The evangelist of Owens Lake birds*

Eastern Sierra Audubon's Mike Prather leads a recent birding trip at Owens Lake. Photo by Andrea Jones.

To a mudflat on a great inland lake thought dead for decades, the birds came by the thousands. Observers this April were stunned to see that this particular group of Western Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers, journeying from as far away as Panama and beyond, landed in the shallow water totally exhausted, wings literally drooping. Begging the question: If not for this lake, where would these birds have gone?

It’s a question that Mike Prather, a retired school teacher and co-founder of the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society, has been asking himself about Owens Lake since the early 1980s. It was then that he first discovered small flocks of shorebirds -- sandpipers, avocets, curlews, and others -- gathering around a few seeps and springs where the storied lake had once been. In the years that followed, Prather became an evangelist for the birds at the lake that nearly everyone had written off and forgotten. Today, as conservation groups edge toward a lasting agreement that could protect the habitat that these long-distance flyers depend on, this progress is largely due to the dogged efforts of Prather to give these birds, and this lake, a second chance.

While early records of birds at Owens Lake aren’t available, we do have the notes of Joseph Grinnell, the ornithologist and naturalist who famously documented California’s flora and fauna in early 20th Century: “Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the shore – Avocets, Phalaropes and Ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance, wheeling about show en masse, now silvery now dark, against the gray-blue of the water. There must literally be thousands of birds within sight of this spot.”

Water at Owens Lake makes all the difference. Photo by Andrea Jones.

He described a lake teaming with migratory birds: “The shore shallows are thronged with water birds. Avocets predominate; I estimated one bird every four feet of shoreline, which would make 1300 per mile!”

These notes from Grinnell date from 1917, four years after the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting water from the lake, via the first Los Angeles Aqueduct, 200 miles to the south to support the growth of what would become the state’s most populous city. That diversion project is legend – we think of engineer William Mulholland saying “There it is, take it!” and, of course, the movie “Chinatown.” But the story of Owens Lake rarely includes the birds, which by 1926 when the diversions finally dried the lakebed, were largely gone.

As Grinnell put it in 1922: “The reduction of the lake cannot help but influence the annual program of various water birds which have been wont to use this body of water as a forage place for periods at migration time or during the winter.”

But were they all gone?

When Prather moved to Inyo county in 1972, and then closer to Owens in 1980, he began to hear stories of shorebirds out on the barren lakebed.

“While the main lake was dry, I learned that there were little wetlands that had formed around seeps and springs,” Prather recalls. “I began to bird these areas in the spring and fall, and found that there was a lot of use for such small areas.”

Prather found that not many people could tell you much about the birds at Owens Lake, but every so often he would encounter a hunter or outdoor aficionado. He learned a lot from these contacts.

“Nothing about birds was widely known about Owens, beyond some local knowledge,” he says. “There was no thought that there was anything of value there.”

Western Sandpipers flock over the lake. Photo by Peter Knapp.

In 1985, Prather got his first real taste of just how precarious was the existence of this bird habitat at Owens Lake. The local Lahonton Water Quality Control Board ordered three flowing artesian wells to be sealed due to perceived threats to local community water supply. The site was attracting more than 1,500 American Avocets each spring. Prather and his colleagues tried to raise an alarm, but to no avail.

“The wells were sealed in the end and that spot was lost,” he recalls. “It was horrifying, but the incident taught us that this needed to be watched.”

So Prather began collecting data. First there was a Christmas Bird Count that caught a corner of the lake and documented thousands of shorebirds, evidence that the birds were using Owens Lake in the winter. Then PRBO conducted its Pacific Flyway Project, a massive effort to take a snapshot of all the birds moving along the West Coast.

“As data began to accumulate, it became obvious that thousands of birds were migrating through Owens Lake each year,” Prather says.

This data suggested that Owens Lake was perhaps the largest inland site for Western Snowy Plovers and other shorebirds. In 2001, Prather began to work with the American Bird Conservancy and then Audubon to identify the site as an Important Bird Area – an international designation reserved for particularly special habitats for breeding, migrating and resting birds.

While the Important Bird Area designation was important, it didn’t come with any regulatory protections. Both the California State Lands Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (then called the Department of Fish and Game) had little knowledge of the birds. Prather realized that if he wanted to protect the birds, he was going to have to create some awareness of the situation outside the Owens Valley. So he took his show on the road.

“For a number of years, I just had a PowerPoint and showed it to anyone who would listen,” he says. “I think I visited every Audubon chapter in state, getting people to come for field trips.”

In the late 1990s, the issue of dust pollution blowing off the lake became a major issue, one that would have incredible ramifications for the birds. This dust was creating a major public health hazard, and regulatory agencies began to pressure the Department of Water and Power to do something about it. In 2001, the Department began applying water to 10 square miles of lake to reduce dust. That project has extended to about 40 square miles today.

“We knew from the beginning of the dust control project that it was going to bring a lot of the birds back,” Prather says.

Long-billed curlews enjoy some of the new habitat at Owens Lake. Photo by Mike Prather.

In 2006, Prather and his friends from Eastern Sierra Audubon organized a field trip to the lake for all the Owens stakeholders, including Audubon, the Department of Water of Water, the Department of Fish and Game (now called the Department of Fish and Wildlife), and others.

In 2007, Prather went to the Audubon California Assembly in Pacific Grove and pigeonholed Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of Important Bird Areas. She had only vaguely heard of Owens Lake before Prather approached her with binders full of data.

“He really convinced me that there was something important going on that we needed to deal with,” Jones recalls. “And so we started to get involved.”

Originally, that meant going to a meeting in Bishop and several field trips. Eventually, Audubon California threw its weight behind developing discussions with all the stakeholders that Prather had initially brought together. For the first time ever, all the various parties involved in the lake were talking about the birds at Owens.

“It was a good thing that Audubon California came in because it meant that this was more than just a local Audubon chapter doing this,” Prather says. “It was now a statewide priority. There was more import to it, and the other groups involved in the talks took notice.”

Initially, the focus of the discussions was simply to identify key habitats and species on the lake bed, their threats, and arrive at some water conservation strategies for them. In 2010, these discussions expanded, with the support of the Department of Water and Power, into a formal master planning process aimed at creating a long-term and enforceable agreement to reach three main goals: conserving habitat, saving water and controlling dust. Providing some level of public access to the lake is also high on the list.

It's important here to highlight the work of Pete Pumphrey, president of Eastern Sierra Audubon, who has played a critical role in these negotiations with the Department of Water and Power, as well as state agencies. A retired environmental attorney, Pumphrey has been an invaluable voice for the birds over the past four years.

The highest count of birds from the PRBO Pacific Flyway surveys was 8,500 shorebirds. But this was before the dust control project. In 2008, Eastern Sierra Audubon began holding its fall and spring Big Day events, bringing birders in from around the state to count the birds on the lake. In the event’s first year, 45,000 birds were counted.

Figure 1. Birds spotted during Owens Lake Spring Big Day 2008-2013.

The most recent event this April counted upwards of 120,000 birds on the lake, including American Avocets, Least Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, and a surprising number of Eared Grebes. And this was just a one-day count. It is possible that upwards of 500,000 birds are using the lake during migration. These totals potentially put Owens Lake among the top five shorebird spring migration spots in California.

As anyone familiar with California politics can tell you, water is complicated. And the negotiations over the future of birds at Owens Lake haven’t always been smooth. While Prather continued to bird around the lake, and tell the story of Owens to anyone who would listen, Jones walked the halls of the State Capitol and talked to the leaders of the LADWP. They, and the other partners on the conservation side of the debate, were driven by the conviction that a solution was possible at Owens Lake, one that could save birds and their habitat, while saving water and continuing to control the dust.

A Master Planning document was completed in 2012, but this wasn’t good enough for the team. The future of the birds wouldn't be secure until an agreement in place. And that is when LADWP surprised everyone by creating a visionary Master Project proposal.

"We received an advance copy of the plan, and was astonished to see birds on the cover," recalled Jones.

The LADWP is proposing to reenginner the lakebed in such a way as to make more efficient use of water without losing any of the habitat values Audubon and the other stakeholders have so carefully negotiated for. The agency also propose trails and kiosks and other local tourism and economic development opportunities at the lake. At a glance, this Master Project concept gets us what Audubon has asked for all along – a place for birds. The details are now being worked out – this includes conducting environmental impact analysis and getting construction permits, building out engineering plans, and finding the funding to complete the work. Audubon is staying focused on the goal and staying at the table and in the meantime, birds continue to stop at Owens Lake to rest and eat brine flies.

And none of this would have happened if not for the determination of Mike Prather and his colleagues at the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society, who made sure that one of the most important places for migratory birds in the Pacific Flyway was not forgotten.

*This post has been updated from its original text.

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