Mono Basin research ramps back up

As the world closed down in March 2020 in response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic, research groups working in the Mono Basin also packed up and went home. Though a few people were able to return later in the year for isolated work, the Mono Basin Field Station was relatively quiet throughout 2020.

Spring of 2021 brought winds of change, though, and this year the Field Station is almost completely booked for the summer. The Mono Lake Committee’s research boat is also in high demand. The Committee is glad to support eight research projects this year, a mix of long-term studies and newer research efforts.

Piecing together the paleoclimate of the Mono Basin

The Mono Basin is known as an excellent place to study geology thanks to its visible glacial evidence, volcanic activity, and ancient and modern lake level terraces. Guleed Ali, a Research Fellow with the Earth Observatory Singapore, has been investigating the fluctuations of Mono Lake’s level throughout the last ice age. His studies particularly focus on the extreme high and low levels of the lake.

Bi-State Sage Grouse monitoring

The Mono Basin is one of the primary ranges of the Bi-State Sage Grouse, a genetically distinct population of the Greater Sage Grouse. For over a decade, the US Geological Survey and Great Basin Bird Observatory have collaborated to send a group of researchers to observe and count the Bi-State Sage Grouse during their leks, or mating displays. In 2020 the early part of the breeding season observation work was cut short, though a few researchers were able to return in the fall for late-season counts. This year, the team is six members strong, and is staying at the Field Station from March to mid-August.

White-crowned Sparrow behavior

Begun in 1968, this project investigates the physiology and behavior of White-crowned Sparrows that breed in Tuolumne Meadows. Jessica Malisch, from St. Mary’s University in Maryland, and Carly Hawkins, from UC Davis, lead a group that arrives as the sparrows ascend to their alpine breeding grounds to build nests; the team plans to stay through at least fledging season in July.

Spotted Sandpipers in the Mono Basin

A new project, part of doctoral work by Jessica Schaefer from UC Davis, will study Spotted Sandpipers at Mono Lake and in surrounding areas. She will be comparing the behavior of high-elevation populations in the Mono Basin to low-elevation populations studied elsewhere.

Volcanic heat flux in Mono Lake

In late March, after deferring the trip because of coronavirus, researchers from the US Geological Survey and Southern Methodist University, with field support from Committee staff and boat, installed a sensor in the sediment of Mono Lake, near Paoha Island, to measure the heat flux at the sediment-water interface. The heat is produced by the magma system beneath the Mono Craters Volcanic Chain—previous studies using other methods have estimated it to be approximately six kilometers below the surface at Panum Crater, and this study will be the first to estimate the depth of magma beneath Mono Lake itself.

Phalarope counts

Ryan Carle from Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge will be continuing phalarope research for the third year. He’ll be using the Committee boat periodically throughout the summer to conduct counts of migrating phalaropes on Mono Lake. This work, conducted along with Dr. Margaret Rubega, is part of an international effort to understand the population health of phalaropes, which winter in South America and nest in the northern Great Plains, with an important stopover at Mono.

Osprey and Black-Crowned Night Heron banding

California State Parks will be sending a crew out on Mono Lake to band Osprey chicks for the study’s 14th year. This year, for the first time, they plan to band Black-crowned Night Heron chicks as well.

State Parks biologist Ashli Lewis with a newly banded Osprey chick. Photo courtesy of Sarinah Simons.

Intestinal microbiome of California Gulls

Amy Parsons and Scott Shaffer from San Jose State University will be working on a study to compare the microbiome of California Gulls’ digestive systems at Mono Lake to birds living in the San Francisco Bay and other California coastal locations. They will access the nesting islands with field support from Committee staff.

The number of research projects and the variety this year is exciting, especially in the wake of a year of cancellations and uncertainty. If you are a researcher looking for housing or other support for Mono Basin studies, please contact me by email or call (760) 647-6595 for information and availability.

State and Federal permits are required for many of these projects in order to touch wild birds, install instrumentation, and/or access the islands in Mono Lake, which are closed to the public from April 1 to August 1 every year to protect breeding grounds from unnecessary disturbance.

This post was also published as an article in the Summer 2021 Mono Lake Newsletter. Top photo by Bartshe Miller.