Naturalist notes

California Gulls fly from their nesting colony on the  islets east of Negit Island to the edges of Mono Lake to forage in the shallows and along the shoreline where flies congregate, and to bathe in the freshwater flowing in from creeks and springs. One of my favorite wildlife behaviors of all time is the rhythmic stomping dance that California Gulls do to stir up brine shrimp and alkali fly larvae in the muddy shallows of Mono Lake. They stand up straight, heads held high, wings tucked neatly, while their little webbed feet rapidly stomp away in the inch-deep water. Every few seconds they dip their head down to snatch up the morsels they’ve drummed up. I love closing my eyes and listening to the “taptap, tap-tap, tap-tap” of their slappy beat while soaking up the summer sun. It is one of the many unique sounds of a Mono Lake summer.

A male alkali fairy shrimp that hatched and grew in a freshwater ephemeral lake east of Mono Lake this spring. Photo by Nora Livingston.

This year, with a huge snowpack, fresh water abounds. Ephemeral creeks along the north, east, and south sides of the lake that are dry 95% of the time and rarely reach the lake at its low levels, are flowing—some creating small ephemeral lakes in the sagebrush that activate dry cysts of alkali fairy shrimp (Branchinecta mackini) that can be dormant for years, just waiting for a wet winter to help them hatch. These fairy shrimp are related to the endemic Mono Lake brine shrimp (Artemia monica) but they are 2–3 times as big and can’t tolerate salty water at all.

Around the less-traveled sides of the lake, Snowy Plovers have laid perfectly camouflaged eggs in scrapes in the pumice berms that mark former lake levels. The adults blend in with the beige alkali flats and hide in the shadows of depressions in the sand. When the chicks hatch, they look like fluffy speckled cotton balls with big eyes and legs too long for their bodies. These small shorebirds are so cryptic, you can scan the shoreline all the way until the heat shimmer dissolves your chances of seeing anything at all and still miss plover families who have been watching you look for them while hiding in plain sight.

After a long hard winter and a slightly delayed spring, the warmth and brightness that summer brings has an even deeper meaning to all life here in the Mono Basin. The desert peach blossoms seem pinker, the shiny new cottonwood leaves greener. The birdsong caresses the soul with more nuance—it reminds us how amazing it is to have made it through the winter, and even a single phrase of birdsong lifts the spirits enough to muster more strength for the long days ahead. Gratitude is at the forefront of our thoughts.

A few observations from late spring:

Bright orange Bullock’s Orioles weaving long strands of dry grass into a pendulum nest that will be strong enough to hold several almost-full-grown nestlings in a few weeks.

Stout wildflower stems pushing snow and soft dirt aside to reach sunlight and start their brief yet fruitful life.

Mourning cloak butterflies, as big as monarchs but chocolate brown, pale yellow, and royal blue, fluttering across the lawn at County Park and perching on logs by the creek.

A rare vagrant Painted Redstart fanning its white tailfeathers out while it sings for a mate that is likely 400 miles away.

Another rare vagrant, a White-eyed Vireo, singing a quirky song at County Park while birders flock around it.

Afternoon thunderheads building massive electron castles that threaten to douse us with more water—even after a record-breaking water year, more is welcome.

A rare White-eyed Vireo, seen at Mono Lake County Park. Photo by Nora Livingston.

This post was also published as an article in the Summer 2023 Mono Lake Newsletter. Top photo by Elin Ljung.