The Cutest Animal in Yellowstone

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Nature photographers heading to Yellowstone National Park would have to be a little crazy not to think about the potential for photographing the park’s herds of bison and elk, the striking mountain vistas and waterfalls, and the extraordinary thermal features of geysers, fumaroles and mudpots.

I’m no different. I especially love to photograph Yellowstone’s charismatic megafauna. In fact, my favorite is bison as they roam Lamar and Hayden Valleys. But I also seek out the little critters as well.

Of the 67 mammal species documented in the park, the majority are the smaller ones, including such personal favorites as golden-mantled and Uinta ground squirrels, least chipmunk and yellow-bellied marmot. But the one mammal I absolutely love to watch and photograph is the pika—undoubtedly the most charming and photogenic mammal in Yellowstone.

Pika Calling 2 - Yellowstone National Park WY (c) Jim Clark

American pika, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. © Jim Clark

The size of guinea pigs, pikas are members of the rabbit and hare family. They prefer talus slopes, which are rock slides that collect on the side of a mountain slope or cliff. The myriad nooks and crannies created by these rocks of various sizes offer pikas the perfect escape cover from predators. Talus slopes can be treacherous for both photographer and equipment, so tread carefully!

Very active in the daylight hours, pikas collect grasses, wildflowers and other forbs, spreading them out in the sun to cure. These little “haystacks” can be as big as three feet in diameter and are vigorously defended. When you find a pika haystack, you are going to see pikas. Sit long enough at the edge of a talus slope and before long you’ll hear the pikas high-pitched “eee.

Pika Calling - Aug 09 - Yellowstone National Park WY (c) Jim Clark

American pika, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. © Jim Clark

To photograph pikas, my son Carson and I arrived at a talus slope in the early morning hours before the temperatures rose and the pikas warmed up enough to become active. For four straight mornings we visited this one talus slope and spent hours watching and photographing these cuties.

 

We never knew when a pika would suddenly be right beside us. They are sneaky little creatures. We would have this suspicion that something was watching us and as soon as we saw the pika and aimed our lenses, it disappeared. Eventually the pikas became accepting of us as they scurried about, sometimes just inches from our feet. All it required on our part was to move slowly, sit, watch, listen and photograph.

 

American pika collecting vegetation, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. © Jim Clark

American pika collecting vegetation, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. © Jim Clark

For Yellowstone National Park, pikas are an indicator species for detecting ecological effects of climate change. While still considered an abundant species in the overall Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, pika populations are declining in some lower elevation areas of the park.

The talus slope Carson and I visited might be one of those locations since it is situated along one of the park’s rivers. I haven’t been back for a few years, but when I return this summer, I plan to revisit our special talus slope to see how the cutest animal in Yellowstone is faring.

A past NANPA President and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim is also a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.