Inyo National Forest
Mono Lake is Inyo's crown jewel when it comes to birding, one of the prize bird sanctuaries of North America. Although once seriously threatened with a shoreline that has shrunk more than a mile in recent decades, the lake is now slowly refilling. Sometime after the turn of the century, the water will reach the level at which it is targeted to stabilize.
Other parts of Inyo offer outstanding birding opportunities as well. Cavity nesting birds are featured below. Bald eagles can sometimes be seen in the Owens River Valley between the Sierras and the White Mountains. One recommended area follows the Owens River Road (east off Highway 395 just above the Crestview Rest Area north of Mammoth Lakes) about five miles to the river.
The birds of the Mono Basin offer both casual and dedicated birdwatchers a large and diverse population. Nearly 300 species of birds have been identified within the area. Some are year-round residents, others migratory visitors. For five of these migratory birds, however, Mono Lake plays a crucial role.
Of these five birds, the best known is the California Gull. Some people are surprised to find a "seagull" in this area of mountains and deserts, but the California Gull depends upon Mono Lake to offer food and safe nesting and mating areas. Each spring about 50,000 gulls (approximately 85 percent of the California breeding population) fly to Mono Lake and feed along the shoreline, and bathe and drink at the freshwater inlets. Alkali flies and brine shrimp form their main food supply. The gulls that one sees at Mono Lake early in the summer are the adults in the familiar black, white, and gray plumage. They will mate, select a nest site, and lay their eggs by mid-May. The eggs will hatch by mid-June and by late July the gray-brown fledglings will begin crossing the lake to feed on their own. By early fall, most will have migrated back to the coast. The young will not return to Mono Lake until they reach maturity in four years.
Mid-summer is heralded by the arrival of the Wilson's Phalaropes from their nesting grounds near the Canadian border. The first phalaropes to arrive are the females, sporting colorful breeding plumage. Once they have mated and laid their eggs, they begin their long migration to South America and leave their mates who incubate the eggs, raise the young, and then begin the migration. Mono Lake is one of the main stopovers for the Wilson's Phalaropes; as many as 90,000 have been counted at one time.
The Wilson's are soon joined by Red-necked Phalaropes that breed farther north, near the Arctic Circle. Their arrival, in late July, raises the number of phalaropes on Mono Lake to about 150,000. The Wilson's Phalaropes feed along the shoreline where alkali flies accumulate. Careful observation will reveal phalaropes plucking flies out of the air. Red-necked Phalaropes almost always feed in the open water and sometimes swim in tight circles, stirring up alkali fly larvae to eat. In preparation for their non-stop, 3,000-mile flight to wintering grounds in South America, they will molt, or shed old feathers, and grow new ones. The phalaropes will fatten up, sometimes more than doubling their body weight. Mono is one of the few lakes that provides the amount of food necessary for the phalaropes' distant and arduous flight south.
Visiting Mono Lake during late summer, about 3/4 of a million Eared Grebes cover the lake as far as the eye can see. Because their legs protrude from the extreme rear of their bodies, they are expert divers and swimmers, but cannot walk on land. They feed, sleep, mate, and even build floating nests, on water.
The Snowy Plover is a tiny, seldom seen shorebird that nests within one of the most inhospitable areas of the Mono Basin. The glaring alkali flats on the northeast shore of Mono Lake house about 400 Snowy Plovers from March through May. The plovers scrape out a depression in the mud and lay three camouflaged eggs. Within hours after hatching, the chicks are able to run about to feed on insects and to seek protection from predators. By August, the plovers continue their southward migration.
Habitat, or an animal's home, is the key to identifying birds because each species needs a certain type of food, shelter, water, and space for survival. The Mono Basin has four main bird habitats:
1. The Mono Lake County Park on the north shore is a marshy, streambank (riparian) habitat. Living on worms and bugs, the Common Snipe breeds and spends summers in wet meadows. They build hidden nests in the thick grass and are seldom seen, but on summer evenings one may hear the eerie sound of their courtship. A hollow ascending whistle is made by vibrating tail feathers of the male as he dives earthward from several hundred feet.
Other riparian birds include the Red-winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Killdeer, Snowy Egret, and Green-backed Heron.
2. The sagebrush scrub of the desert (the South Tufa area) offers plenty of food for insect eaters such as the Loggerhead Shrike. During the spring and summer, these birds perch on the sagebrush and wait for unsuspecting grasshoppers. They will hunt grasshoppers by ripping them apart with hooked beaks or by skewering them onto thorns for a later meal. People often mistake them for Mockingbirds. Note the black mask and heavy beak.
Other birds found in the sagebrush scrub habitat include the Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, Common Nighthawk, Magpie, Sage Sparrow, and Meadowlark.
3. A visit to the pine and aspen groves of the higher elevations will produce a whole new community of birds. One of the most obvious of these is the Clark's Nutcracker. This raucous guardian of the high country will warn wildlife of your presence with its caustic call. Similar to the Mockingbird, the Nutcracker is slightly larger. They live mostly on pine nuts but will eat insects and berries as well. This year-round resident is one of the few birds to lay eggs and raise young during the cold Sierran winters.
More birds to watch for in the pines and aspen groves include the Brown Creeper, Mountain Chickadee, Western Wood Peewee, and several species of nuthatches.
4. Mono Lake's shoreline forms a fourth habitat. Visiting shorebirds feed on insects and crustaceans that abound at the water's edge and in the mud. A common member of this group, from May to September, is the American Avocet. Their orange heads (breeding plumage), long blue legs, white bodies with black and white wings, and long, thin, upcurved bills are distinctive. They protect their nests by attacking with loud fury or by drawing invaders away with a broken wing routine. Other Mono shorebirds are the Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, and Black-necked Stilt.
Migrating from the north, many ducks, geese, and swans visit Mono Lake during the fall. Some even stay all winter. Among waterfowl, you can expect to see Ruddy Ducks, Green-winged Teal, Mallards, Canada Geese, and Tundra Swans.
With a pair of binoculars and a bird identification guide, birding in the Mono Basin can be rewarding for a few hours or for a lifetime.
Cavity Nesting Birds of Inyo
Many species of birds build nests in cavities of dead or deteriorating trees called snags. Certain species excavate their own nesting holes, some rely on natural cavities and others use holes built initially by other species. Illegal cutting of snags for firewood has caused a decline in cavity nesters. These birds play an important role in the forest by controlling destructive insects. They also add color and song to our outdoor environment. Twenty-three species of cavity nesters are known to breed on Inyo National Forest.
American Kestrel (sparrow hawk)
This is a small falcon that hunts over meadows and alpine fell-fields for small mammals and grasshoppers. It can hover motionless except for rapid wing beats before dropping silently on prey. It often perches on snag tops near forest openings. Eggs are laid in tree holes without a nest being built.
This is one of North America's smallest owls, slightly smaller than a robin. Unlike most other owls in the area, it often hunts in daylight. Since it is rarely seen, its best indication is a call of far-carrying whistled notes. Old woodpecker holes provide nesting sites.
Common (red-shafted) Flicker
The red feather shafts on the wing flash color when this woodpecker is in flight. Flickers are the most adaptable woodpecker, are found in a variety of habitats, and often feed on the ground for seeds and insects, far from trees. They often nest in large snags near open woodlands and meadows. Their name is from its call of "flicka-flicka-flicka," a familiar forest sound.
This is the most numerous woodpecker in the eastern Sierra forests. They are most often seen on dead or dying trees searching for insects, The solid white stripe on the back distinguishes the hairy from other woodpeckers except for the smaller downy woodpecker. Its call is a loud "Peek."
In contrast to other Sierran sapsuckers, this one is associated exclusively with coniferous forests. Rows of holes are drilled in tree trunks and branches by sapsuckers where they return to feed on flowing sap and attracted insects. The sexes look quite a bit different in contrast to other woodpeckers.
Swallows are known for their graceful aerial maneuvers while feeding on flying insects. The violet-green prefer open woodlands or edges of dense forests. They often use old woodpecker holes as nesting sites as well as natural cavities in rock formations, including Mono Lake's tufa formations. Like other swallows, the violet-green nest in groups. They winter south to Central America.
These active little birds are generally found in loose flocks in all forest habitats in the eastern Sierra. In spite of their small size, they are able to withstand the harsh winters at upper elevations, feeding on insects or their larvae, pupae, and eggs in foliage. In certain locations the chickadees have become quite tame. They will land on people or their packs during picnic lunches. They nest in natural or woodpecker-excavated tree cavities.
The white-breasted is the most commonly seen of the three Sierran nuthatches due to its larger size and habit of feeding close to the ground on the trunks of conifers. The red-breasted and pigmy nuthatches prefer the upper branches. Nuthatches gleam insects from bark crevices as they climb head downward, spiraling around the trunk. They also spend the winter at high elevations. Nests are built in old woodpecker holes.
Creepers are more numerous in our forests than many people realize. Although they often forage close to the ground on tree trunks, their mottled brown plumage makes them hard to see. Unlike the nuthatches that forage downward, creepers move upward while picking tiny insects out of bark crevices. Creepers often nest under loose bark or on dead or dying trees.
A prolonged and vibrant song heard in dense forest cover near water indicates the presence of this energetic little wren. They actively search for insects almost everywhere in the dense forest habitats. Nests are built in a wide variety of cavities, including woodpecker holes and nesting boxes.
Other Cavity Nesters in Inyo
Great Horned Owl
Black-backed Three-toed Woodpecker
Birds of North America, Robbins, Bruun and Zimm
Birds of the Yosemite Sierra, David Gaines
Field Guide to Western Birds, Roger Tory Peterson
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication