaylor Lakes last week, four pikas frolicked on the rocks and foraged for food for an hour in close proximity.

Have pikas gone wild this year? My very unscientific theory—pikas are struggling with climate change and their numbers are dwindling in some areas. So maybe they are lonely and just happy for the company.

Whatever the reason for my witnessing some cool pika activity, below are some photos and video of my encounters. Warning-you risk cute overload by viewing!


For the more piak photos visit my galleries on the National Wildlife Federation's California Facebook page: Pikas Gone Wild!, and Playful Pika in Yosemite.

A Picnic with a Pika

Even pika stop to smell the flowers (photo by Beth Pratt)Last week I had planned to hike up to the Dana Plateau on the border of Yosemite, one of my most cherished places in the Sierra Nevada. The rock filled plateau resembles a Martian landscape and presents an ancient geologic wonderland—the high alpine basin remained untouched by the last few glaciations, and as a result offers a rare glimpse of a landscape 25 million years old.

Yet for all the beauty created by the giganticness of the sweeping plateau and its surrounding imposing granite peaks, my favorite sight amidst this landscape is a small furry creature less than eight inches long who scrambles among the rock piles largely unnoticed: the pika.

Observant hikers can encounter the American pika (ochotona princeps) in rocky terrain at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California, and New Mexico. The Dana Plateau, with a landscape dominated by talus, provides the ideal habitat for these small lagomorphs, also fondly referred to as rock rabbits, boulder bunnies, or whistling hares.

Pika peering from his rocky home (photo by Beth Pratt)

Although I observe these critters frequently on my hikes, on this excursion I encountered a very friendly pika that joined me for a picnic. Before making the final push to the plateau, I munched on my Alternative Baking Company vegan chocolate chip cookie (my preferred yummy hiking food) and soon after was joined by a very cute lunch companion.


A pika scurried on the rocks across from me with a stalk of grass and proceeded to nibble on his meal. Not shy in the least, he remained with me for an hour, dashing back and forth to gather a nice alpine salad of columbine and lupine stalks. I remained transfixed the entire time and even gave up the original goal of my hike to stay with my new companion. At the end of our picnic, he abruptly dashed over some rocks, gave his characteristic chirp, and disappeared.


Here is a short video of my picnic companion:



For me, watching the rabbit-like pika scurry over talus fields is as essential to the beauty and character of the high alpine landscape as the requisite towering peaks. Sadly, the cheerful chirping of the pika may soon disappear from the high country as the effects of climate change have already reduced their numbers. Rising temperatures have diminished the small islands of habitat for the cold-loving pikas (who can perish from overheating) and if temperatures continue to increase, even the highest elevations may no longer provide a home for the animal and the species may be threatened to the point of extinction.

Pika on a picnic (photo by Beth Pratt)

As much as I cherish the magnificent granite peaks and spectacular views of the Dana Plateau, something will be irrevocably lost from the intrinsic character of the land and from the delight of my experience if one of the smallest inhabitants of its landscape disappears and if when hiking through the talus fields I no longer hear the sunny chirping of the pika.

How can you help? Support National Wildlife Federation’s work to protect pikas and other wildlife struggling to survive climate change, habitat loss and other threats >>

For more adorable photos of my picnic with a pika, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s California Facebook page.

 My companion pika resting after stuffing himself at lunch (photo by Beth Pratt)

Pika ears are pretty cute (photo by Beth Pratt)


My Rite of Spring: Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Opening

In front of Mt Dana on Gaylor Lakes Trail, May 8, 2012For some the arrival of robins in the backyard herald the arrival of spring, for others the first wildflowers blooming, the day the winter clothes go into storage, or when we remove the chains from our cars.

Tioga Pass opening is my celebrated rite of spring and as soon as the road becomes accessible, I dash up to Yosemite’s high country and beginning my wanderings in my favorite place on earth.

Nature is notorious for her flip-flops and unpredictability. In 2011, we experienced one of the wettest winters on record in the Sierra and as such Tioga Pass opened extremely late-on June 18. Then in 2011/2012, the year without a winter arrived and the pass remained accessible until a record breaking January 17, 2012. With a snowpack at a mere 40% of normal, Tioga Pass opened on May 7, which marks its earliest opening in 25 years.

Tuolumne Meadows, May 8, 2012 (photo by Beth Pratt)Tuolumne Meadows, June 24, 2011 (photo by Beth Pratt)

My first hike after the pass opens is always Gaylor Lakes. Depending on the snowpack level, in some years I trek through deep snow, other years a landscape free of any white stuff. Snow covered most of the trail to Gaylor Lakes when I hiked it yesterday, yet it was melting fast. Usually I don’t encounter anyone on the trail so early in the season (the piles of snow at the trailhead can be daunting to most), but this year I met a wonderful couple from Carmel Valley who had snowshoed to the top—they get bonus points for being intrepid hikers!

The intrepid hikers from Carmel Valley on Gaylor Ridge (photo by Beth Pratt)

First mango margarita of the season at the Mobile Station!My Tioga Pass opening spring celebration also includes the mandatory stop at Whoa Nellie Deli to devour fish tacos while enjoying the view of Mono Lake—and that first mango margarita of the year is tasty as well! Sadly, I missed another tradition, my spring baseball conversation with Chef Toomey as he’s opened his own restaurant in Mammoth. 

Before heading up the pass, I always check out the eclectic collection of books at the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore and pick up some scrumptious pumpkin spice cake at Latte Da for the drive home. Puppy Dome is the perfect coda (and a good place to eat the pumpkin spice cake) for the first trip every year. I sit at the top and gaze at Tuolumne Meadows and all the splendid mountains I’ll be exploring over the summer.

Ah, Tuolumne! Relaxing on Puppy Dome.

“The mountains are calling and I must go,” said John Muir. Once Tioga Pass opens, I hear the call—my favorite sign of spring!


Save the Frogs Day in Yosemite & A Tour of My Backyard Frog Pond

New Pacific chorus frogs emerging from my pond (photo by Beth Pratt)I’m not sure when my passion for frogs began—as a child of the 70s I’m sure watching Kermit the Frog on the Muppet Show had something to do with my interest. My mother tells me my curiosity about frogs began at an early age. I would collect frogs in a bucket, name them all George, watch them in a special frog habitat I constructed in our backyard, then release them to their “families” at night. I don’t really know why I named them George.

A few years ago I added a backyard frog pond to my home outside Yosemite (Certified Wildlife Habitat™ of course!). Build it and they will come. Only a few weeks after I erected the pond, I encountered a western toad at dusk heading toward the water with his peculiar walk.

Now year after year in the spring, I listen to the distinct and loud “kreck-ek” of the Pacific Chorus Frogs day and night. Mary Dickerson, who authored The Frog Book in 1906, deemed the chorus frog the “entertaining little acrobat of the frog world” and described their song: “At dusk or on rainy days a loud resonant trill comes from the trees and vines. The sound has the charm of contentment in it; in fact it is much like the purring of a cat, only louder.”

And of course much to my delight I also have an annual birth of chorus frog tadpoles in my pond (I love the Honduras word for tadpole: “bunbulun”). Watching these little guys transform from egg, to tadpole, to frog each year is magical.

A Tour of My Backyard Frog Pond

Despite the success of my backyard frog sanctuary, I am extremely worried about our frog friends across the globe. As Kermit the Frog sang, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” Today, amphibians worldwide are disappearing at an unprecedented rate—over a third of all amphibians are on the verge of extinction.

How can you help? Consider making your backyard frog and wildlife friendly through the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat™ program. It’s fun and really does make a difference for frogs who are suffering from a loss of habitat in many areas.

National Wildlife Magazine also has an excellent new article about amphibian decline: Frogs Need Our Help, So Hop to It!

April 28th is the 4th annual celebration of the international Save the Frogs Day. The National Wildlife Federation is helping to sponsor two events, in Seattle and Yosemite National Park. Look for a Save the Frogs event in your area and come out and support our little green friends!