120,000 birds on the table at Owens Lake

Participants in the sixth annual Owens Lake Spring Big Day on April 23 witnessed a stunning number of birds. In all, 114,999 birds were counted across the lake. Not only is that a new high, but that blows away the old high, recorded last April, of approximately 75,000 birds. It was the shorebirds total that really boosted these numbers: 63,524 of 20 different species. American Avocets, Least and Western sandpipers (those are Least Sandpipers on the move above in the photo by Kerry Wilcox) accounted for the majority of shorebirds. We were also interested to note a high of 15,500 Eared Grebes. Sure, results from each year’s count vary for all kinds of reasons – so it's important to look at the data over time.

“Owens Lake certainly has national, if not hemispheric, importance once again as a wildlife stopover,” said Mike Prather, count coordinator with Eastern Sierra Audubon Society. “It is Inyo County's largest wildlife location and has tremendous potential for attracting wildlife viewers in fall and spring each year. Good for all of Inyo County, but especially the southern Owens Valley.”

The Owens Lake Spring Big Day Bird Count is co-organized by Eastern Sierra Audubon and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Each year, a team of about 30 intrepid volunteers and LADWP biologists divide the lake into sections and count every single bird in one day, always the third week of April during spring migration. These numbers help support and inform our efforts in creating a Master Plan for Owens Lake, and Audubon Important Bird Area. (photo of large flock of shorebirds above by Kerry Wilcox)

Volunteers sensed the numbers were going to be big this year. The ponds were teaming with waterbirds and the shallow flood habitat and mudflats were packed with shorebirds. It was a windy morning, not unusual for Owens Valley, but spirits were high.

Recently, the Master Planning Committee met in Bishop for the Owens Lake Master Plan, a process Audubon California initiated with Eastern Sierra Audubon that has grown into a comprehensive planning effort involving many stakeholders with the main goals of conserving habitat, saving water, and controlling dust (Learn more about our work there).  Someone at the meeting asked what each groups’ motivation was to "stay at the table".  “Because 120,000 birds are on the table!” I responded.

Pete Pumphrey, President for Eastern Sierra Audubon, remarked that one pond took 2.5 hours to survey. While counting, he watched a small section of mud increase from a few shorebirds to thousands. He said the birds had just flown in and landed with their wings prostrate against the ground, utterly exhausted from battling the wind and who-knows-how-long a migratory flight.  If Owens Lake hadn’t been available, where would these birds have stopped to rest and refuel in the Mojave Desert?  Brine flies were in high demand on this day, for sure.

How does this compare to previous years?

In the event’s first year, 2008, 45,000 birds were counted. Since then, numbers have steadily increased but species diversity has decreased. This is not surprising, however, as the habitats that have been created on the lake, as a result of dust control, have matured and become more suitable for some species than others. From 1988 to 1992, PRBO Conservation Science conducted spring and fall shorebirds surveys along the Pacific Flyway. The high spring count for Owens Lake at that time was only 8,500 shorebirds. Although no flyway wide spring counts have been conducted since, if these numbers still serve as a comparison today with other sites, Owens Lake ranks in the top five spring shorebird migration sites in California.

Spring Big Day count results, total birds, 2008-2013

Spring Big Day count results, total species, 2008-2013

Owens Lake has once again proven itself to be a critical stopover in the pacific flyway, and it is important that Audubon continues its involvement in the planning process to ensure that this habitat remains available to birds each year as they move between South America and the Arctic.

Many thanks to the volunteer birders who came from all over the state, Mike Prather for coordinating volunteers, and also thanks to Debbie House and her crew of LADWP biologists.

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