A very special and unique place.

The Phalarope: A Shorebird Global Traveler
By David Carle, Park Ranger, Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve


A woman walked along the sandy shore of Mono Lake. It was summer. A ground squirrel stood up straight, staring at her as she approached, then scurried into the nearby grass and disappeared into its burrow. Alkali flies massed on the beach, but whisked away from her feet as she ambled along.

Her attention was focused on the water of the lake. Hundreds of birds were scattered across the surface. She recognized most of them as sea gulls, but there were smaller birds too. She watched several of the delicate-looking shorebirds pecking at the water, wondering why many of them spun in tight circles periodically.

She was not watching where her feet were going. That's how she stubbed her toe on the bottle.

It hurt. Her big toe, exposed in her sandal, throbbed painfully. Why was she so clumsy? Things like that were always happening to her. She bent to pick up the bottle, prepared to hurl it far away, but stopped.

It was not a belated sense of guilt at tossing someone's trash into the lake that stopped her. It was the weight and appearance of the bottle. It had an alien air; some sort of dark glass flask, with curious patterns decorating its sides.

She twisted at the cork which stoppered the bottle. When it finally worked loose, a genie appeared in a must-smelling cloud of vapor.

"Thank you, mistress, for releasing me. As a reward, I grant you the standard three wishes."

As you might imagine, she stammered the standard exclamations of surprise and disbelief, before she stopped wasting time and considered her wishes.

"If I can really change my life...have the things I've always wanted...this is so hard!" She kicked at the sand, which made her hurt toe throb. "I wish I was graceful, and beautiful. No! Not exactly that. I wish...I wish I could fly. Soar through the sky like a swift, graceful bird."

The genie looked sourly at her. "I don't think you understand how this works. If I was a stickler for accuracy you would've already used up your three wishes. But I think I perceive the essence of your desire. That's number one. Be more careful about the next two."

Her next two wishes were much clearer. "I've always wanted to travel; to see distant lands. Please? And for number three, I wish my husband would take more of a hand with the kids." She rushed to explain. "I mean, if I'm going to travel, someone's got to stay home and take care of things. He's just always left the children to me — at least the real work that goes with raising kids. So if you're going to grant wish number two and let me travel, you'd better take care of my husband and the kids while you're at it."

She sighed, satisfied, but wondering if she ought to have asked for gold and jewels instead. Oh well, it was done.

And it was. The genie did his thing, and her wishes were granted.

A group of twenty people were walking along the sandy shore of Mono Lake. Their leader wore the Smokey the Bear Hat of a park ranger. He stopped and pointed toward a flock of small birds on the lake.

"Those are Wilson's phalaropes. See the buffy color on their necks and the black streak on the head? They've just recently arrived here from Canada, where they nest. They only weigh about one ounce when they reach the lake after that long flight. But they get busy, fattening on flies and shrimp, and within 30 days have doubled their body weight.

"Think about that! Thank about what you weigh, right now. Consider what you'd have to do to double that in just one month. The phalaropes find so much food here that they can get very fat, very fast. They use the fat to fuel their migration south, when they leave. After a couple months here they will fly down to South America for the winter. And they won't even stop to feed on the way. They'll fly 2000 miles in just two days, non-stop. Mono Lake is their essential 'gas station' and 'rest area.'"

The group watched the flock of birds. They looked so tiny and frail, it was hard to accept that they were such world travelers, moving between northern Canada and South America, then back again, every spring and fall.

"140,000 phalaropes visit Mono Lake each summer. We see these Wilson's phalaropes first, then red-necked phalaropes later in the summer. The...oh, look!"

Something caused the entire flock of birds to take to the air. Several hundred phalaropes, wings rapidly beating, climbed up, then made the crowd gasp as they began to move like a single organism. Dark backs suddenly disappeared, replaced by white breasts as each bird turned. Since all of the phalaropes turned in unison, the effect was stunning. It was something like a school of tropical fish moving as one body in an aquarium. For a few moments, the flock put on a precision drill-team show, flashing back and forth over the lake, spiralling high, before settling back onto the water, right where they had begun.

Then, one of the phalaropes swam boldly toward the people standing at the shore, pecking at flies on the water-surface as it approached. It paused after each peck and stared at the ranger, as though it was listening to him and understood his words.

"All of these phalaropes are females. I find it fascinating that, in the nesting areas up north, after each female lays her eggs, she leaves. Comes down here to Mono Lake. Meanwhile, the male is left to sit on the eggs, hatch the chicks and care for them until they can fly. Then the males and young birds migrate. It's an interesting reversal of sex roles."

The crowd laughed when a young woman raised a fist and said "right on!" Several couples with kids in tow exchanged male-female looks."

The phalarope had continued to inch closer and closer to shore. When the crowd laughed, the phalarope began spinning.

"Look. Is she celebrating her women's liberation?" someone asked the ranger.

"Could be. More likely, she's just hungry. Phalaropes will spin in tight circles like that to stir up food and concentrate it into a little whirlpool. See how she's stopped and begun eating now?

"She's a beauty, isn't she? So tiny and graceful. I'm really glad that Mono Lake is here for these birds. It's important to recognize that, should this lake's ecosystem die, places in South America and Canada might be affected." He turned, prepared to lead the group farther down the shore, when his foot kicked a bottle half-buried in the sand.

The ranger picked up the bottle. He examined it curiously for amoment, tipping it over. A little sand spilled out. He shrugged and, as he continued walking, put the bottle into his daypack with other bits of litter he had gathered since the start of the tour.

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