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.

Mono Basin spring update: Birds and visitors arriving despite unsettled weather

The first days of April are bringing more California Gulls to Mono Lake and human visitors to the Mono Lake Committee Information Center & Bookstore (open seven days a week). Today is the opening day for the Scenic Area Visitor Center operated by the US Forest Service (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays).

Typical spring weather in the Mono Basin is a warm sunny day followed by a snowy one … and this spring is no exception. The first day of spring—at 65 degrees, our warmest day since November—was followed by a weekend that brought a foot of snow to Lee Vining! It was our biggest storm of the season! The cold weather on the following days kept the snow around long enough to keep the basin white–and to provide a few days of great skiing too.

Two days after a 65-degree day: a foot of snow. It was all gone a week later. Photo by Greg Reis.
Two days after a 65-degree day: a foot of snow. It was all gone a week later. Photo by Greg Reis.

All that new snow is gone now—at least below 7,000 feet—and it is melting rapidly up higher. Our high temperatures have been flirting with 60 degrees and our lows keep climbing out of the 20s. Sure enough, another storm is passing through today and tomorrow bringing high winds—another common spring phenomenon—and in the forecast are colder temperatures and a chance of snow showers. This pattern is repeated early next week when there is a chance for heavy snowfall. The long-term outlook is for continued unsettled weather. Click here for current weather conditions in Lee Vining.

As of April 1st, snow surveys show 95% of average snowpack at Mono Lake’s headwaters. Snow water content is about 100% of average at the highest elevations near the Sierra crest, but rapidly drops to about 90% of average around Gem, Saddlebag, and Ellery Lakes. The storms just didn’t make it very far into the Sierra’s rain shadow this winter—Lee Vining precipitation since October 1st is only 70% of average.

The aspen trees in Lee Vining are blooming their fuzzy flowers, and a few daffodils can be found in cultivated gardens where there was a foot of snow a week and a half ago. The inch of water that fell as snow is nourishing green plants that are pushing their way up out of the soggy ground. Here are two good wildlflower reports from around the state:

California Gulls have returned to their nesting islands at Mono Lake, and until August 1st boaters must stay at least one mile away from the islands. Osprey have been sighted returning to their tufa-top nests, and boaters must stay at least 150 yards away from these active nests (see boating information here). Butterflies have been flying through the area over the last few weeks as well. Bobcats, coyotes, and deer are active and have been seen on and near the highway. Keep track of more wildlife sightings on our Birds & Wildlife Sightings page, and register for the Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua online (registration opens April 15th for the June 19–21event).

The lake water is still green colored and the endemic Mono Lake brine shrimp, Artemia monica, has not been spotted grazing on the algae yet. The lake reached a high point for the winter season around March 25th after the last big storm—6,382.45 feet above sea level—and as of April 1st had dropped two-hundreths of a foot. This is a drop of 0.85 feet since this date last year—and snowmelt runoff during the past year was only about 65% of average. Mono Lake is at about the same elevation that it was in late September 2008. See our lake level and streamflows page for more details, or plan your visit to Mono Lake.

It is still winter up in the high country, with deep snow and hurricane-force winds on the ridgetops. Use the following links to plan your backcountry adventure:

Fishing season opens in the freshwater lakes and streams on April 25th. Right now the town of Lee Vining has not awakened from its winter slumber—Nicely’s Restaurant is still closed two days a week (food is available at the Mono Market seven days a week). But in the next three weeks leading up to fishing opener, expect a flurry of activity, with restaurants, motels, and campgrounds coming back to life. Tioga Pass to Yosemite National Park typically remains closed until the end of May, so for about two more months expect a crowd-free Mono Basin.

Most winter closures are still in effect. Conditions can change, so always check 1-800-GAS-ROAD before traveling or check our road conditions page.