What I did on my summer vacation: Trip Report from the Mono Lake Bird Chautauqua

I just got back from one of my favorite events of the year, in one of my favorite places in California- the 14th annual Mono Lake Bird Chautuaqua in Lee Vining
The Chautauqua is a 3-day festival that celebrates not only birds, but the beauty and natural history of the Mono Basin, eastern Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin. The long weekend is packed with field trips, presentations, and social events put on by people who are dedicated to protecting this important natural area and sharing its beauty with the over 400 participants who come to partake. I was looking forward to this trip for months, ever since the organizers got in touch and asked if I could lead a bug field trip. This would be my third Chautuaqua as a trip leader, and Zach’s fifth- sadly we had to miss last year’s event for crazy scheduling issues on our end. One of the wonderful things about the Chautauqua is getting to spend time with so many great people. It sounds cliched to say this, but I love getting to reconnect with old friends and make new ones- and every year it seems like we meet great new friends who I will look forward to catching up with the next year. This year was no exception.

If you’ve never been to Mono Lake, what are you waiting for? GO! NOW! I’ll wait…
The lake itself sits at the base of the eastern slope of the Sierras, just over the hill from Yosemite National Park and Tuolomne Meadows, at an elevation of almost 7000 feet. Highway 395 runs the length of the eastern Sierra, and while a few small towns dot the road, the whole area feels gloriously, luxuriously quiet and deserted after a year in Los Angeles. Mono Lake itself is formed from streams running out of the Sierras and draining into the Mono Basin. The lake has no outlet, so the water that collects has been subjected to eons of filling and evaporation cycles, concentrating salts and minerals in the water and driving the salinity levels higher than that of seawater. The lake supports an incredibly productive ecosystem, driven largely by brine shrimp and fly larvae that support migratory and breeding birds in spring, summer and autumn.

For a natural history enthusiast, Lee Vining offers spectacular scenery, clean air, and the promise of seeing lots of birds (or bugs, or whatever your pleasure) across a variety of different habitats. To the east, the sagebrush desert of the Great Basin stretches out as far as the eye can see, interrupted periodically by hills and mountains jutting up out of the landscape in dramatic fashion. To the west, the granite and metamorphic cliffs rise steeply upwards, quickly becoming snowcapped alpine peaks over 10,000 feet high- at least, in most years. California is in the 4th year of a well-publicized drought, and even after living here for a year, we were still shocked and saddened to see how dry the mountains are this year. The lack of snowpack in the Sierras is causing issues over a large part of the state as municipalities such as Los Angeles struggle to conserve what little water is available, and coming to Mono Lake is a stark reminder of just how severe this drought is. Much of Los Angeles’ water comes from the eastern Sierra, and the landscape around Lee Vining is dotted with signs warning would-be trespassers to stay off of the property, as it is now owned and controlled by the LA Water District. All Angelenos should come to Mono Lake and the Owens River Valley and witness for themselves just where their water is coming from, and what that water means to the wildlife that calls this area home.

My biggest regret of the weekend is that I forgot to get a group photo from my field trip.  The good folks who came along on my field trip Sunday morning were absolutely fantastic, and made my job as a presenter so easy.  I just wish the wind would have let up a bit so that we could have seen more butterflies, but I personally still had a great time.
I could easily spend a few thousand words extolling the virtues of Mono Lake, Lee Vining, the eastern Sierra, and of course, the Chautauqua. But I think instead I’ll put up some cellphone pictures of the long weekend, and leave you with an invitation to join the fun in 2016. Registration usually opens in the spring, and some of the programs fill up fast! Put it on your calendar!

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