Once a hike goes above tree line, around 5,000 feet, there are three furry types of friends I always listen for, and sometimes get a chance to see.
All three are built to blend in to their surroundings, so a day dreaming hiker may pass within feet and never see them. From smallest to largest, pikas, Columbian ground squirrels, and hoary marmots thrive at alpine heights.
To see them, I must climb not only high, but to distinct areas. The ground squirrels are the most adaptable to varied terrain, but pikas require rock falls with nearby grasses, while marmots prefer wide open high meadows, peppered with occasional rocks for surveilling their surroundings.
The most comical of the three are the pikas.
They live in small colonies in rock falls, and it is most common to hear them, rather than see them. Their shrill “EEEK, EEEK” whistle when startled is clearly recognizable.
I sit still as soon as I hear the first call, watching and listening for them to whistle again. They are smaller than rabbits, though they do have endearingly similar faces and body shapes.
Their ears, however, are round and set close to the head.
While adorable, they are hard to spot. They are an easy meal for foxes and hawks if they stay exposed, so they live in rock falls. More often than not, I hear them calling back and forth and never see a one.
Unlike other high dwelling critters, pikas do not hibernate. Instead, they gather grasses to put in hideaway stashes in the rock falls.
When the snow comes in winter, pikas move through trails under the snow and between the rocks safe from predators and well fed with the “crops” they gathered.
Columbian Ground Squirrels
These little ones are ubiquitous. They hang out near trailheads and campsites, ready to grab anything that people drop.
Because they are not as showy, a light brown with flecks of lighter spots, they can get pretty close to people before being noticed sneaking up on an unattended pack.
They are quick little clowns, always on alert for predators and for fun. Often, they will settle in and watch campers set up tents. I swear they seem to watch me with a bit of a cocked head and a sly wink.
Marmots are easy to spot on warm, sunny days. They like wide open areas, often with rocks scattered about that serve them well for look outs.
They are pretty good sized at about five lbs. in weight and around 24-32 inches long, when their tales are included.
In areas where there are lots of hikers, like National Parks, they learn quickly to ignore people on the trails.
They go about their days eating, minding their kits, and reinforcing their social bonds. When two marmots greet each other, they touch noses in what is often called a kiss.
Their coloring varies, though hoary marmots are named so because there are white tips to each strand of fur, giving them a frosted look.
Their base color can range from a rich, dark brown to a bright red. Their tails are thick. An agitated marmot will flip that tail like a beacon, signaling concerns to nearby marmots.
They are insatiably curious, so it is not uncommon to find signs on Park Service building reminding people to keep doors closed. Any open space is a marmot invitation.
They also figure out pretty quickly that hiker’s packs contain goodies. Once when I sat to take in the view of a high pass, I pulled off my pack to lean against, and after a few minutes felt a tug.
The local marmot had its little paws and teeth on the back side of my pack, attempting to pop it open for a look inside. It was none to pleased when I turned around, and we had a bit of a stare down before it ambled off, grumbling as it went.
More often, marmots are busy being marmots. They are wonderful early alert systems, as they have amazing eyesight and hearing.
They watch the sky and the surrounding area for foxes, hawks, and bears. Their kits will tumble and play for hours while attentive parent marmots eat and watch, and eat some more.
When trouble is spotted, they have a loud, shrill whistle, and I always pay attention once I hear it. I’ve been able to see lots of other animals because the marmots let me know it to look around more carefully.
Marmots hibernate through the long winter, so as the summer progresses, they get thicker and thicker, building up a store of energy producing fat that will sustain them through the frigid cold until the next spring.
A marmot who has found fresh meadow flowers to eat is a happy marmot indeed.