Owens Lake Bird Fest a success

Young Kestrel McClure uses binoculars to survey Owens Lake in search of rare migratory birds during the first annual Owens Lake Bird Festival. Photo by Mike PratherAquatic Research Biologist and Friends of the Inyo Board member Dr. Dave herbst (l) shows some visitors the food web that draws migratory birds to Owens Lake each migration season. During the Owens Lake Bird Fest, Herbst had an opportunity to share his knowledge of local wildlife with dozens of residents and visitors. Photo by Mike Prather
Special to The Inyo Register
Staff Writer

The last weekend in April, Lone Pine filled with folks wearing binoculars and carrying cameras. They were there to view thousands of birds ravenously feeding to increase their reserves for flight and flocks of other migrants undulating overhead.
Friends of the Inyo’s Owens Lake Bird Festival launched its first year in Lone Pine April 24-25 with a resounding success. Designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society in 2001, Owens Lake is the largest and richest wildlife area in Inyo County.
“Hosting the Owens Lake Bird Festival is a perfect extension of our work to inspire people to care for and preserve the exceptional beauty, recreation opportunities and natural resources of the Eastern Sierra,” said Friends of the Inyo’s Executive Director Laura Beardsley. “We’re thrilled by the success of what we expect will become a popular annual event.”
Winner of a Mindful Birding award, the Owens Lake Bird Festival honored the extraordinary location and the huge migrating flocks of birds that depend on it for rest and nourishment. It also celebrated the communities of the Southern Owens Valley and their ties, through the watershed, to Los Angeles. More than 130 people came from as far away as Florida and Rhode Island to witness the wonder of migrating birds traveling between hemispheres.
The festival kicked off Friday evening with a welcome reception at the Lone Pine Film History Museum, which included a viewing of the Audubon video, “The Legacy of Owens Lake.” Friends, old and new, mingled and talked about the field trips to take place the following day. All were excited to be able to access to the Owens Lake wildlife since much of the lake is a construction site and currently not open to the public.
Saturday began with an early breakfast followed by ten field trips led by local experts on Owens lake wildlife and the surrounding area. Eight trips went into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power dust control project where visitors saw thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl migrating north to breed. Some of these birds will nest along the Arctic Circle and some will cross the Bering Strait to nest in eastern Russia. Dr. Dave Herbst’s aquatic biology trip used nets and a microscope to delve into the food web that supports the migrating flocks. Photographers joined professional bird photographer Bob Steele to add to their skills. Other trips explored the Sierran transition zone and Cartago Springs Wildlife Area for migrating songbirds and local species.
During lunch on Saturday, participants enjoyed brief talks by local experts with varied roles and perspectives of the lake. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Jeff Nordin and Debbie House provided insight into the Owens Lake Master Project, the dust project, which plans to use less water and yet enhance and protect shorebird and waterfowl habitat. Audubon-California’s Andrea Jones discussed the Owens Lake Important Bird Area and its international importance as a habitat for migrating birds, and Dr. David Herbst of the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory fascinated the audience with his explanation of the aquatic food web as he answered the question, “Why is Owens Lake Red?”
In its first year, organizers dedicated the Owens Lake Bird Festival to Tom and Jo Heindel of Big Pine. As the premier experts on the birds of Inyo County, the Heindels knowledge and mentorship has been cherished by hundreds of local birders in Inyo County since 1972. “What a wonderful place we live in here in Inyo where wildlife and open space abound,” said Tom Heindel. Following lunch, everyone headed back into the field, despite the rising wind, for a great afternoon exploring the avian visitors to Owens Lake and Lone Pine.
At the end of the day, the festival closed with a reception at the Interagency Visitor Center amidst the beautiful photos of Robin Black’s exhibit, “A Second Chance: The Owens Lake Project.” Tired, sunburned, smiling faces told endless stories of the birds seen and of Owens Lake discoveries. “This was a brand new bird festival in a spectacular, world-class location,” said organizer and speaker Michael Prather. “Birds from as far away as South America came through to see us.”
Friends of the Inyo partnered with the Metabolic Studio, Inyo County, Audubon-California, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, Eastern Sierra Audubon and the Bristlecone Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. The Grill provided wonderful meals, and the Lone Pine Unified School District hosted an “Owens Lake, Birds, and Migration” assembly and birding field trips and classroom visits with bird experts in conjunction with the festival. Following this successful first year, Friends of the Inyo plans to continue the Owens Lake Bird Festival annually.