How to Photograph Pika

pika photography

Often overlooked by wildlife photographers seeking larger mammals to photograph, the tiny American pika has stolen the hearts of many photographers.

More often heard than seen, when you set out to find and photograph the perky pika, you will undoubtedly be charmed by the behavior and antics of this bundle of fur.

photograph pika

There are twenty-nine species of pika, with two species living in North America: the American pika and the collared pika. The remaining species are found throughout Central Asia. In this article, we will talk about the American pika.

Pikas are the smallest members of the lagomorph family, closely related to the rabbit and the hare. They are approximately 6-8 inches (17 cm) in length and weigh approximately 6 ounces (170 g).

The pika sports a coat with gray and brown fur with a lighter-colored underbelly, which can vary slightly with the seasons. This color variation provides camouflage among the rocks in their environment, often making pikas difficult to spot.

photographing pika

During the summer months, when the temperatures increase, they molt into a lighter, cooler coat. The fur color has the same variations for both sexes.

Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth

Understanding pika behavior

You’ll find that pikas run and jump very quickly, so they can be difficult to capture on camera when moving! It may take some practice to be able to find them within your frame when they’re moving at this speed.

You may notice that the soles of their feet are covered in fur marked by black pads on their toes, which help them to run safely across the rocks, even when wet and slippery.

where to find pika

When scouting for pika habitat, look for lichen; pikas are herbivores with a diet consisting of wildflowers, grasses, weeds, thistle, and lichen.

During the summer months, pikas not only eat their daily greens, but they also forage and collect food material for the winter months. Since pikas do not hibernate, they must collect and cache food during the short summer season.

They tirelessly run from their dens to the meadows and back with their stash in their mouths. They then leave the cache out in the sun to dry out to avoid mould growth. Once their food is properly dried out, they will store their cache in a ‘hay barn’.

pika photo

An individual pika can have multiple ‘hay barns’ throughout its territory.

Early spring marks the beginning of the breeding season for pikas, although they can also breed during the summer.

Approximately six weeks after birth, the young (called piklets) will be weaned from the doe and begin searching for their own home amongst the colony. They reach adult size after three months.

Although they live in colonies, pikas are solitary creatures outside of the breeding seasons.

American pika

Interestingly, the ‘whistling hare’ is a nickname for the pika; when a pika senses danger and wants to alert their mates to impending threats from a predator, it will emit an alarm call before running for cover.

Sometimes, this call is echoed by other pikas in the area. It sounds like a high-pitched “eeeh, eeeh,” and is a great behavior to try to catch on camera.

Read more: Wildlife Photography – Understanding Animal Behaviour for Better Images

Where to photograph pikas

Pikas are residents of the western mountains of North America. They are found above the tree line on the very windy alpine tundra at altitudes above 8,000 feet (2,438m).

Pika are sensitive to temperatures above 75-78°F (23-25°C) and are well adapted to this habitat, where it is considerably cooler and drier. The perfect pika homestead is in the rocky outcroppings and talus fields (slopes that are formed by rocks) next to alpine meadows.

where to see pika

These rock outcroppings create protective overhangs and dens and provide a cooler respite during the warmer mid-day temperatures. You will likely find pikas perched on top of a rock sunning themselves and looking out over their kingdom.

Unlike many of their cousins, pikas do not burrow. Instead, they use the vast networks of tunnels underneath the talus fields that provide easy escape from predation by hawks, eagles, coyotes, and weasels.

American pika

Pikas can be found in many Western states, including Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Many national parks and monuments in the Western United States, including Yellowstone, Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Lava Beds National Monument, have resident pikas.

When to photograph pikas

During the cold and snowy winter months, pikas remain in their dens under the rocks. They do not hibernate, and will instead be munching on their bounty collected over the summer months.

The more snowpack, the better, as the snow keeps the pikas warm and snug by providing insulation. As the snow begins to melt and the temperatures rise, pikas will emerge from their winter homes.

They will start to look for fresh food that has started to root. This can provide nice photo opportunities.

American pika

The pika season is short, and this is the time to start planning your pika photography outings. As the temperatures become warmer and the grasses grow, pikas will eat constantly and start their food store collection.

As the summer progresses, more varieties of vegetation become available. In many areas, July sees the blooming of wildflowers, which are greatly enjoyed by the pikas. This is my favorite time of year to photograph pikas – the wildflowers can add so much color to your shots.

summer pika photo

The pikas also collect these wildflowers, so you can get nice photographs of a pika with a bouquet of flowers in its mouth.

As fall nears, the menu becomes less varied, but you can still capture great images at this time!

When the temperature cools, and the meadows will start to offer slim pickings, pikas will retreat to their winter dens.

American pika

During the warmer spring and summer months, pikas are generally active all day, and you may well see them foraging from sunrise to sunset.

While they often take breaks to sun themselves and nap, always be prepared for the pikas to start their marathon runs collecting their stash. As pikas are sensitive to heat, they will siesta during the hours of the day that are too hot for them.

If you plan on photographing during the warmer months of summer, plan on their activity taking place during the cooler morning and evening hours. As with most wildlife photography, capturing pikas in diffused rather than harsh light is best.

In the mountainous areas where pikas live, mid-afternoon sunlight can be harsh and undesirable.

Read more: 6 Essential Camera Settings for Wildlife Photographers

Best equipment for photographing pikas

Pikas are small animals that are perfectly camouflaged with their surroundings. It is recommended to have at least a 500mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter — the more focal length, the better.

Depending on whether or not the pika is amicable to being photographed, you may be able to get tight close-ups of the pika or a pika in its habitat. I would also make sure to have a 100-400mm lens available for environmental photographs.

how to photograph pika

Pikas have been known to get close to humans; I once had a pika that liked to sit underneath my tripod and nibble on my shoes.

When pikas run back and forth to their dens and the meadows foraging for food, they are very quick. Considering their small size, it can be difficult to get and maintain focus.

Today’s mirrorless cameras are well suited to handle quick focus. If you have a heavy camera setup, a tripod may be necessary, but be mindful about where you are setting up. It may not be the best idea to balance your tripod on uneven rock or slopes, so be careful.

It is best, though, to be able to handhold. This allows you to have more flexibility as well as mobility. Always have a rain cover and lens cleaner.

Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?

Tips on composition

Pikas provide many wonderful photo opportunities. Capturing close-up photographs of pikas will create intimate photos, but it’s also worth thinking about including some of the pika’s environment, especially if there are wildflowers blossoming.

pika photography

Pika habitat can be so colorful and dynamic that it is easy to give your photographs a sense of place. Use a zoom lens to capture these types of photos.

Try to be creative when you spot a pika sitting on a rock. As the pika is perfectly camouflaged with its surroundings, I like to try and photograph them against a blue sky or the flowers where possible, and if there is snow, try a high-key look.

pika photograph

There are charming behavior shots up for grabs too, from pikas gathering flowers to running and jumping through meadows.

Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife

Personal and animal safety

It may go without saying, but if you are photographing pikas during their siesta hours, do not approach so close that they are disturbed and run from you.

Always move slowly and deliberately, and if you want to capture the pika collecting flowers, do not block their chosen path.

pika photography

These highways were created by the pikas to allow them to quickly manoeuvre between food sources and their home.

If you hear their alarm call, which sounds like an “eeeh, eeeh” call, stop what you are doing. The pikas are sensing danger and will attempt to retreat to their dens and need to find the quickest path to safety.

It’s also worth considering the pika habitat; minimize your footprint and avoid walking on the tundra. The vegetation here is slow to grow, so be mindful and use the rocks to walk on where you can.

Also, remember that you will be traveling to areas above the tree line where weather conditions are unpredictable. Even in the summer, it is possible to have all seasons in one day, so it is important that you have proper warm clothing and dress in layers.


Always have a pair of gloves and a hat handy. Also, make sure you have proper clothing to protect you from the sun, as well as sunscreen. Pikas are found at higher elevations, and you can get burned quickly if not taking precautions.

As you’re more than likely out of cell phone service, I recommend having an InReach or satellite phone in case of emergencies.

Read more: Ethics in Wildlife Photography – Code of Conduct

In conclusion

The pika is one of nature’s cutest animals to photograph. Their serious yet playful nature will leave you coming back and wanting more.

While capturing photographs of pikas can be a challenge, it is definitely worth it once you meet this furry little fellow. You will undoubtedly be mesmerized by their antics. You will be amazed at how such a small animal can burrow into your heart.

Visit Deena's website

Deena is a former Airline Captain turned wildlife photographer. She is based in Estes Park, Colorado, USA. Her focus is moose and all things bunny. Her awards and accolades include being a two-time top 25 finalist for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People’s Choice Award, Highly Honored in Nature’s Best Awards Animal Antics Category and Audubon Top 100.

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