Naturalist notes

Have you felt the joyful warmth of the high desert sun in early summer at Mono Lake? Imagine sitting by the lakeshore on a calm clear morning as the sun rises. You can hear California Gulls calling overhead, a Sage Thrasher’s lyrical aria drifts over the sagebrush and rabbitbrush, and between the low whisper drone of alkali flies at your feet you hear the gentle lapping of the tiniest waves on the shore, leftovers from last night’s wind.

The air is crisp and almost chilly before the rays of light touch your skin but as soon as the sun crests the eastern horizon of Cowtrack Mountain the golden liquid light spills across the basin toward you and all at once you feel yourself slip into warmth; your body relaxes. It is so bright you can hardly keep your eyes open, but that just heightens your other senses—you smell the delicate fragrance of the sagebrush, taste the salt in the air. You hear, perhaps farther than you thought you could, more birds—a Brewer’s Sparrow trilling, the “chee-chee” grinding calls of Violet-green Swallows who are also welcoming this warmth and the insect activity it brings.

Violet-green Swallow on tufa. Photo by Sandra Noll.

This meditation is what nestles the magic of Mono Lake deep into our souls. For minutes now, you have thought of nothing else but what you were seeing, hearing, and feeling in the moment—even when imagining it—and you have truly connected with this place. Your brain may forget this feeling over time, but your body will not.

Summer in the Mono Basin is a time of abundance. Birds are singing from all directions and gathering food to feed their young, plants are dense with flowers and leaves, and light, oh sweet summer light, abounds well into the evening. Yes, sometimes there is a bounty of biting bugs, but the plentiful gem-colored butterflies make up for it. Alkali flies and brine shrimp numbers peak in the summer—in a canoe, you glide over thick ribbons of amassed brine shrimp, Mono Lake’s internal Milky Way. The buzz of life electrifies your senses and tells you to “go, go, go!”

In this busy summertime, though, it is important to have soft and languid experiences as well—lounge by a mountain stream and listen for the White-crowned Sparrow’s song that trickles and tinkles like water flowing over a riffle in the river rocks, walk slowly along Mono Lake’s briny shore and watch the alkali flies lazily float out of your path, or take the time to trace the outline of a tufa tower with your eyes to see if there are any extra special patterns or textures. These are the moments that help us rest from the summer’s excited energy.

Summer sightings of mama black bears with cubs in tow, lanky coyotes casing the golden meadows by Black Point, and young Osprey learning to fly off their tall tufa nests never get old, never lose excitement. Great Horned Owls hide in plain sight in cottonwood trees, their feather patterns camouflaged perfectly in the gray cracked bark, maybe a fluttering green leaf obscuring one yellow eye while the other is closed in half-slumber. Phalaropes arrive in July and it is thrilling to even just anticipate how many thousands of them will grace us with their presence—ten thousand? Twenty? Even fifty? We hope for more birds so more people can witness the phenomenal aerial ballet above the glittering lake that takes your breath away.

Top photo by Andrew Youssef.