Visiting with Whetstone Mountain’s Pikas

An adorable young pika (Ochotona princeps) poses for the camera.

Pikas have to be the cutest animals in the Western Cascades, if not anywhere. It always makes me smile to hear their nasal “eemp” sound emanating from under the rocks of a talus slope, and it is a really special treat to actually see them. I hadn’t been to Whetstone Mountain in the Bull of the Woods Wilderness in several years, and I was looking forward to spending some time looking for pikas, as I’d seen them there in the past. Along the drive up, there were great masses of pink rhododendrons and purple Penstemon cardwellii, and this continued at the parking area and much of the trail. The moist woods were also beautiful with a great show of bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis), queen’s cup (Clintonia uniflora), and Sitka valerian (Valeriana sitchensis). The foliage covering the forest floor was quite lush with a great variety of interesting leaf shapes, but I didn’t linger too much until I got to my favorite spot—a great talus slope next to a shallow pond. This is prime pika habitat as the rocks are large and stable, and there is plenty of foliage nearby for hay-making.

These pikas are blessed with a lakeside view.

Happily, the slope was in full sunlight, so I found a relatively flat rock where I could settle down with the sun behind me and wait for some activity. It may take 10 minutes or so of quiet before pikas are willing to come out from under the rocks and see if the coast is clear again. While I waited for them, a couple of hummingbirds kept chasing each other away from the blooming salmonberry behind me. At one point, one came up and hovered right behind me. Foolishly, I took this time to enjoy my afternoon snack. Having made the long drive from my house that morning (July 15), it was already afternoon by the time I arrived.

The first pika to appear caught me off guard. I wasn’t able to put my cookie down, pull out the camera, and ready myself for a photo in the few seconds it was up. I didn’t make that mistake again. After listening to more vocalizations close by, suddenly the small pika, presumably a youngster, reappeared about 15 feet directly in front of me, and I was ready this time. I got two shots off before it went below again. Perfect! Back to waiting. It occurred to me that photographing wildlife is a lot like fishing—lots of sitting and waiting… and more waiting, hoping for something to happen. Some might consider it meditative, but I’m rarely patient enough to sit still this long. Perhaps that’s why I focus most of my attention on plants. Pretty soon, however, a pika raced across the slope below me, ducking under rocks and popping up again several times. He was followed closely by another, running in the same in-and-out, up-and-down manner. All I could do was enjoy the show—they were way too fast to photograph. Things calmed down for a while, and I contemplated returning to my botanizing. Then all of a sudden, a pika popped up not 5 feet from me. I surprised him as much as he surprised me, and he was gone just like that. Even with the camera on and ready, I never had a chance for a photo—but what a photo it would have been. Kind of like the big fish that got away.

Tiny Arctic pearlwort seems to like ground kept open by the trail.

Turning my attention back to flowers now, I poked around quite a bit by the shallow pond. This is a very interesting area, with a combination of damp soil and rocks. There were lots of pale purple Viola palustris in bloom and early flowers on Veronica wormskjoldii by the edge of the water. Several sedges and Juncus mertensianus were also blooming there. A tiny flower caught my eye in between the rocks on the trail. It was Arctic pearlwort (Sagina saginoides), a diminutive member of the pink family that I hadn’t seen here before. No doubt, I’d just missed it in the past. I’ve only started noticing pearlworts the last few years. Without the search image in your head, they are as good as invisible. This area also has several species I rarely see as they prefer growing farther north or at higher elevations than I normally frequent. Sitka clubmoss (Lycopodium sitchense) and alpine hawkweed (Hieracium gracile) only turn up in the Western Cascades in cool spots like this small pond on the north side of the ridge. Growing in the talus itself were wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata), and mountain shield fern (Dryopteris expansa). This is a good trail for ferns with lots of the uncommon oak fern (Gymnocarpium disjunctum) weaving its way through the undergrowth just before the trail reaches the pond. Along with the salmonberries, there were many other shrubs, including devil’s club, growing in the upper part of the talus, making it impossible to climb up to the base of the cliffs above to see what might be found there.

Mountain sandwort (Eremogone capillaris) make attractive grassy mats that the delicate white flowers seem to float above.

Eventually I tore myself away from the wonderful spot by the pond and started the climb up to the ridge and the summit. There were loads more rhodies blooming along the ridge, but it is otherwise fairly dry most of the way. More flowers appear closer to the summit. Finally reaching the open, rocky summit, I was pleased to see a number of butterflies hilltopping. Mostly swallowtails, the most common butterflies I’ve seen this otherwise poor butterfly year, there were also several checkerspots nectaring on their flower of choice, Oregon sunshine. There was an abundance of pretty mountain sandwort (Eremogone [Arenaria] capillaris) blooming at the top. I was surprised to see that the noticeably curved foliage of many of the plants was somewhat glaucous, while on others, it was the bright green I’m more familiar with. This was also true the following day at nearby Bull of the Woods trail, where it was equally abundant. Last year, I’d seen glaucous foliage on plants at High Rock, even farther north, so perhaps this changes along its range. Farther south, the consistently bright green foliage is one of the ways I can easily separate it from pumice sandwort (Eremogone [Arenariapumicola), which always seems to be glaucous. It just goes to show, you can’t always judge a species by the plants in a limited area.

Edith's checkerspot nectaring on Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum)

While the old lookout site at the summit is fairly small, there is quite a bit of fabulous rock habitat if you’re willing to climb around a bit. I did this several years ago and was thrilled at all the species I found. I didn’t have the time or energy for that on this trip, so I did some binocular botanizing and found some lovely pink King’s clover (Trifolium kingii) down the east slope along with sweeps of Delphinium menziesii, Castilleja hispida, and lots of the rare Eucephalus (Aster) gormanii not yet in bud. I did take the time to climb around to the north side of the cliff—just along the edge where there wasn’t a precipitous drop. There was some of my favorite Castilleja rupicola in bloom along with Saxifraga bronchialis and Valeriana scouleri. While looking closely at the saxifrages, I noticed some slightly different leaves. Sure enough, there was some of the much less common Saxifraga cespitosa still blooming—a good addition to my list. I had just seen these same four species together on the north-facing side of Youngs Rock last week. In the Western Cascades at least, they’re mostly limited to cool rocky spots like north-facing cliffs.

On the way back, I took just a little more time at the talus slope, hoping to say goodbye to the pikas. I heard one of them make one of their rapid fire calls, somewhat like squirrels do when annoyed, and saw one long enough to get one more photo from quite far away. I’d like to think they were saying goodbye, but more than likely, they were just saying good riddance and were glad to have their special place back to themselves.

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