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Birds Are Rediscovering Owens Lake

Nature: Re-watering effort to reduce dust should attract some migratory species, and help others in decline.

January 21, 2002|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OLANCHA, Calif. — In 1985, Mike Prather began hearing stories about birds at dry Owens Lake.

It was strange news. A teacher in nearby Lone Pine and an avid bird-watcher, Prather had thought Owens Lake was a long-lost cause. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had stuck its mighty straw into the Owens River decades earlier and, as a result, the lake had virtually dried up by the mid-1920s.

Prather and his bird-watching buddies around the Owens Valley were intrigued. They started making regular visits to the lake, scarcely believing what they were seeing.

"People see the lake from the highway and presume it's dead," says Prather. "But on its fringes, there were still wetlands and marshes, some only postage-stamp size, and there were springs and there was some water. And there were birds. Sometimes thousands of them. This lake refused to die."

This spring, several interested parties--including Prather, environmentalists, researchers and even the DWP--will be monitoring the lake to see just how alive it is.

Since November, the DWP has been re-watering about 10 square miles of the lake bed in an attempt to reduce the dust storms that have plagued the region for years. Although the lake will remain a far cry from what it was--it once covered 110 square miles--Prather and many others believe the new water will attract migratory birds and help some species now in decline, such as the snowy plover.

"The seed is here," says Prather, standing on the lake bed on a recent day. "The algae will come back, then the flies, then the birds because of this institutional-type memory birds have that this place is here."

In the shadow of the High Sierra 190 miles north of Los Angeles, Owens Lake once drew millions of ducks, geese, gulls and other shorebirds traveling between their breeding grounds in the north and winter range in the south.

Joseph Grinnell, the famous California naturalist, described a visit to the lake in 1917 in his field notes:

"Great numbers of birds are in sight along the lake shore--avocets, phalaropes and ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance.... There must be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot."

Owens is one of a string of shallow, salty, insect-filled lakes in the deserts of the Great Basin, an area that covers most of eastern California, Nevada and Utah. Before the lake dried up, one researcher described it as a "small analog" of Utah's Great Salt Lake, which is believed to have the richest bird habitat in the nation.

But in the last century, many lakes and wetlands in the West have shrunk or undergone other changes, often for the worse, as water has been diverted for human use. Migratory bird populations have declined in concert with the drop in quality habitat over the last century.

"The people putting together these different water projects said the birds could go somewhere else, but the somewhere elses aren't there anymore," says Dave Shuford, a biologist with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory north of San Francisco. "It's unappreciated just how much was lost at places like Owens Lake. And, because we don't know just how much was lost, it's hard to defend what's left."

Important clues to what Owens Lake was once like can be found about 100 miles to the north at Mono Lake. Although not as deep as it once was because of water diversions by the DWP, millions of shorebirds, including the eared grebe, still visit Mono each year.

The attraction is the trillions of brine flies that hatch each year in Mono's waters. A small bird called the phalarope, for example, will double or triple its weight by gorging on the flies and then fly 3,000 miles nonstop to winter in South America.

The same species of brine fly is still found in the springs on Owens Lake's fringes, according to Dave Herbst, a research biologist with the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory in Mammoth Lakes. That indicates, he says, that the fly population at Owens could explode if enough algae grow on the water the DWP is now putting back into the lake.

"There's a kind of green algae sitting out there in the lake's crust," Herbst says. "This algae can sit out there like dormant seed for a fairly long time, but when they're wetted, they essentially germinate. Because of this, if we want, we can reconstruct these types of lake environments."

Herbst is quick to point out that these are big "ifs." There's no guarantee that assemblages of birds like those that once used Owens will show up again. And kick-starting the lake's basic ecology will depend largely, he says, on how often the DWP dumps water into the lake and whether the water is managed so that it reaches appropriate levels of salinity.

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