Birding the Owens Lake Big Day

Birders and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power staff gathered early on the morning of April 25 in Lone Pine in Owens Valley to get route assignments for our annual survey to count all the birds in the 110 square miles of Owens Lake. Faces are starting to look familiar now that I've participated in this wonderful event for several years – local birders, members of Eastern Sierra Audubon, Native Plant Society, Sierra Club, and a few intrepid people that show up every year from as far away as San Francisco Bay. New faces have emerged too – new employees from the Department of Fish and Game and the Native Plant Society in Owens Valley (photo of Andrea Jones by Kerry Wilcox).

Before we could start counting, LADWP spoke to us about how to drive on the dirt roads around the lake, and cautioned us to avoid Snowy Plover nests, even requiring us to sign a form that we had participated in plover training. As the lake bed is still a construction zone (a true “working landscape”), hard hats and bright green vests were distributed. Before we split up, we were even treated to a plover rap song by one LA DWP employee.

Because this year, Jane Braxton Little, a freelance writer forAudubon magazine, was joining us, the Auduboners stuck together in one group with Jane – whereas we usually split up. It was a real treat to be out in the field with Pete Pumphrey and Mike Prather from Eastern Sierra Audubon, two people I have spent hundreds of hours with in meetings working on a conservation plan for the lake, but little time actually looking together at the birds and habitat we are trying to protect.

(Dirty Socks, photo by Andrea Jones)

Our first stop was Dirty Socks, a privately owned spring on the south end of the lake, where a large flock of Gadwall and Cinnamon Teal alighted at the sound of us approaching. From within a marsh, Yellow-headed Blackbirds squawked and Savannah Sparrows warned from within their carefully guarded territories. We gave the area a quick but thorough scan, numbers and species were yelled out to Nancy Prather, our reliable data recorder, and we jumped back in the car, off to the next spot. Once on the lake proper, and within the dust control zones, we counted birds by cell  (sections of the lake marked off by levee roads) – some had few birds, some were speckled with hundreds of California Gulls and Eared Grebes. Mike would yell over the wind “you get the grebes, I’ve got the gulls.  Pete, a self-proclaimed non-birder, chuckled as we talked a different language “here’s a big flock of peeps” “Four Yellowlegs” “Eight undies” and helping Nancy, he learned the birding codes and furiously recorded our sightings.

(photo by Mike Prather)

Having never surveyed on the south end of the lake, I found it interesting to see the different habitats and birds we encountered – more Eared Grebes and other waterfowl, and fewer American Avocets – the ponds are often deeper or too saline in the southern end of the lake. One highlight of the day for me was the all the Snowy Plovers we saw. Spotting them on the beach is a piece of cake compared to this landscape! In seemingly harsh surroundings of mud encrusted with salt, the plovers were perfectly camouflaged, and would be almost unobservable was it not for the fast scurrying of their legs. Along this white and watery landscape, larger white forms appeared – and Nancy yelled out “White Pelicans.”  We watched from a distance as the pelicans arose from the lake bed, framed with the sierras in the background and turned south. On migration perhaps? Off to the Great Salt Lake?

(Long-billed Curlews, photo by Mike Prather)

We also recorded large numbers of peeps – Western and Least Sandpipers – and to me, they were exhibiting migratory restlessness – constantly wheeling around in front of us. If we came back the next day, they could easily be gone – back on their journey to breeding grounds in Alaska, after getting their fill of brine flies. No rarities were recorded by our group, but that doesn’t matter, the fact that birds have returned and are making Owens Lake part of their migratory journey is reward enough.

How you can help, right now