My family spent a couple days in the Mono Lake area after visiting Yosemite National Park. The charming town of Lee Vining was our headquarters. The descent from Tioga Pass to the Mono Lake Basin is dramatic - the Mono Lake side of the mountains is much drier, resulting in mostly low scrubby sagebrush and very few large trees. Here are some of my favorite photos from the Mono Lake region.
Welcome to Lee Vining. Despite its practically microscopic size, Lee Vining offers several motels and restaurants.
California Gulls are perhaps the most well-known bird at Mono Lake. Many thousands nest on the islands of the lake. This one one was sitting on a telephone pole in downtown Lee Vining, begging for french fries from tourists.
Nearby I found this recently fledged American Robin hunkered down in a small tree in a little park in Lee Vining. Pretty ugly.
The lake is very scenic; lovely views of it can be had from the back deck of the Mono Lake visitor center, which is first-rate.
The view of the lake was much the same the next day, except for some heavy-duty rainclouds over the opposite shore.
One evening my dad and I drove to Mono Lake County Park to look for some night birds. As the sun sank below the mountaintops to the west, the sky was bathed in gentle orange, pink, purple, and blue hues. From the boardwalk near the edge of the lake we observed Black-crowned Night-Herons, Wilson's Phalaropes, displaying Wilson's Snipes, and others.
Once it had gotten almost completely dark, we took a cruise down the small road next to the park. Dad spotted a Great Horned Owl on a distant snag, but it quickly flew off. Several Common Nighthawks were sitting in the middle of the road, occasionally flying up to catch low-flying moths. I was able to get a decent photo of one in the headlights since it landed right in front of the car.
The next morning, my dad and I work early and headed out to the South Tufa area of Mono Lake. Birds were active and the warm morning light provided good photo opportunities of birds and also the tufa (NOT tofu) structures
that line the lake's edge. Tufa structures are towers or lumps of rocky sediment that are formed around soda springs in the lake (at least, that's what I think; I'm not certain I'm remembering correctly, and I am too lazy to look it up.)
I was surprised to find several Brewer's Sparrows, a life bird for me just the day before, hopping along the lake's edge and picking small flies off the rocks.
Violet-green Swallows were abundant, and many rather tame individuals were sitting on the tufa structures. Violet-greens are my favorite swallows; they are so elegant and have beautiful colors, which this photo doesn't give justice to.
I tracked down a strange call note and found a Sage Thrasher sitting atop a nearby tufa structure. I was able to get some decent photos of it after it flew back down into the brush. Another life bird.
After returning to the hotel and getting some breakfast, my family and I drove to Bodie, a preserved ghost town about thirty miles northeast of Lee Vining. Bodie, in addition to having an interesting history (at one point it was the second-largest city in California), has a few decent birds. Sage Grouse supposedly frequent the area, but I couldn't find any. I did find Brewer's Sparrows, Sage Thrashers, Vesper Sparrows, and Mountain Bluebirds.
This Boisduval's Blue I found fluttering weakly around the sagebrush near Bodie was the only butterfly I found in the Lee Vining area. It was another new one for me.
Mountain Bluebirds were common in Bodie. I found several nests in crevices of dilapidated buildings in the town. This is a male.
After touring Bodie, we returned to the Mono Lake Visitor Center so my grandparents could see it. I roamed about outside while they looked at stuff inside. I noticed a bunch of twigs stuffed in a Cliff Swallow nest tucked under the eaves, and after a couple minutes of watching, my suspicions were confirmed: at House Wren had built its nest in an old swallow nest.
A few feet away, a real swallow peered out of its nest. There were several dozen nests on the building.
Some chipping in the nearby gardens brought my attention to two Costa's Hummingbirds that seemed to be engaged in a perpetual dispute. The two finally settled down after five minutes of fighting and chasing each other around. I was able to photograph this female from only five feet away.
We then returned to South Tufa so the rest of my family could see it. Storm clouds were gathering, but the sun continued to shine, providing great effects for photography. The lighting made Mono Lake look like the Caribbean!
A brief shower sent us packing back to the motel, but the rain soon stopped. I took advantage of the dryness and struck out on foot from the motel to wander around a bit. I was downright flabbergasted to come across a three Clark's Nutcrackers eating peanuts off someone's deck just a block from downtown. I'd never gotten a good look at a nutcracker before, so I spent twenty minutes following them around the adjacent campground. Normally I think of them as preferring remote rocky cliffs, but here were three of them hopping around lawns like robins and bathing in a birdbath!
Just before I had to head back to the motel for dinner, I found some very cooperative Brewer's Blackbirds and spent a few minutes photographing them. Oddly, they were extremely responsive to pishing, which is odd for blackbirds.
I had a lot of fun birding and photographing in the Mono Lake area. There were lots of birds to see, even though it wasn't the best time to go birding around there (later in the summer thousands of phalaropes and other shorebirds visit the lake.) Hopefully I'll be back there soon.