Nature has returned, unexpectedly

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Teams of biologists fanned out across the vast playa of Owens Lake on Saturday to take a full accounting of one of environmentalism’s unintended successes: tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds roosting on a dust-control project.

The 100-square-mile lake just east of Sequoia National Park was transformed into dusty salt flats after 1913, when its cargo of snowmelt and spring water was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Since 2001, however, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has flooded portions of the lake bed to control choking dust pollution.

Nature quickly responded to the ankle-deep sheet of water delivered by the $500-million dust-control project’s plumbing system. First to appear on the sheen of water tinged bright green by algae were brine flies. Then came migrating birds that feed on them and peregrine falcons that feed on the birds.


This year, Audubon California designated Owens Lake one of the 17 most important bird areas in the state and a globally important wetlands in the making.

Peering through a spotting scope in the direction of a chaotic chorus of gulls and waterfowl, Michael Prather, a botanist who helped organize the lake-wide bird census, said, “We believe there are more birds at Owens Lake now than at any time since its water was diverted in 1913.”

Moments later, the birds lifted off the water in a clatter of wing beats.

“There’s a palpable tenseness among these migrating birds,” he mused. “It’s almost as though, having little time to spare, they are tapping their feet, anxious to get moving to their ultimate destinations.”

As he spoke, about 20 species of shorebirds and waders -- long-billed curlews, yellowlegs, American avocets, black-necked stilts, sandpipers, black-bellied plovers, Wilson’s phalaropes, dowagers and whimbrels -- were bulking up their fat reserves to complete a journey that would take them from wintering grounds as far south as Argentina to breeding areas in the boreal forests and shores of Alaska, Canada and the Arctic.

Owens Lake is an eerily flat, shimmering landscape, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, surrounded by spiky lava flows and banded hills between the 14,000-foot Sierra Nevada on the west and the 11,000-foot Inyo Mountains on the east.

In fall and spring, it now attracts about 50,000 birds, including roughly 500 snowy plovers, a shorebird listed as a species of special concern. Breeding on sandbars and in thatches of grass are colonies of yellow-headed blackbirds.


One team crisscrossing the white, crunchy lake bed was led by DWP biologist Debbie House and Jon Dunn, co-editor of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America.

Dunn used a spotting scope to count hundreds of birds on the far side of a spreading pond, calling out their numbers and species to House, who recorded the tallies on a clipboard.

“I’ve got 250 cinnamon teal, 40 redheads, 85 California gulls, 10 lesser scaup and two peregrine falcons hunting ducks along the shore,” he said. “There’s also 13 ring-billed gulls and a white-faced ibis.”

“Osprey!” added Tony Brake, a retired neuroscientist who volunteered for the day.

A few miles to the south, Prather’s team surveyed wildlife pecking at waterborne insects and brine shrimp in and around brackish ponds. Highlights included what Prather excitedly described as “a scopeful of Franklin’s gulls!”

Not bad birding for one Saturday morning.

Hoping to end decades of conflict with Owens Valley residents, Los Angeles has tried a variety of methods to cut air pollution, including flooding, plants and gravel. Amid drought concerns, the dust-control project, which has been dogged by cost overruns, is experimenting with a $105-million waterless process called “moat and row.” The process attempts to capture airborne dust particles in a specifically configured ridged landscape.

As it stands, each year the project uses about 60,000 acre-feet of water worth about $54 million -- enough to supply 60,000 families.


The annual bird surveys at Owens Lake, which began in 2007, aim to create a database that the DWP, environmental groups and state wildlife and lands authorities can use to develop more efficient and environmentally sensitive dust-control efforts.

By 2 p.m. Saturday, Dunn said the numbers were looking good for dozens of species.

“Excellent day; good conditions and lots of birds, even a few rarities: Lapland longspurs, Baird’s sandpipers and a Herring gull,” he said. “We’re pleased with the results.”