Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

2019 in review: The 5-Mile Radius challenge at Mono Lake

A coyote trots along the wintry shore of Mono Lake on January 1, 2019. Photo by Nora Livingston.

In 2019, I set out to dig deeper into the natural history of the Mono Basin so I can better share it with visitors and locals alike. I took on a quest called the 5-Mile Radius (5MR) challenge that focuses on getting to know the flora and fauna within five miles of my home. It is more than keeping lists of birds seen and plants found—it is a way to pay careful attention to my community. It is a way to fall in love every time I set foot outside my door. In my particular case, it is also a way to bring more of the Mono Basin to YOU!

Lustrous Copper in Lee Vining Canyon. Photo by Nora Livingston.
A bee pollinates this Missouri Iris. It emerged from the iris with pollen stuck to its legs. Photo by Nora Livingston.

Before I became the Mono Lake Committee’s first ever Lead Naturalist Guide, I had a pretty good handle on the birds of the Mono Basin, having birded the area extensively for eight years prior, and a solid understanding of the ecology of Mono Lake. I had bits and pieces of other natural history knowledge, but was by no means an expert on plants or mammals, and had barely even dipped a toe into the world of butterflies and other insects. Passion and enthusiasm for learning new things brought me to where I am today: still not an expert, but a collector of knowledge, an observer of mysteries, and a gentle guide of seeing and understanding. Each year I pick up more and more about this incredible basin that I can share. The 5MR challenge is a fun way to catalog what I find and learn.

In 2019, in my 5MR, I saw 126 species of birds, 36 species of butterflies, and over 86 species of plants. I saw a handful of mammals, few reptiles, and even fewer amphibians.

Two female Edith’s Coppers feast on a Sulphur Buckwheat. Photo by Nora Livingston.
A California Hairstreak on a dainty Yarrow plant. Photo by Nora Livingston.
A Sagebrush lizard that recently lost its tail and is growing it back. Photo by Nora Livingston.
A Sage Thrasher singing his love songs early in May. Photo by Nora Livingston.
On a day in May, I watched this Western Kingbird twist and turn in mid-air to catch a butterfly or moth. It caught it! Photo by Nora Livingston.
The same kingbird, after having eaten its hard-earned prize. Photo by Nora Livingston.

Thinking back to the year behind me, I realize that the 5MR is more than a challenge—it is a way of going about my daily life. It inspires me to look closely at everything, to slow down, and to go out with an open mind and open heart, with open eyes and ears, to find community in everything.

In 2020, I have loftier goals for my 5MR—I would like to document my observations better, using a combination of apps like eBird, iNaturalist, Yosemite Butterflies, and North California Wildflowers, and notebooks like The Naturalist’s Notebook, and I would like to reflect on my observations at the end of each season. I hope to share this with you, dear reader, here on the Mono-logue and possibly in the Mono Lake Newsletter.

When you are determined to get to know your 5MR patch, you get to witness incredible beauty, like this sunrise on Mono Lake. Photo by Nora Livingston.

If you choose to get to know your own 5-Mile Radius better, I’d love to hear about it! Observing natural history is not only a cool way to connect with the nature around you (even in urban areas), it is also a fun and healthy hobby for absolutely anyone. It helps us fall in love with our surroundings and find the capacity to care for this precious planet and to protect it. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Nora starting off 2020 at County Park. Photo by Kevin Brown.

Nora leads custom guided trips and field seminars year-round. Contact her to see where she can take you in 2020.