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1976 Notes on Birds in Windstorms

I had fun seeing my picture on the cover of the Spring 2003, 25th anniversary issue of the Mono Lake Newsletter. The other student was Stephanie Zeiler Martin, a friend from Stanford who also helped out that year with some of the first field trips. The year must be about 1978.

I was inspired by the historical review of the Mono Lake Research Group (as we were known in 1976) and found a few exciting passages from my 1976 Mono Lake Journal which I submit below for your reading pleasure! After searching for that 1976 report, and finding it, I looked in the acknowledgements and realized an important mentor and figure was missing. The man that sent Jeff (my brother) and me copies of the NSF Student Originated Studies grant proposal was the one and only Fred Savage, biology and chemistry teacher from Lakeview High School in Winter Garden, Florida where Jeff, Brett Engstrom and I all went to school. I honestly believe that if it werenít for Fred, we would never have applied for the grant, and the benchmark 1976 study never would have happened. Fred still teaches science and is going for 50 years in teaching! Kudos to Fred!

Elliot Burch
Swarthmore, PA


Three Springs, Mono lake, July 28, 1976
Elliot Burch and Brett Engstrom
Mono Basin Research Group

Brett and I packed up our gear for a three day stay on the southeast shore. Large numbers of Wilsonís phalaropes had been seen throughout the past week and we thought maybe they were getting ready to migrate southward. We had ideas of how to measure migratory restlessness, Zugenruhe, so as to determine when bird flocks would be leaving. (At least we wanted to give it a try.) We also wanted to observe the bird life along that shore for a three day interval rather than during an instantaneous census. We thought that maybe we could catch them leaving.

So we hiked out the 2 or 3 miles to "Three Springs" where we decided it would be a nice place to camp because there is lots of good water bubbling out of the ground. We hadnít been there for long before the skies turned all black and deadly looking. Lightning began to appear all around and being out on an exposed beach, one half mile from the nearest tree or sagebrush protection, we sought out the lowest possible place nestled amongst the dunes and salt grass. From here we could see the shoreline seeps and mudflats which usually collects all the birds.

It was strange out there because the beach was virtually barren of phalaropes. Just a few days before Dave Gaines had estimated 80,000! We couldnít understand where they all were. I only hoped that they hadnít already left. Then the rains started pouring down and to our surprise the skies started filling up. Birds Ė phalaropes - began to grow out of the raindrops! Flocks of 100ís and even 1000ís began to circle around over our heads, merging, diverging, unified as one. The horizon was filled from end to end. Those little "wind birds" numbered so many, almost beyond imagination.

Then they began to congregate on the beach right in front of us. More and more and more settled down along the creek-seepage mud flat, behind the grasses and sedges. Brett and I were so excited we just had to get out in the rain and try and make some estimates about how many were out there. After some figuring and compromising we finally arrived at a huge 50,000 birds, almost entirely Wilsonís phalaropes, all within 50 yards from where we were. They were so many you could hardly see the sandy beach in between their dense, light, fluffy plumage! This patch was probably only 100 yards long by 50 yards wide. Just down the beach was another patch of about 30,000 birds.

(Authorís note: by dusk they had mostly dispersed, perhaps headed south, and we never saw those kind of numbers again for the rest of the summer).


Three Springs, Mono lake, August 15, 1976

We woke up this morning with a whipping wind, strange patchy dark clouds, and a little rain. The lake was so rough it was about to jump out of the basin. Brett and I had planned to go and observe the birds on the east side for a few days and we werenít going to let a little (a lot of) bad weather stop us. Besides we might see some really interesting things happening with the rowdy winds.

Around 10:00 in the morning we hit the southeast beach with gear for 3 days on our backs. The wind was really blowing, but I was warm enough since I had my Peter Storm! The beach was real barren of birds. The usual hundreds of gulls which line the beach were not to be seen. About half way down to "3 Springs" I understood why. The wind started blowing harder than ever, probably about 40 or 50 miles per hour. With the wind came the sand. Most of it was contained to about 0-3 feet above the ground. Being as little as a gull or phalarope would have been hell! The sand was whipping at my pant legs so hard that if I were a bird and covered with feathers, they would have been sand blasted down to bare skin. It was really something!

As we got further down the beach near "3 Springs" we had more beach behind us to be whipped into the air. Now the sand was over our heads so high I couldnít see the end! Looking down towards the "Last Tufa" where the wind and sand were really going to town was like looking into a tornado on the Sahara! I could barely see the tops of some tufa which were a good 20-30 feet high. A mile or so past the "Last Tufa" lies the great expanse of pure mud-flats. The sand was blowing off this stretch creating an opaque cloud which rose into the air at least 200 feet.

We propped our packs up against the tufa at "3 Springs" and then settled down on the leeward side to watch the birds. I had to close my eyes except when I was looking through my binocs. Even then I had to pull my hood down low and tightly cup my hands around my binocular eyepieces thus closing the gap to my eyes. Only then could I see without being blinded by the flying sand and gravel.

And what did I see? Well there were about 8000 Wilsonís phalaropes, a hundred avocets and gulls, and small accumulations of other birds all bunched together on the ground trying to keep from being blown away. It was really amazing to watch the phalaropes, especially because they are such good flyers. Those little birds could fly head-on into that 40 mile per hours wind and make considerable progress! On the ground they were clustered in the creek wash battling the strong winds without too much difficulty. The big clumsy avocets, on the other hand, were having a hell of a time facing the wind. They were packed to the limit around the lee side of the sedges and bunch grasses. When one would take off it had to really struggle to win out over the winds. The gulls seemed to fare out the winds second best to the phalaropes. They could fly into the winds and when flying with, wow, what a sight! I doní think a prairie falcon could have caught them.

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