A very special and unique place.

A Star Is Born: California Gulls
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve

The star of a show, the one who receives all the attention, may modestly try to make the public see that his performance is only possible because of the combined efforts of a whole team of actors, technicians, producers and directors. But the public seldom buys that message. They want celebrities.

At Mono Lake, the celebrity has been the California gull. After 1979, when the declining lake connected the main gull-nesting island to the shore, the media and the public focused attention on the plight of the gulls at Mono Lake. We heard about the abandonment of Negit Island when coyotes crossed the landbridge. We followed the gull colony's numbers: 50,000 adults, raising 30,000 chicks in good years — but the years immediately after the landbridge formed were not so good. During wet years, when the lake rose, the gulls made news again when some nests were reestablished on Negit Island. But the drought made that only a temporary return as the landbridge reformed.

The gulls became the symbol of the lake, the stars of the show.

Yet they could not do their thing here without the support of a cast, crew and production team.

By late winter, the first flocks of California gulls already begin to arrive in the Mono Basin. They spend the fall and winter on the coast, from Baja California to Oregon. Yet 90% of the California gulls found in this state are born here, on the islands in Mono Lake.

Many people are surprised to find gulls so far inland. Yet this species of gull prefers inland nesting sites with abundant food. Islands are of critical importance, where their nests can be safe from coyotes or other predators that might otherwise walk up and eat their eggs and chicks.

In the spring, gulls share lunch with the kids at Lee Vining Elementary School. That early in the season, when the birds are relocating mates and nest sites, the brine shrimp and alkali fly food sources are not yet available in big numbers. By summer, the lake will be teeming with enormous quantities of bird food — it will become one massive shrimp soup. But until then, the gulls scrounge the dumps and picnic areas, spread out across the region from Bridgeport to Bishop, and every day appear, on schedule, when the bell rings to announce lunchtime at the elementary school.

Every day I talk to people about the gulls. Visitors are interested in their status, amazed by their numbers and habits, and, occasionally, mystified about all the hubbub over "some, fer gosh sakes, lousy sea gulls".

Some people apparently go through this thought process:

A. Gulls are the "stars of the show" at Mono Lake.

B. I don't much care about sea gulls, tell you the truth.

C. So why should I care what happens to Mono Lake?

Well. This kind of stuff keeps a ranger's job interesting and challenging.

But where should my response begin? With the facts that will convince that logician that gulls are special, especially the California gull species found here? Or should I leap to the heart of the matter, the real fallacy, as far as I'm concerned? I mean the mistake of the celebrity, star-system approach to looking at things; the charisma method for valuing politicians, movie stars and, yes, ecosystems.

It is June. Two speckled eggs, about the size of a chicken's egg, have been carefully guarded and brooded by the gull parents. The scene on the islands is noisy and crowded. Think about the sounds you have heard gulls make. Now imagine thousands of birds packed into a small area. Gray and white avian shapes with black wingtips argue and heckle and cackle and shriek. Figures come and go, hover overhead, then fly off. Since it is June, eggs are hatching throughout the nesting islands. Fluffy, tiny chicks, speckled brown and black, emerge.

Then begins the amazing growth. Parents make trips onto the lake, fill their bellies with shrimp, and return. The hungry chicks peck at red spots on their parents' beaks, and receive gratifying responses. The parents' stomach contents are regurgitated directly into the chicks' open mouths.

And most of them thrive. By mid-July, the little balls of fluff will grow to be as big as their parents. But you can easily tell them apart, because when the immature gulls' feathers grow in, they appear light brown, all over. They won't develop the distinctive white/gray/black pattern for four years, when they will be adults.

Late August. From now on, we will see fewer and fewer gulls at the lake, every day. They are leaving for the coast. I wonder what it is like for the immature gulls making that first trip across the Sierra. Since the birds are gregarious flock-travelers, they will have experienced guides to show them the way. But do you suppose it is something like the first day of school for kindergarteners? Excitement tinged with fear of the unknown?

They'll cross the mountains, then the Central Valley, and eventually reach that big lake we call the Pacific Ocean. Less than half as salty as Mono Lake. With other kinds of gulls, and fish, and fishing boats to follow, and maybe a coastal elementary school to visit every day at lunchtime.

For the immature gulls, three or four years will pass before they return to Mono Lake. By then they will be adults, ready to find a mate and locate a choice spot for a nest on one of the islands.

The mature birds will return in the late winter and early spring. Banding studies have shown that a male and female will generally relocate each other, every year, and if possible, will return to the same nest-site.

What if, one year, the gulls came flying over the mountains to discover a changed Mono Lake? What if their "shrimp soup" provided no shrimp? What if the lake shrank so far that no islands were available for safe nesting?

Those "what ifs" were behind the media focus on California gulls in the issues affecting Mono Lake. The gulls were the "stars of the show."

But you cannot find proper answers to those questions until you understand the whole picture. Gulls survive here because of their supporting cast and crew. Mono Lake has a unique, harsh chemical-mix of water which supports astonishing amounts of life. Algae becomes food for brine shrimp and fly larvae which are then fed on by birds. That food chain makes it all possible, and if a critical link is severed, the whole production could fail.

50,000 gulls are outnumbered by 140,000 phalaropes and 800,000 eared grebes. More than 100 species of birds use the lake each year.

None of it stands alone.

People are part of the picture too. We come to the lake to appreciate the beauty of its landscape and setting. We marvel at its wildlife, including the gulls. And we debated, in courts and the legislature, ways to resolve the conflicts created by our use of freshwater streams that must replace evaporation in Mono Lake.

None of it stands alone. Let's hear it for the gulls. They couldn't be here if it weren't for a healthy Mono Lake ecosystem, in all its complexity. Long may they be stars in that show.

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