Naturespeak: Nature's Ventriloquist 

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - nature's ventriloquist The American pika can be found in high mountains throughout North America.
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  • nature's ventriloquist The American pika can be found in high mountains throughout North America.

A piercing cry shot out from behind, then from the left, then right. It seemed to come from all around me and nowhere at the same time. I was surrounded. I waited, hesitantly scanning the surroundings for movement.

No, this is not the start of a horror story, but a story of a beautiful summer's day while up at Loggers Lake for an afternoon of fishing and relaxing. Loggers Lake rests in an ancient volcanic cone and is found within Whistler's Interpretive Forest.

As usual, the fish had already eaten, and I had long decided my fishing rod had some unseen defect, or perhaps a faulty lure. Either way it meant there was plenty of time for relaxing. That is when I first noticed this strange ventriloquist call. At first I assumed it was some sort of small bird, whose call was echoing off the amphitheatre-like bowl that encircles Loggers Lake.

However, the first movement to catch my eye was not from a bird, but rather from a small, grey creature perching on a boulder some six metres above us. It was in fact an American pika, Ochotona princeps.

These small mammals can be found high in the mountains throughout western North America, among boulder-strewn landscapes, and are relatives of the rabbit. The American pika lives in groups, but still maintains its own territory within the boulders.

These industrious, small herbivores are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, and spend much of their time rushing around eating and collecting plants such as grasses, sedges, fireweed and thistles, from the surrounding alpine meadows. The collected plants are laid out to dry in the sun and then piled into haystacks, sometimes several feet thick. These haystacks will then be stored for the winter. Pikas make sure to collect many types of plants, including some that are mildly poisonous, as the toxins in these plants help act as a natural preservative. The more poisonous plants stay fresh until the end of winter, at which point most of the toxins have been degraded, while the less toxic plants will be ready to eat sooner.

Pikas communicate the presence of predators by emitting a warning call, that sounds a bit like the bleat of a small goat, before they quickly scurry back to the shelter of their rocky home. The boulders not only offer pikas shelter from predators and provide habitat for their nests, but also they protect them from the cold winters. Insulated under the deep snowpack, pikas are able to survive the winters utilizing tunnels burrowed under the rocks to access their haystacks and forage for lichens and cushion plants.

Living predominantly at higher, cooler elevations, American pikas are susceptible to heat and are therefore vulnerable to the effects of global warning. They also face threats from habitat loss. At 15 to 20 centimetres long and weighing in at approximately 170 grams, with no visible tail and moderately large oval ears, American pikas are a delight to see and their bellowing chorus provides a unique soundtrack to the beautiful mountain scenery.

The eighth annual Whistler BioBlitz is planned for August 23-24. B.C.'s longest-running BioBlitz, we have a lot of new events planned for this year, including a Sunday trip to Pemberton. See www.whistlernaturalists.ca for the latest updates in the coming weeks.

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