Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Whistling Pigs of Summer

There are some fun critters that live around us that lead what appear to be pretty good lives. Chipmunks seem to just have fun scurrying about all day zipping in and out of the rocks. Otters never seem to have to take life seriously! But how can you beat the life of marmots? They roam around during the day ever so slowly eating the lush vegetation. When they tire of that, it's time to nap on a sunny rock. Then they eat some more and to finish off autumn they head underground for a seven month snooze far underneath the snow!
The Pacific Northwest is filled with prime habitat supporting large marmot populations. In fact the best areas for viewing marmots are in Washington State! The Paradise and Sunrise areas in Mount Rainier National Park are typically thick with Hoary Marmot activity. Their close cousin the Olympic Marmot can easily be viewed around Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. Yet a third species of marmot, the Yellow-bellied Marmot, lives throughout Eastern Washington! I have seen many of them at Palouse Falls State Park as well as the hills between Ellensburg and Cle Elum. It is worth noting that the Yellow-bellied Marmot is a host for the tick that carries Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Many people think that all marmots live in colonies, but this is only typically true if there is a large food source available for all of them. More often they need to disperse over a larger range and thus live more isolated with their mate. In this case the increased range means the male will not be able to guard more than one female and feed himself at the same time. They feed on the lush green vegetation of the alpine meadows (or shrub steppe in the case of the Yellow-bellied Marmot) extensively. They will often perform an entertaining form of "playful" wrestling when one feels another is moving in on their own personal stash of food! They won't hurt one another however, as a simple call from one will end the match.
All marmots have many vocalizations. A common call is the alarm call which is given anytime anything comes near a burrow. This typically would be a natural predator such as a coyote, fox, eagle, or even people in areas where marmots are not accustomed to seeing them. The alarm call is a high-pitched shrill whistle. Marmots who hear them respond by immediately looking around and returning to their burrows if they are not already at one!
I fondly remember my first encounter with a marmot in Moraine Park on the north side of Mount Rainier National Park. Visibility wasn’t more than 100 feet in the thick fog. As I hiked up through the avalanche lily filled meadows of the area a sudden loud shrill broke the peaceful silence. There through the fog I spotted a lone huge marmot standing tall and showing me why they have the nickname “Whistler”. At the same time I then saw at least five other marmots scurrying rapidly to hide under the rocks!

I’m always eager to roam high alpine meadows this summer to watch the antics of these wonderful creatures…the “Whistling Pigs of Summer”!

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