PetaPixel Photographing the American Pika, a Tiny Indicator of Climate Change


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American Pika


Above treeline winds howl as blowing snow turns my world white. It’s six in the morning and I’ve just reached my destination at 12,500 feet, somewhere deep in the Uncompahgre Wilderness.

My trek up to this point was a grueling one, where I had to break a trail through two feet of fresh snow in the dark that only December can create. I made my way up this mountain, guided by the few tracks I could see in the snow: the familiar ghost-like prints of a red fox.

For many years now this has been how my mornings begin, where I drink as much coffee as possible while I pack up my photography gear for a big hike into the wilderness. Some mornings I would prefer to be cozy in bed, but that preference is rarely embraced. Instead, I double-check that I’ve got everything packed up and head out to find American Pika (Ochotona princeps) in their alpine homes.

Getting to the Pika’s Habitat


My work with the American Pika began as a way to bring some much-needed awareness to the species, while also satisfying my passion for seeing these tiny friends and the alpine wonderlands they call home. My work with them continues because of the aforementioned passion and a need for the year-round data collection on their behaviors and lives. Thanks to the American Pika, I spent two years learning to backcountry ski. It is a sport I’ve come to love, and it allows me to travel into extreme, high elevation biomes where pika flourish. And, thankfully, they tend to reside on low-angle slopes where avalanche risk is usually minimal.

American Pika photographer deirdre denali


As photographers, we sometimes have to learn skills that are outside our comfort zones in order to capture the images we dream about. And for me, learning to backcountry ski in the mountains was very uncomfortable! I was fine on snowshoes — lifelong snowshoer here — but I was really uneasy about skiing (so much faster than snowshoeing!) with my wildlife set-up literally strapped to my chest. But skiing makes year-round observation of these critters possible, so in order to pursue my work photographing them, I had to learn.

It’s all worth it for the moments when I break out of the treeline, spot the talus slope I’ll be calling my “office” for the day, and make my way to the snowy rock I’ve come to love that will be my gear table.

Once I’m there, set up and changed into more comfortable layers for sitting, I wait. Wildlife photographers, you know the drill: hurry to get there so you can sit and wait. As I wait, I am often simply amazed that pika do not hibernate. Instead, they build up huge piles of grasses and leaves in their talus homes that they feast on all winter long. And I do mean feast — some hay piles are nearly as big as me! Taking note from pikas, I probably should’ve packed more snacks…

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Because of the pika’s down-below-the-talus lifestyle, choosing which gear to haul up a mountain is made a little bit more complicated than just tossing your camera in a backpack and calling it good. I usually bring a camera with a 20mm lens that I set up with a remote trigger and then I capture pika running on top of the snow and talus with my 500mm lens and Nikon D850. Batteries (for 2 DSLRs, plus AA’s and AAA’s) can add a lot of weight to the gear kit in the freezing months, but my trusty Cold Case Gear West Slope Case keeps my extra batteries at 100% juiced with minimal weight. In these moments I am so grateful for small victories! Pack weight can add up really fast.

Because of the effort it takes to get to these high elevation locations, especially in winter, I try to always stick around up there as long as possible. This gives me a good opportunity to keep my eyes peeled for animals like ptarmigan, mountain goats, red fox, weasels, and other critters that live in the extreme. In the warmer months, marmots abound!

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You Hear Pikas Before You See Pikas


If you’ve spent time in pika habitats, you will know this, but you hear pika long before you spot them. Their call is a mighty squeak and a memorable one at that! American Pika are reliable in that if you hear them, you’re very likely going to be able to observe them as they’re out and about. In warm months, they are very busy, making up to 100 trips a day, gathering tundra grasses to add on to their hay piles.

If you’d like to capture the alpine magic of the American Pika, I recommend doing so in late summer, when they are making the most of the dwindling daylight and gathering up grasses with fervor. I don’t think there are many things as cute as a pika with a mouthful of wildflowers. It’s topped only by snowy pika in my book.

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After capturing images of these creatures and taking extensive notes on my observations, I begin to pack my gear up into drybags, carefully stacked up in my backpack, padded by layers of shed clothing. I always begin my ski (or hike) down with a lot of gratitude for my time spent above the clouds. It’s always magnificent and it’s always a unique experience. When I arrive back at my car, I usually scroll through some of my images on the back of my camera and smile to myself as I think how wonderful this planet is that so many different beings are able to live here.

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The alpine has become a bit of a home-away-from-home to me and the American Pika a good friend. I’m always excited to share their stories and that’s what keeps me going back up! These hamster-sized fluffballs live complex and challenging lives in some of the harshest places on earth. They’re simply incredible. And as our planet is changing, so are pika.

Pikas Appear to be Adjusting to Climate Change


In recent years, my study of this animal has brought me to some very low elevation talus fields, where shade can be found with ease and nearby water sources bring the temperatures down. These colonies of American Pika represent the amazing adaptations happening that will hopefully allow pikas to continue thriving on a planet that is not trending in their direction. American Pika have trouble surviving when temperatures exceed 78-degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s really cool to see them discovering that by moving downslope, they may actually find more relief from the heat than staying in the biome they’ve always known.

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To learn more about the American Pika, I recommend getting out to see them if you can. They can be spotted in multiple National Parks and along many hiking trails in the West. Just look for stretches of talus and wait to hear the mightiest squeaks! When you hear them, you’re sure to spot them!


Editor’s note: Despite not appearing on the federal Endangered Species List, the American pika is considered one of the symbols of the effects of climate change. According to the National Wildlife Foundation, Pikas are suffering due to rising temperatures and have disappeared from more than one-third of their previously known habitats in Oregon and Nevada. More information about the pika and its habitat can be found on nfw.org.


About the author: Deirdre Denali is a wildlife photographer who mainly focuses on capturing foxes and American pika. The aim of her work is to create awareness around some of her favorite wildlife and the landscapes they call home. She cares very much about the ethics of wildlife photography and believes that a good shot is never worth bad behavior. More of her work can be found on her website and Instagram.

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