What is it that draws me to Mono Lake? I’m not entirely sure why this hauntingly beautiful lake attracts me – perhaps it’s the fragility of the ecosystem combined with its unique geologic and cultural history. Whatever the reason, I have developed a real love affair with this 700,000-year-old lake and the surrounding basin area.
Mono Lake is an endorheic body of water — meaning it has rivers and streams that flow into it, but no outlet except for evaporation. This inland sea becomes alkaline due to this unusual phenomenon. It was not always endorheic in nature. After the last ice age, the lake water started to recede and the river that once flowed from the lake into the Owens Valley ceased to exist. There are many other endorheic lakes in the world — the Great Salt Lake in Utah, Lake Van in Turkey, Qinghai Lake in China, Lake Turkana in Kenya, Lake Eyre in Australia, and the Caspian Sea in Russia — to name a few.
The fragility of this incredibly unique ecosystem was recognized in the 1970’s. Biologists started to voice concern that water diversion from the Mono Basin to supply Los Angeles was leading to lower lake water levels and an increase in the salinity of the lake. The increase in salinity would harm the survival of the brine shrimp population, a critical food source for thousands of migratory birds. A concerned group of citizens formed the Mono Lake Committee to lobby for the protection of this naturally beautiful and environmentally-sensitive area. Through their efforts, legislation was eventually passed to protect the area.
The Mono Lake National Forest Scenic Area was created through congressional legislation in 1984. The purpose was to allow the forest service to manage this special geological, scenic and cultural area and prevent damaging water diversion to the City of Los Angeles. Unmonitored water diversion once threatened this delicate ecosystem – home to brine shrimp and a species of alkaline flies. Migratory birds can now still depend on Mono Lake as a stopover and re-fueling station, feeding on the explosive population of brine shrimp for nourishment on their long journey. Mono Lake is part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) due to its critical role in supporting migratory bird populations.
Unique geologic formations called “tufas” are prominent along much of the lakeshore. These formations were created underwater as the calcium-rich streams feeding the lake reacted with the carbonate-rich lake water. These limestone (calcium carbonate) towers give the area a majestic, magical aura. As lake waters receded with the diversion of water to Los Angeles, many of these towers were left exposed and stranded on land. Today, visitors can walk around and among these noble structures.
On our first visit to Mono Lake, we chose to explore the South Tufa area to get a look at those surreal-looking tufas – up close and personal. From the parking lot, there are numerous walking trails including a boardwalk that guide you to the shoreline through sagebrush meadows and along land-locked tufas. Interpretive signs are scattered along the trails giving information on the history of the lake, as well as describing the distinct flora and fauna. There’s also a rich native american heritage in the Mono Basin that is shared in signage both along the trails surrounding the lake, and in the natural history display at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center.
The off-shore rock formations visible from the trails are home to both California Gulls and Osprey. Mono Lake is home to the second largest California Gull rookery in the U.S. – the Great Salt Lake houses the largest rookery. They provide a safe nesting habitat against predators such as coyote. During nesting season, access to the off-shore islands and towers is restricted. For years, when water diversion in the surrounding basin led to low water levels in the lake, these nesting grounds were vulnerable to predators that could access the nests via exposed land bridges.
We have been fortunate to observe a few of the bird species that make Mono Lake their home at various times of the year – including Osprey, California Gulls, American Avocets, Wilson Phalaropes, Violet-green Swallows, and Great-horned Owls. We even saw some Snowy Egrets from a distance perched on the off-shore tufas. The biggest thrill for us was the night we were there at dusk and watched as several great-horned owls emerged from their daytime resting place on one of the lake tufas. They came close to us, and although I did not have my telephoto lens with me that night, I was able to capture some pictures. It was beautiful to watch them silently glide about the rocks and meadows.
We have visited Mono Lake often this summer, both at the South Tufa area and Navy Beach. It is especially enchanting in the early evening when the lake and surrounding meadows come alive with bird and animal activity.
On September 16, we made the trek back to Mono Lake to see the moon rising over the lake. When we got there around 6:30pm, the sun was about to set behind the great wall of the Sierras. The light was incredible!
Although I was not set up to take a serious photo of the moon (did not have my tripod with me), I did snap some shots trying to keep the camera as steady as possible. When the moon started to appear on the horizon and make it’s way up into the evening sky, it literally just took my breath away! I snapped these two shots – somewhat different because I was playing around with the white balance on the camera. Not bad for an incredible amateur who forgot her tripod!!
For more information on Mono Lake, the Mono Lake Committee maintains an excellent, informative website.
I have some shots from our visit to the Navy Beach area of Mono Lake that are equally stunning, but alas! – I’ve misplaced the flashdrive where I had those stored! Along with a lot of other photos. Hopefully, I will find it. Luckily, I had most photos backed up. But if I do not find it, there are some photos that I had not gotten around to putting on my external hard drive and I fear they may be lost forever 😦