Hundreds of small shorbirds bathed in golden light, in flight, on the shore, and in the water at Mono Lake in front of tufa towers.

Birds

Mono Lake is a critical stopover site for millions of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, and the variety of surrounding ecosystems attract a wide diversity of over 300 resident and migrant songbirds, raptors, and more.

Birds are an essential indicator of ecosystem health as well as a source of inspiration for protecting and restoring habitat at Mono Lake.

California Gull high desert rookery

Mono Lake is home to one of the largest California Gull rookeries in North America with around 50,000 California Gulls nesting on the lake’s islands.

Historically, most California Gulls at Mono Lake nested on Negit Island, the black cinder cone island to the north of Paoha. In 1977, however, water diversions had lowered the lake level to a point where a landbridge emerged, connecting Negit Island with the mainland. Hungry coyotes crossed the landbridge and made easy prey of gull chicks which ultimately caused the gulls to abandon Negit.

Today the majority of California Gulls nest on the small islets neighboring Negit Island’s north shore in the summer, migrating back to the Pacific coast for winter. 

Many California Gulls hovering in flight and standing on a rocky island in Mono Lake.
Tens of thousands of California Gulls nest on Mono Lake’s islets each summer. Photo by Nora Livingston.

In the last decade, the gull colony has been faced with new and returning threats to their success including a prolonged drought which brought back the danger of coyote predation and an invasive weed  which reduced critical nesting habitat on Mono Lake’s islets. In response to these threats, the Mono Lake Committee took swift action to protect the colony—read more here. 

California Gulls have been studied at Mono Lake every year since 1983. Learn more about California Gull research.

Phalaropes’ incredible journey

Close-up shot of a phalarope, shorebird, floating on glassy waterwith a long dark bill, and rusty orange, red, brown, and white coloration..

Of all the birds that come to Mono Lake, the Wilson’s Phalarope stands out as the hardiest traveler.

Tens of thousands of these small shorebirds, not much larger than a fist, arrive at Mono Lake in mid-summer after breeding in the northern US and southern Canada (see top photo). At Mono Lake they molt their feathers and double their weight in preparation for their non-stop, three-day, 3,000 mile flight to the high elevation saline lakes of South America.

A second species of phalarope, the Red-necked Phalarope, migrates to Mono Lake along with the Wilson’s, but they migrate to the open waters of the Pacific Ocean for winter. Numbers of both species of phalaropes fluctuate greatly year to year.

Phalarope research resumed at Mono Lake in 2019 and 2020 after a long hiatus. Learn more about phalarope research.

Eared Grebes by the million

The Eared Grebe, a diving bird that spends its entire life on water, arrives at Mono Lake in greater numbers than any other species. Aerial surveys have revealed 1–2 million grebes on the lake in the fall—comprising a large portion of North America’s population.

After leaving their breeding grounds in Canada and Northern California, Mono Lake provides a tasty staging area for grebes as they feast on brine shrimp and alkali flies. The grebes double, and in some cases nearly triple their weight before departing for winter destinations like the Salton Sea and Baja California.

Eared Grebes have been studied at Mono Lake every year since 1996. Learn more about Eared Grebe research.

Dark black Eared Grebe floating on the water with it's bill open, a bright red eye, yellow-orange plumage around the eye, and a straight black crown of feathers.
Eared Grebe. Photo courtesy of Bob Steele.

Pacific Flyway

Mono Lake is a vital part of the larger bird migration picture called the Pacific Flyway.

Because large numbers of phalaropes, gulls, and grebes depend on the lake, along with approximately 100 species of other birds, Mono Lake was designated as a part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN). WHSRN is a collection of critical migratory bird habitats in North and South America.

Birds like the Wilson’s Phalarope depend on Mono Lake, as well as Great Salt Lake and a host of other lakes in South America, for their survival. Mono Lake is twinned with Great Salt Lake in Utah and Mar Chiquita in Argentina because of their combined role in providing critical habitat for Wilson’s Phalaropes.

If you explore Mono Lake’s shoreline during shorebird migration you can see the lake’s importance for migratory birds. You may see American Avocet, Western and Least Sandpipers, Snowy Plover, White-faced Ibis, Dowitcher, along with the occasional rare appearances of Whimbrel, Baird’s Sandpiper, Sabine’s Gull, Black Tern, and Parasitic Jaeger.

A Least Sandpiper, a shorebird with mottled brown and tan feathers and a short dark bill walking in foamy water at Mono Lake with some alkali flies visible.
Least Sandpipers are one of many shorebirds found at Mono Lake. Photo by Santiago M. Escruceria.

While Mono Lake supports a few breeding waterfowl, including Mallard, Gadwall, and Canada Goose, its greatest importance to waterfowl comes during their southward migration every fall.

Beginning in September, thousands of ducks, including Ruddy Duck, Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and American Wigeon, come to Mono Lake to rest and store up fat for migration. Shoreline wetlands and creek deltas provide shelter and freshwater in close proximity to the abundant food resources of Mono Lake.

Today’s thousands of ducks are a mere shadow of the estimated one million waterfowl which historically stopped at the lake each fall before excessive water diversions to Los Angeles began.

Osprey

Fish-eating Osprey nest on tufa towers in fishless Mono Lake, and commute to the freshwater lakes nearby for food. As Mono Lake’s surface level dropped due to excessive water diversions, tufa towers became exposed above the water, providing a nesting site that is safe from ground predators like racoons, skunks, and foxes.

In the mid-1980s, the first Osprey pair arrived at Mono Lake and the population has since grown to 13 pairs in 2020. These unique raptors are a treat when you visit South Tufa and walk amongst the tufa groves–you can see the nests offshore. Be careful not to get too close if kayaking or canoeing in summer during the Osprey nesting season—the Osprey are protected by state law!

Two Osprey, predominantly black and white fish eating hawks, with yellow eyes, standing on top of a tufa tower.

Songbirds and more

The Mono Basin is a refuge for millions of birds representing over 300 species, including over 118 species that nest within the watershed.

Alpine, aspen, conifer, freshwater lake, riparian, and high desert sagebrush scrub ecosystems compliment the uniqueness of Mono Lake and attract exciting and colorful birds like Green-tailed Towhee, Western Tanager, Yellow Warbler, Lazuli Bunting, Loggerhead Shrike, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and many more. From late spring into early fall is the best time to go birding in the Mono Basin to see and hear the largest number of species.

A Western Tanager, a brightly colored songbird with a red head, yellow body, and black and yellow wings, has caught an insect in its bill.
Western Tanagers are one of the most colorful birds you can see in the Mono Basin. Photo by Santiago M. Escruceria.

Where to find birds in the Mono Basin

The Mono Basin and the Eastern Sierra are full of amazing birding locations—it can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. Mono Lake County Park is our number one recommendation because it offers a variety of habitats in one location. See the resources below to find other places to bird in the Eastern Sierra, attend a free bird walk, or contact us to set up a custom birding trip with a private guide.

RELATED RESOURCES: Mono Basin eBird| Eastern Sierra Birding Trail Map

Learn More

Top photo courtesy of Marie Read.