Students study two local indicator species


Pagosa Peak Open School 

We are the middle school from Pagosa Peak Open School. This spring project, we partnered with Keith Bruno from Audubon Rockies. Our focus this project was to monitor two local but different indicator species and determine how these species reflect environmental health in our local forests and streams.

So, what is an indicator species? An indicator species is a type of organism that reflects its natural environment. If it is surviving well that means that the environment is doing well, but when the environment is failing, the indicator species will leave the area until adequate resources are readily available again. In some cases, a species may never return to a given habitat. 

What makes a good indicator species? You want a species that is easy enough to observe and common to find. You will want one that is reliant on other species and its surrounding environment. Indicator species are preferably inexpensive to monitor.

On June 15, we went to Williams Creek to study the American dipper. Bruno had heard about a dipper nest nearby the dam of Williams Creek. So, we parked nearby and hiked down below the dam to the stream to investigate.

The dipper is an important indicator species, so we wanted to see where these dippers were living and how many there were. When we got near the creek, we saw many animals along the way including marmots, some ducks, a bunch of red-winged blackbirds and even a peregrine falcon. When we got to the dipper area, the class split up into two groups on both sides of the dam. One group had a better vantage point on the dipper nest. 

We saw and heard two dippers, one adult and one nestling. We only saw the adult dipper twice, since we probably had too many people around. Once, it brought food to the nest, and it jumped out to catch more food. The nest was in a cool spot, too. Normal dipper nests are near the water, but this nest was 6 inches above the top of the water and inside of a pipe. It was made of grass, mud and moss. 

Being able to see these American dippers indicates that the river is healthy and there is plenty of food for the dippers and other animals that live in and around the river as well. I’m glad we got to study them.

The other indicator species we observed were the American pika, which are most common in the mountains and specifically rocky areas. Being sensitive to summer heat and relying on winter snowpack for insulation, pikas can indicate climate change. When we looked for pika on June 19, we went under Raven’s Nest at the ski lift. We heard them and some of us had seen them by a man-made structure. The data that we observed included measuring the largest rock, the 10th largest rock and the deepest depth of the talus. We also looked at the air temperature. Because pika are present, it shows that the climate is just right for them.