Naturalist notes

Winter in the Mono Basin has more dark hours than light, chillingly cold air, and a silence so profound it feels physical. It is either a time of rest, of moving slowly, of torpor to reduce the toll simply existing can take on a body in this season, or a time during which all energy goes towards survival. Bears may be hibernating, but voles are navigating under snow with very little sunlight to guide them and birds are working hard to keep their cores warm, which means letting their legs and feet get close to freezing.

Winter is brutal but also beautiful. The ice crystals that form on every blade of grass during a poconip fog are delicate, intricate art. The colors of the landscape form a palette of muted browns and greens and blues: illuminated wheat, dusky olive, burnt buckwheat red, pale sage green with hints of cornsilk, dark cyan to powder blue. The few audible sounds in the silence stick strongly to memory. Winter is a time to appreciate the subtler things.

A handful of winter sightings:

  • A Common Redpoll in Mono City—don’t be fooled by the name, this is an incredibly rare bird in the area!
  • A bobcat perfectly camouflaged in the whorl of a giant tree root observing potential prey.
  • Frozen bubbles suspended in lake ice, depicting stopped time.
  • A mountain lion slinking through the sagebrush, tail impossibly long.
  • A Fox Sparrow mingled with Dark-eyed Juncos and Pine Siskins in search of seeds in my neighbor’s yard. Could it have been the same lost Fox Sparrow as last winter?
  • A dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk perched on a tufa tower amid sagebrush, scanning the ground for snacks scurrying about.

Spring is the season of new beginnings, of fresh leaves and softening earth, of remembering what warmth feels like. Everything starts to move—insects emerge from their winter slumber, brine shrimp hatch from their cozy lake-bottom bed, grasses send up new shoots. Greater Sage Grouse strut their stuff on leks, and we eagerly await the return of migrant songbirds, who, in a few months’ time, will float their songs through the air and show us all how to begin again.

I am looking forward to Painted Lady butterflies dancing past my gaze, hearing the first Red-winged Blackbirds holler from the treetops in town, walking the Lee Vining Creek Trail as the new leaves unfurl, meditating on the rushing snowmelt as it cascades down the canyons to Mono Lake, and soaking up all the birdsong that I have so dearly missed. I love the quiet of winter, but by the time spring peeks around the corner, I am ready.

A bobcat (Lynx rufus) on the prowl. Photo courtesy of John Krueger.

This post was also published as an article in the Winter & Spring 2022 Mono Lake Newsletter. Top photo by Elin Ljung.