Owens Lake “Big Day” Bird Counts

LADWP and Eastern Sierra Audubon Society Release 2015 Owens Lake “Big Day” Bird Count Reports

Owens Lake Provides Refuge for Waterbirds during Record Drought

submitted by the LADWP

Despite record drought, participants in the 2015 Owens Lake “Big Day” Bird Counts for both Spring and Fall documented continued high bird use within the Lake’s dust control ponds. The numbers are especially encouraging given that several ponds were temporarily off-line due to the ongoing construction of Phase 7A of the Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project, including some ponds that are typically quite productive during the bird count periods.

The Owens Lake counts are hosted by the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) each year to determine how many birds visit Owens Lake and help guide LADWP staff and stakeholders in the understanding and management of bird habitat within dust control areas.

The Spring 2015 Owens Lake Big Day, held on April 22, 2015, recorded over 97,000 birds and 57 different species – numbers comparable with previous non-drought year spring counts. Some species of note found during the Spring survey include Red-breasted Merganser, a Semipalmated Sandpiper, several Franklin’s Gull, and a lone Cattle Egret..

At almost 60,000 birds, shorebirds comprised approximately 60 percent of the overall Spring total, more than have ever been recorded before during a Big Day count. Waterfowl and diving waterbirds, typically found in lower numbers in spring, totaled approximately 3,000 and 4,000 respectively.

For the Fall 2015 Count, held August 20, 2015, in the midst of one of the state’s most severe droughts on record, over 14,000 birds were seen. This is particularly impressive given that late summer is always a tough time for waterbirds in the Eastern Sierra as water resources are typically at a minimum for the year.

As a drought mitigation measure “dynamic water management” was implemented for the first time on Owens Lake. Under dynamic water management, water releases were delayed to areas identified by Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD) as not requiring a wetted surface to control dust until later in the year. In order to help offset potential impacts to wildlife due to drought and dynamic water management, LADWP released water to the lakebed in late summer. This was the first time in history that water was released on Owens Lake outside of dust mitigation periods specifically for the benefit of migrating birds.

The technique seems to have worked given that total bird numbers in August were higher than the last three years. Shorebirds were the most abundant and diverse group as 21 species and over 11,000 shorebirds were recorded. The most notable species found include a Red Phalarope and a Pectoral Sandpiper.

Although all bird species are recorded during the surveys, the populations of specific bird guilds, including shorebirds, waterfowl and diving waterbirds, are of particular interest to stakeholders. Data from Big Day surveys track trends in bird use of the Dust Control Project area, helping guide wildlife habitat management decisions while water conservation efforts are implemented at Owens Lake, and while dust control requirements continue to be met.

The data are also used to refine the Owens Lake Habitat Suitability Model. The Habitat suitability model will be used to guide management and monitor habitat availability during implementation of the Owens Lake Master Project, a long-term collaborative project with the goal of reducing the water usage for dust control while preserving habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, and diving waterbirds.

Eastern Sierra Audubon Society’s Mike Prather and LADWP Watershed Resources Specialist Debbie House organized the Spring and Fall 2015 Owens Lake Big Day surveys. Participants represented a team effort and included nine LADWP staff, local volunteers, Friends of the Inyo, and staff from Great Basin Air Pollution Control District, Inyo County Water Department, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Below are the official results for the 2015 Owens Lake Big Day Bird Counts:

Species Group

Common Name

April

August

Waterfowl

Gadwall

667

16

American Wigeon

47

Mallard

21

86

Blue-winged Teal

9

Cinnamon Teal

354

85

Northern Shoveler

1400

1230

Northern Pintail

6

8

Green-winged Teal

50

235

Unidentified Teal

350

Diving Waterbirds

Redhead

54

30

Lesser Scaup

4

Bufflehead

93

1

Common Goldeneye

1

Red-breasted Merganser

8

Ruddy Duck

2799

3

Common Loon

1

Eared Grebe

1074

20

Fish Eaters

Double-crested Cormorant

1

4

American White Pelican

1

Wading Birds

Great Blue Heron

1

Great Egret

2

Cattle Egret

1

White-faced Ibis

29

Raptors

Northern Harrier

1

Rails

American Coot

377

4

Shorebirds

Black-bellied Plover

7

Snowy Plover

41

20

Semipalmated Plover

202

24

Killdeer

50

Black-necked Stilt

161

50

American Avocet

19325

2169

Spotted Sandpiper

29

38

Greater Yellowlegs

70

53

Willet

6

3

Lesser Yellowlegs

13

27

Whimbrel

19

Long-billed Curlew

7

43

Marbled Godwit

12

1

Semipalmated Sandpiper

1

Western Sandpiper

8213

2538

Least Sandpiper

19547

3450

Baird’s Sandpiper

6

Dunlin

105

5

Calidris sp.

11091

742

Short-billed Dowitcher

4

1

Long-billed Dowitcher

82

9

Unidentified Dowitcher

37

Wilson’s Phalarope

23

842

Red-necked Phalarope

22

352

Red Phalarope

1

Gulls and Terns

Bonaparte’s Gull

13

Franklin’s Gull

2

Ring-billed Gull

8

California Gull

30043

402

Caspian Tern

1

Doves

Mourning Dove

4

Falcons

American Kestrel

1

Peregrine Falcon

6

Prairie Falcon

2

1

Passerines

Say’s Phoebe

1

Western Kingbird

7

Common Raven

16

39

Horned Lark

14

127

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

8

Barn Swallow

6

6

Marsh Wren

2

American Pipit

111

Savannah Sparrow

51

14

Red-winged Blackbird

5

20

Western Meadowlark

1

Yellow-headed Blackbird

2

Great-tailed Grackle

1

Brown-headed Cowbird

2

 owens dry lake, los angeles department of water and power, eastern sierra Audubon society