August 21 was the annual fall migration Big Day at Owens Lake. Big Days” are known in the birding world as days where we count as many individual birds as possible in one day. Our own board member Mike Prather organizes observers to assist Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) with these counts each spring and fall. This acts as a snapshot of peak migration numbers that help inform DWP’s management of the lake.
While I’ve participated in many a spring Big Day, this year I decided to join the August event as well. The shorebirds and waterfowl that migrate between our northern and southern hemispheres vary between spring and fall.
Take of example the Baird’s Sandpiper, which we saw good numbers of on August 21. Juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers use the interior pacific flyway as a secondary route as they head south from nesting grounds to South America, stopping at Owens Lake to refuel. Seeing a Baird’s Sandpiper during the Owens Lake Bird Festival in April would be a rare event, but in August or September the odds are in your favor.
There are also rarities that pop up every fall. This year it was a Long-tailed Jaeger in an otherwise birdless area at the southern end of the lake. Jaegers spend most of their lives on the wing at sea coming for a brief period of time to the high arctic to breed each summer. Other more common birds we saw on this year’s count include Long-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated, Spotted, Least and Western Sandpipers, Phalaropes, American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts as well as Peregrine Falcon and a variety of songbirds in vegetated areas.
Because it is outside of dust mitigation season, Owens Lake in the autumn is a drier place with DWP distributing limited water to key locations for the birds. Because of this amazing numbers cluster in smaller areas of the lake and can be easier to track down than the spring season. Many cells (ponds) on the lake become very briny and display magnificent colors of tans, reds and oranges in a variety of patterns. Often the autumn months provide calm days perfect for casting reflections of the Inyo and Sierra Mountain ranges on the smooth water.