In the North Cascade Mountains above the tree line, it is generally very quiet. The hushed moan of the wind is often the only sound I hear, unless spring thaws send melting snow crashing down the slopes. I don’t expect to see much in the way of living things, as it is lacking the protection and sustenance of the forests below. I think that is why it is such an unexpected and precious thing to stumble across a sun-loving marmot stretched out on a rock, or to hear the sharp warning cry of a pika.
My older brother Justin Taylor visited from Cambridge, Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago, and hauled all of his impressive camera equipment along for a lovely 8 mile loop hike up Mt. Baker Highway in the Cascades. As a result, I’ve been provided with some delightful shots of two of my favorite alpine creatures in this region: the yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris), and the American pika (Ochotona princeps).
The marmot is akin to squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, and prairie dogs, and there are some fairly obvious similarities. They have the small, whiskered snout of a squirrel, the paunch of a groundhog, and the complex interaction of colonial living, much like their prairie dog brethren.
What distinguishes them from their relatives is their habitat: marmots choose the generally inhospitable scree slopes at high elevation to make their nests, taking advantage of the cracks and crevasses that provide protection from predators. When danger looms, they let out their distinctive whistling warning cry, which alerts the colony to retreat to the burrows they have built beneath the rocky slopes. It is also the first indication to a hiker that she is in marmot country – nearly all alpine trails in the North Cascades ring with their gull-like chirps.
Male marmots also use their burrows for another purpose – to house their numerous mates. A particularly virile individual could end up being responsible for up to four females, which he then must defend from other males in his colony.
During the long alpine winter, marmots hibernate. As summer winds down, their luxurious fur coat and bushy tail do little to camouflage their autumn paunch, extra weight which prepares them for a long winter of snoozing and fasting. Their rotundity, along with their hibernation, likens them to their groundhog relatives. In 2009, the state of Alaska deemed these similarities enough to create their own, local version of Groundhog Day: Marmot Day (February 2nd) was declared a state holiday by the Alaskan State Legislature with the passing of Senate Bill 58.
Though they don’t have their own holiday, nor their own line of fashionable outdoor clothing, it is the American Pika that truly embodies the Washington mountains for me, as I had never encountered this little alpine lagomorph before I came out west. It looks a bit like a hamster-rabbit hybrid, with awkwardly cavernous ears that are curved like a lady-slipper seashell, whiskers that are nearly comical in length, and the strong rear legs and hunched back of a bunny. When sited (which is a feat unto itself, as they blend well with the browns and grays of the slopes that they inhabit) they are often toting fresh-picked mountain wildflowers in their mouths. If that alone does not charm you, the pika’s warning call might – it is similar to the sweet chirp of a house sparrow.
Pikas, unlike marmots, are awake throughout the snowy mountain winters, huddled beneath the insulative snow cover. They spend a great deal of time hoarding greens for the long months without, which is why they are often seen skittering about the rocks with flowers in tow.
For all their seemingly random collection, there might be a subtle genius to their methods. Some of the alpine flowers that they collect contain toxic compounds that make them unpalatable. However, the toxins also act as preservatives; pikas first eat the more tender greens, and then, as winter progresses, they eat the toxic plants that have stayed relatively fresh- by this time, the toxins have degraded to the point where they are safe to eat.