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Owens Lake is for the birds

September 6, 2013

American avocets in flight over the Owens Lake, the largest wildlife location in Inyo County and a critical resting point for tens of thousands of birds migrating from Canada and Alaska to as far south as the tip of South America. A guided tour on Saturday coincides with the peak of the fall migration. Photo by Gail Klett

The Owens Lake is an imposing sight. But it can be hard for the casual observer to decipher what exactly he or she is seeing.
A quick look at the nearly 100 square-mile “lake” delivers a confusing array of industrial views of wet and dry surfaces of varying colors and large sections of lakebed bisected by roads carrying trucks and heavy equipment. Quick eyes will also spot an active mining operation, a remnant of a once-vibrant mining era along the “dry lake,” which for years has been better known for its dust storms and controversy than its mineral output. 
A closer look, however, reveals intriguing stretches of green sprawling out from the brown edges of the lake, or clumps of still water and vegetation resting on the lake bed.
A long, close look is rewarded with the sight of wildlife residing in those patches of water and greenery, seemingly oblivious to what’s happening on the rest of the lake. Those scattered sanctuaries are home to thousands of birds, representing dozens of different species. The diverse and dynamic population of shorebirds and ducks is an inspiring sight on what can appear to be a drab mixture of industrial activity and natural decay and dust.
Ironically, it was the dust that brought the birds back. But first let’s focus on the birds. 
Pointing out where to find flocks of migrating birds will be longtime lake observer, activist and avid birder Mike Prather, who will lead an Owens Lake Shorebird Migration Tour on Saturday, Sept. 7. The tour is free, and should last 3-4 hours. Participants are asked to meet at 9 a.m. at the Inter Agency Visitor Center, south of Lone Pine just off U.S. 395, and carpool to the lake. Remember to bring water, a hat, snacks/lunch, sunscreen, and binoculars or a camera, if you have them. Today, Thursday, Sept. 5, Prather will give a talk about the revival of the Owens Lake as a wildlife area, and related topics, at 5:30 p.m. at the Metabolic Studio, IOU Garden, at Main and Willow streets in Lone Pine.
The talk and tour have been timed to coincide with the peak of the fall migration of shorebirds and waterfowl at Owens Lake.
Tens of thousands of birds are flying south from the far north of Canada and Alaska. They stop to refuel and rest at Owens Lake. Many of the birds making the long flight will travel as far south as Central and South America, Prather said, and some fly even deeper into South America to winter in Patagonia, or fly to the end of the continent at Tierra del Fuego.
Many species of shorebirds such as long-billed curlew, various sandpipers, snowy plover and more are typically observed, he said, noting that up to 22 species of shorebirds have been found in a single day. In addition ducks such as mallard, gadwall, cinnamon teal, northern shoveler and several diving species are found. “If we are lucky a peregrine falcon or other raptor will join us as they follow the ‘moving feast’ during the fall migration,” Prather added.
That historic, migratory “moving feast” came to a halt in the 1930s. The Owens River, which feeds the lake, was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, which eventually resulted in the stagnant lake completely drying up. About a decade ago, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began a massive effort to reduce the amount of dust coming off the lake. The dust-control work gives part of the lake an “industrial” look.
Ironically, the bird tour is partly possible because of the industrial, dust-control activity on the lake, which is also why the former “dry lake” is now half covered with shallow water and supporting a thriving bird population.
Birds and other wildlife are easily observed from the road network throughout the enormous Los Angeles Owens Lake Dust Control Project, Prather said. After a little more than 10 years this project, while controlling hazardous dust, now covers 45 square miles of the lakebed with ponds and shallow flooding. “This water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct has nourished the reappearance of the historic Owens Lake food web and bird populations,” Prather said, and made the Owens Lake the largest wildlife location in Inyo County.
The rapid increase in bird populations has captured national attention.
The Audubon Society has designated Owens Lake as an Important Bird Area of National Significance, and the lake was recently featured in Audubon magazine.
Thanks to the dust-controlling shallow flooding on the lake, preservation of springs and seeps, and other measures geared to restoring wildlife and bird habitat, the lake has become a lively stopping point for migrating birds. Prather said that this spring, bird watchers and counters tallied more than 115,000 birds on the lake during the Owens Lake Spring Big Day. Earlier this fall, the flock of bird counters on the lake for the Fall Big Day counted almost 100,000 birds.
Regardless of how many birds, or how many different species are spotted on Saturday, it’s sure to be quite a sight.

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