My semi-rustic accommodations near the western short of Mono Lake (no phone, TV, A/C, internet) were pleasant enough, save for the regular noise of heavy truck traffic on U.S. 395, just a few meters from the cabin.
I started the morning on the north side of the lake, at the county park. Very pleasant: a clear sky; shirtsleeves rolled down; save for one other photographer, I had the place to myself. A scope would have been a helpful to get a better view of the phalaropes feeding, but it wasn’t essential. In late July, the birds are almost all out of breeding plumage, so I was using field marks like bill length to separate Wilson’s from Red-neckeds. The short boardwalk trail leads straight out to the lake, with no loop. Some up-close encounters with the tufa, described by someone as a petrified spring.
As compared to the interpretive signage on the federal property on the south side of the lake, the county is more explicit about the role of the City of Los Angeles in the depletion of Mono’s water. The lake itself is not the water source; it has no outlet and is too salty for drinking. (That Mad King Ludwig calcium carbonate geology didn’t happen overnight in the 20th century.) Rather, it is the diversion of water from the Owens River and elsewhere in the watershed that is causing the lake to dry up.
Following a tip from the Westrichs’ book, I followed an unmarked section of Cemetery Road that became gravel, beyond the boneyard, to a place marked by a shack, where Yellow-headed Blackbirds once congregated. No more. But I did learn something useful: car birding in a hybrid is brilliant! I was rumbling along the gravel, slow enough that I was already in electric mode, when I saw a bird I wanted a better look at. I touched the brake, the car stopped—and everything went quiet. No idling noise, no vibration. Just quiet.
On the south side of the lake, on Forest Service land, the trail forms a loop and you can get right to the water, if you care to. (It feels a little oily, or like watery gelatine.) There are consequently a lot more people. On the plus side, the sun angle is much better for looking at the birds. One or two of the Red-necked Phalaropes bore some traces of breeding plumage. Along with the signature spinning strategy, the birds seem to herd the alkali flies up to the shoreline for easier snacking. No vertebrate life survives in the water, but along the with flies, the lake is home to an endemic brine shrimp, Artemia monica.
Undisturbed, the flies form thick clusters. But the shadow of a slow hand wave is enough to get them moving.
I left the lake, tried another birding stop that might have been great at publication time (1991), then paid a short visit to Panum Crater. The volcanoes here in the basin are dormant; it is estimated that Panum was active only 650 years ago. Shards of obsidian on the trail. I didn’t walk the entire loop of the crater rim: hot, dry, not too many other visitors, and I really couldn’t be sure that the sketchily-marked trail made the complete circuit. Ever so slowly, the veg is making a place for life in the volcano’s crater.