This post was written by Morgan, 2011 Policy Coordinator.
Early in the afternoon of 11-11-11, our friends Nancy and Ramona discovered the first Eared Grebe in town. Each fall Mono Lake harbors between 500,000 and two million Eared Grebes, which come to fatten up on brine shrimp and alkali flies before heading south to the Salton Sea and the Gulf of California for the winter. So seeing an Eared Grebe at Mono Lake is not news, but this grebe was not out on the lake, it was sitting calmly on the slick, wet pavement at Murphey’s Motel and wasn’t able to fly.
While Eared Grebes are masterful swimmers and divers, they can only take flight by building momentum across water and are unable to walk or fly once on dry land. Grebes only fly at night, and when rain pools on pavement—like it did Friday morning—the grebes become confused and will land on wet parking lots and roads, mistaking them for bodies of water. In this way grebes are often fatally injured on impact, or from drivers who assume the birds will fly away when they get close.
A call to Eastern Sierra Wildlife Care confirmed that although stunned, the grebe found at Murphey’s might be unharmed, and only in need of a helping hand back to Mono Lake. But if we released the grebe directly into the lake to try to determine if it was injured, it would be unlikely that we could catch it again. The advice was to try a test run and release the quiet but alert bird into a small, controlled body of water. Like a bathtub, we asked? Sure, that should work just fine.
We decided to release the grebe at Old Marina, the closest access point to Mono Lake from Lee Vining, and one of the sites that would be closed to the public if Mono Lake’s state park were to close. But as we pulled into the parking lot, there sitting in the parking lot was another Eared Grebe!
As Office Manager Rose Catron placed the second grebe in the box next to the first for the walk down to the shore, a familiar car pulled up next to us. Information Center & Bookstore Assistant Russ Reese had arrived with a cardboard box of his own and two more grebes picked up from the large Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center parking lot! As the three of us tromped down the short path to the lake, we wondered how the grebes would react to the cold lake water and freedom.
The grebes embraced the cold, salty water with a chorus of peeps and much fluffing of feathers. They lingered offshore for a few moments before turning and heading out to deeper waters, and lunch.
We headed back up the hill to Lee Vining with empty boxes and lighter hearts, although most likely not all of the Eared Grebes who landed on asphalt that day were as lucky as the four we found. You can learn about the Eared Grebes at Mono Lake, and other bird sighting here.