Aspen Times Weekly: Naturalists in the Night

by Andrew Travers
The 2017 Naturalist Nights series closes in March with a talk on small mountain owls by Scott Rashid of the Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute.
Aspen Times file |

More information on the Naturalist Nights series is available at and

Anyone who has hiked with me to Crater Lake or Mount Sopris or up a fourteener has heard me spout some fun facts about pikas.

These itty-bitty mammals, whose chirping calls announce that you’ve made it into the highest of the high country amid the talus and tundra, are fascinating little creatures. They’re among the highest-living mammals on Earth, making their homes up there year-round, building underground lairs where they stay – far beneath the snow and rock – through the long winters. Those short whistling calls? They’re for mating and for warning others of danger (that’s why they pipe up when we hike by). Try not to startle them, because they’re prone to heart attacks. Global warming poses a unique threat to these guys, because they need cold alpine temperatures, can only go as high as the mountains go and can easily die from overheating.

I don’t know a ton about pikas, but I know enough to have made some good conversation on hikes over many years and enough to gain a slightly fuller understanding of the complex ecosystem of the mountains around us.

And everything I know about pikas I learned in an hour at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies during a Naturalist Nights talk several years ago.

Naturalist Nights is one of the most entertaining, most overlooked gems of wintertime in Aspen. The free talks by experts touch on a wide range of topics — some are arcane, some ripped from the headlines, some are life-changingly fascinating like that pika talk — and all of them are worth checking out if you’re interested in the natural world (and around here, who isn’t?).

The 2017 series opens with a talk by Aspen stormwater manager April Long about environmental engineering (Jan. 5 in Aspen). It continues with a talk by Snowmass Ice Age Discovery paleontologist Stephanie Lukowski revealing the latest findings from Snowmass Village’s excavation site (Jan. 11 in Carbondale, Jan. 12 in Aspen).

Presented by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Wilderness Workshop and Roaring Fork Audubon, Naturalist Nights runs through March 8. Most weeks include a Wednesday event at the Third Street Center in Carbondale and a Thursday lecture at Hallam Lake in Aspen. Talks include one titled “Welcome to Subirdia” by wildlife scientist John Marzluff (Jan. 18-19), one on climate change in the Roaring Fork Valley by Western Water Assessment’s Jeff Luckas (Jan. 25-26) and one on the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas Project by Fort Lewis College researcher Lynn Wickersham (Feb. 1-2).

Local environmental issues are a focus throughout this year’s series, with topics like balancing outdoor recreation with conservation (Feb. 8-9), energy development’s impact on wildlife (Feb. 15-16) and forest fire management (Feb. 22-23).

It closes with a talk on cutthroat trout conservation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife fisheries biologist Kendall Bakich (March 1-2) and one titled “Small Mountain Owls” by Scott Rashid of the Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute (March 7-8).

The talks are free and include cookies and tea for the audience.

“These presentations are a collaborative approach to enhancing our community’s ecological literacy,” Wilderness Workshop director Sloan Shoemaker said in the series announcement. “Best of all, it’s free and you get cookies and tea to feed your body while our speakers feed your brain.”