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Mono Lake, Eastern California Brine Lake
Birding Around Las Vegas, Favorite Places Far Away
Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
South Tufa area seen from Highway 120 (view N).

Overview

Perhaps better known for the tufa towers and western water wars, this salty lake along the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range provides habitat for billions of alkali flies and brine shrimp. The flies and shrimp, in turn, are food for many thousands of grebes, ducks, gulls, shorebirds, and other species, some 300 species and millions of individuals in all.

Each spring, about 50,000 California Gulls breed on the big island in the lake, and about 400 endangered Snowy Plovers nest on the alkali flats on the northeast shore. In mid-summer, thousands of Wilson's Phalaropes and Red-necked Phalaropes stop during the migration south to fatten up; and in the fall, nearly two million Eared Grebes join the food feast. Ducks, geese, and Tundra Swans also stop over during migration.

Link to Map.

Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
Boardwalk trail to the edge of the lake (view north).

Description

Mono Lake is set in a picturesque valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California. Like many of the lakes east of the Sierras, Mono Lake sits in an enclosed basin with no natural outflows, and as a result, the water is salty. Springs in the lakebed are marked by tufa towers, which are a calcium-carbonate precipitate resulting from mixing calcium-rich spring water with carbonate-rich lake water. As water levels have declined, some tufa towers were exposed. Bird rest and nest on the tufa towers. There is also a large island in the lake that ground-nesting birds (especially the California Gull) use for nesting.

Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
Birding the tufa towers (view northeast).

Because the water is salty, there is no riparian fringe on the lake except where streams flow in. There is a stream at the County Park on the northwest side of the lake with cottonwoods, willows, and other trees and shrubs, and there is a bit of a marsh where the stream flows into the lake. Otherwise, the lake edge is barren or has a few salt-tolerant shrubs. Above the lake, the dominant plant in this high-elevation desert is sagebrush, and there are pines in the mountains surrounding the lake.

The South Tufa Towers State Reserve, located on the southwest side of the lake, protects one of the largest collections of tufa towers. A self-guided nature trail runs down through the sagebrush scrub (sagebrush with lots of greasewood, saltbush, and rabbitbrush) to the edge of the lake. The shrubs along the trail make good birding for landbirds (e.g., Rock Wrens, Sage Thrasher, Loggerhead Shrike, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, Common Nighthawk, Black-billed Magpie, Sage Sparrow, and Western Meadowlark).

Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
Many grebes and phalaropes on the water
(sorry, they don't show in the photo)

The lake and tufa towers can be covered with waterbirds (phalaropes, grebes, gulls, waterfowl, and a few predators like Peregrine Falcon and Osprey). The shoreline is a good place to look for shorebirds (American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet, and Black-necked Stilt). During migration, Ruddy Ducks, Green-winged Teal, Mallards, Canada Geese, and Tundra Swans can be common.

The Mono Lake County Park, located on the northwest side of the lake, has an easy trail and boardwalk that runs down through cottonwoods and willows to a marsh at the edge of the lake (with more tufa towers). From the end of the boardwalk, you can see phalaropes, waterfowl, and grebes feeding in the water, and shorebirds feeding on the little delta at the edge of the lake. The cottonwoods and grassy areas in the park, proper, also make for good birding (watch for flycatchers, tanagers, and warblers). Wilson's Snipe breed in the wet meadows, and Red-Winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Killdeer, Snowy Egret, and Green Heron are common.

Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
Birds catching brine flies. The flies try to move away from the birds.

Location

Mono Lake is located east of Highway 395, just east of Lee Vining, California.

The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center is located about 0.25 miles north of Lee Vining on the east side of the road. Watch for signs on the highway.

The Mono Lake County Park is located about five miles north of Lee Vining, just off Highway 395. Turn east onto Cemetery Road, and follow it for 0.3 miles to the County Park. The parking area is adjacent to Cemetery Road.

Mono Lake Tufa Reserve

The South Tufa Towers State Reserve is located about 11 miles south of Lee Vining, off Highway 120. Watch for signs on Highway 395, and signs at the turnoff on Highway 120.

Hours

The lake is always open, but the main birding areas are day-use only.

Fees

South Tufa is a Federal Fee Area; adults are $3, children under 18 are free. Federal Lands Passes and Golden Age passes are valid here. The county park is free.

Mono Lake Tufa Reserve
End of the County Park boardwalk (view south).

Specialties

California Gulls, Snowy Plovers, Wilson's Phalaropes, Red-necked Phalaropes, Osprey, and Eared Grebes. Also many species of waterbirds and shorebirds; raptors.

For More Information

Visit, call, or write the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center; P.O. Box 429; Lee Vining, CA 93541; 760-647-3044. The Visitor Center has information on the geology, ecology, and human history of the area. The visitor center is located 0.25 miles north of Lee Vining.

Trip Notes

August 28, 2005

We stopped by the Mono Lake Tufa Reserve at about 1100 hrs to do a little birding on our way home from a week of backpacking in Yosemite. We saw a fair number of birds, but it was fairly quiet, although we did see two Long-tailed Jaegers (adult and juvenile) that had strayed over land during their fall migration to the Antarctic.

Clear, calm, 75 degrees. Long-tailed Jaeger (adult and juvenile), Common Raven, Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s Blackbird, California Gull, Brewer’s Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Osprey, Eared Grebe, Killdeer; sagebrush lizard, least chipmunk.

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I've been back several times since 2005, and although birding is better during migration, it is always fun to visit.

Happy birding! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 121103

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