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Bird Photography at Mono Lake by Marie Read

By May 9, 2014No Comments
Wilson's Phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) flock at South Tufa, Mono Lake, California, USA

Wilson’s Phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) flock at South Tufa, Mono Lake, California, USA

Story and Photographs by Marie Read

Mono Lake is one of California’s most photogenic locations, a well-known destination for landscape photographers worldwide. Bizarre rocky spires called tufa towers punctuate the waters and shoreline of this desert sea, while the snow-capped Sierra Nevada forms a spectacular backdrop to the west. The well-kept secret is that Mono Lake and its surroundings are great for bird photography as well.

Mono Lake’s alkaline, highly saline water supports no fish, but it teems with brine shrimp and alkali flies, providing food for numerous breeding birds, including California Gulls, American Avocets, and Snowy Plovers. Osprey nest atop the tufa, commuting to and from freshwater lakes nearby for fish for their young. Around the lake sagebrush scrub, pinyon-juniper, and conifer-aspen woodlands support many other birds. I’d like to share some of my favorite bird photography spots.

Lenses of any focal length are useful here.  Mine range from a 500mm f4 plus teleconverter for bird close-ups to wide angle and short zoom lenses for portraying flocks or to feature the dramatic tufa in addition to the birds. Visit in late May through July for the largest diversity of birds, although fall brings its own avian spectacle too.

The lake and tufa formations are best accessed at South Tufa, where a wooden boardwalk leads to the shore. California Gulls flying, swimming, or foraging along the shore offer many photo opportunities here. Violet-green swallows nest in crevices in the tufa, and since they see many humans they are not shy. Mornings in late spring are very active, with the swallows building nests and bickering over sites. At the eastern end of South Tufa, an osprey nest atop an offshore tufa formation can be photographed with a long lens from the shore. Sunny afternoons offer the best light, ideally with a west wind so that the osprey face into the light as they land on the nest. There are several other osprey nests to the west. Photographers may be tempted to access them by kayak, but be aware that boaters must not approach within 200 yards of an osprey nest here.

Late summer brings thousands of migrating phalaropes (mostly Wilson’s) to Mono Lake. Dense flocks rest along the shore and among the offshore tufa towers, suddenly taking flight en masse to swirl across the water. To portray the flocks flying around and over the tufa formations, I often use a handheld, lightweight zoom lens, such as a Canon 70-200mm f4 IS.

By October the breeding birds and phalaropes have been replaced by vast numbers of eared grebes that, like the phalaropes, use the lake as a migration stopover, fattening up on its bounty before continuing southward. I prefer to shoot grebe close-ups since these birds don’t form dense flocks, making it hard to portray the huge numbers satisfactorily.

At Old Marina, a low island just offshore has a California Gull nesting colony whose busy activities can be photographed from the beach. On warm summer afternoons, when alkali flies blanket the water’s edge, you may find gulls foraging in a unique and amusing manner: running through the fly swarms snapping at the insects with their bills! If you don’t mind alkaline mud on your clothes and boots, try photographing this activity from a low angle for a dramatic perspective.

For a change of pace, visit the aspen groves in Lee Vining Canyon. Campgrounds here often have tame Steller’s Jays coming for handouts and nesting western tanagers in the conifers. Northern flickers and red-breasted sapsuckers dig nest holes in aspen trunks. Mountain bluebirds, house wrens, nuthatches and swallows reuse these cavities in subsequent years. While feeding their young, these birds may tolerate approach, but pay attention to their behavior and do not keep them off their nests. Sitting quietly nearby, ideally disguising yourself with a camouflage blind (I use Kwik-camo) produces the best results.

Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), clinging to aspen trunk, Mono Lake Basin, California, USA.

Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), clinging to aspen trunk, Mono Lake Basin, California, USA.

In the aptly named Aspen Campground, the moss-covered rock wall next to a waterfall usually hosts nesting American Dippers. Watch for them perched on rocks in the turbulent creek. While photographable from the bank with a long lens, the nest site is nearly always in deep shade. I prefer to shoot here on overcast days (rare!) when contrast is lower, using electronic flash and a Better-Beamer flash extender.

Open fresh water is scarce around Mono Lake, so DeChambeau Ponds, located a short distance above Mono Lake’s north shore, are a magnet for birds. Possible subjects here include nesting American Coots and ruddy ducks (watch for broods in June), Virginia Rail, marsh wren, gadwall, northern harrier, and white-faced ibis.

The big draw here, though, is nesting yellow-headed blackbirds, whose noisy courtship antics in early-mid June are fun and challenging to photograph.

For up to date information about other bird locations, ask at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center or the Mono Lake Committee Information Center in the nearby town of Lee Vining.

Marie Read’s new book “Sierra Wings: Birds of the Mono Lake Basin” can be purchased through her website


Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) male displaying, Mono Lake Basin, California, USA Photoshot

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) male displaying, Mono Lake Basin, California, USA