Five birders from the Red Rock Audubon Society joined Michael Prather, dedicated conservationist and enthusiastic birder, for a glimpse of the avian biodiversity in the Owens Valley region. Mike’s passion for restoring Owens Lake as a vital habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl was evident as he guided our group through an expansive array of holding ponds and marshes.
Mike’s expertise came in handy as we navigated the lakebed, which is currently part wetland ecosystem and part construction zone as efforts to restore the wetlands continue. Prior to the twentieth century, Owens Lake served as a major stopover point for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Beginning in 1913, the city of Los Angeles began to divert water from the Owens River. By 1926, Owens Lake, which was fed by the river, had dried up. Nearly a century later, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is returning some water to the region in ongoing dust mitigation and in response to pressure to restore some of the lake’s lost wetlands.
On the bright, crisp September morning, our group was not disappointed as we scoped out shorebirds and ducks at Owens Lake. Most numerous were American Avocets, which were spotted at every stop along our 30-plus mile trip around the lake. Northern Shovelers, Least Sandpipers, and Red-necked Phalaropes were also found in abundance. Gadwalls, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teals, and Northern Pintail were found scattered throughout the morning. A real treat of the day was finding two very cooperative Yellowlegs, one Greater and one Lesser, feeding together, allowing trip members ample opportunity to view and compare the species side-by-side. Other species of note spotted by our group include a Peregrine Falcon, Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks, three species of swallows, and a single Savannah Sparrow. Perhaps the most photographed species of the day was the stately Long-billed Curlew, which seemed to be feeding at every pond we visited. All told, 27 species were counted at Owens Lake by our group.
As the valley warmed and the day threatened to transform from crisp and comfortable to sweltering, our group of birders headed up to the mountains. The steep and winding road up to Horseshoe Meadows was half the adventure in itself! Birding along the road revealed Red-tailed Hawk, White-crowned Sparrows, Mountain Chickadees, and Clark’s Nutcrackers. At the Horseshoe Meadows campground and surrounding wilderness area, we spied Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Northern Harrier, Pygmy Nuthatches, many more chickadees, and Mountain Bluebirds. Although we were on our best birding behavior, we still managed to wake a sleeping Townsend’s Solitaire from its afternoon siesta. Perhaps the biggest miss of the day was the fleeting glance we had of a very gray, and very fast, accipiter species that darted through the trees in front of us. We all wanted to call it a Northern Goshawk, but none of us had the luxury of a long-enough glance to scribe it onto our lists.
For the day as a whole, our chapter members recorded 38 species, although the number of species isn’t the real story of our trip. Learning from Mike Prather about the natural history of and challenges facing Owens Lake, a designated Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, inspired our group. Marveling in the differences in birding the Eastern Sierra compared with the Las Vegas valley allowed several of us to hone our identification skills. We completed our day with a deep appreciation of the hard work that Mike does each day to help restore the Owens Lake wetlands, perhaps carrying within us a seed of inspiration to do the same for our own threatened local habitats.
By Angel Poe
All Images by Jennifer Dudek