Saline Lakes Are Dying—Scientists Hope This Unusual Shorebird Can Help Save Them

An international team of researchers is conducting fieldwork from Canada to Argentina to help tell the story of the Wilson’s Phalarope, a species in peril whose essential habitats across the hemisphere are at risk from overuse and drought.
A person holds a tall plastic pole beside a lake with mountains in the background.

Ryan Carle could use a nap. Bleary and hunched on a boat dock, he sounds nearly defeated. “It’s feeling like a bit of a boondoggle,” he tells me, not much louder than Mono Lake lapping beneath us. Carle, science director for the nonprofit research group Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, has gathered a small team of scientists in his tiny hometown of Lee Vining, California, at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada, with a clear purpose: to catch phalaropes. They’ve been at it for a week. Nothing doing.

This morning they tried two new ­techniques. Carle set out in one boat with Margaret Rubega, a University of ­Connecticut ornithologist, to deploy a contraption built with an old window frame that Carle pilfered from his parents’ garage. The DIY device is meant to float and snare swimming phalarope feet in loops of fishing line.

I squeezed into the other boat, where Sydney Miller, a graduate student who studies the dainty shorebirds at ­Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, tested a different innovation: She tossed a revolting hunk of frozen sludge over the gunwale—brine fly larvae and brine shrimp. “Your hands are going to stink for so many days,” Kiki Tarr, an ecologist at Oikonos, informed her. The hope was that the bait’s stench would draw birds near enough that Miller could net one while Tarr maneuvered the boat. But the phalaropes paid it no mind. The lake was lousy with the tiny invertebrates.

When everyone regrouped after a few hours, Carle’s eyes were red. The floating trap sank, he said, and he had swum to the bottom of the salty, alkaline lake to retrieve it. Back to the drawing board.

It is the first week of August, a period the team chose for good reason: Typically during this time, Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes are fattening up to power their fall migration. They should be pudgy, slow—nettable. Instead, they’re so svelte that the whole enterprise seems hopeless. 

The researchers aren’t sure why, but when it comes to phalaropes, there’s plenty that scientists don’t know. Filling those gaps is the purpose of the International Phalarope Working Group, which arose from a gathering Carle and Rubega convened at Mono Lake in 2019. The partnership aims to shed new light on key questions one might assume had been resolved already, such as how many phalaropes there are and where they travel during migration. This summer, the team attached the first radio transmitters to 15 Wilson’s Phalaropes, males whose devotion to protecting their nests in Saskatchewan made them relatively easy to catch. Only two of the tags have provided helpful data, so today’s aim was to tag birds at Mono Lake and see where they went next.

A bird lifts one leg in the air while standing on the other in shallow water. It is reflected in the water's calm surface.

Of the three phalarope species, the Wilson’s fate seems most precarious. That’s because the bird depends almost entirely on the survival of saline lakes. In some cases more than eight times as salty as the oceans, these ancient, otherworldly water bodies thrum with life adapted to extremes. Utah’s Great Salt Lake has in some years hosted more than half a million Wilson’s Phalaropes preparing to migrate south. When summer arrives in South America, comparable numbers gather at Laguna Mar Chiquita, Argentina’s largest saline lake. Healthy habitats on one continent are not enough to sustain the species; they depend on salt lakes across the Americas. “This ecosystem web of saline lakes is absolutely essential and irreplaceable for a species like Wilson’s Phalarope,” says Marcelle Shoop, director of Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program.

These vital ecosystems are drying up around the world. People withdraw water from their sources, mainly to grow crops in arid environments. Climate change adds stress and unpredictability, even to well-protected lakes like Mono. And as go the lakes, so go Wilson’s Phalaropes; based on its research, the working group slashed a longstanding estimate of the global population by one-third.

This is why Carle feels such pressure to succeed. He’s been running flat out the past few days, chasing and counting phalaropes on the sun-blasted lake, washing the salt-encrusted boats, and visiting local brine shrimpers to beg buckets of bait. Only a few days remain before the team must scatter to other obligations, so Carle is coming to accept that they’ll have to do what he considers a last resort: netting the phalaropes at night. It will be difficult and a little dangerous, but he’s captured seabirds after dark before. He feels they’ve got to try.

With the data he hopes to get, Carle is trying to tell the world a story about saline lakes and the birds that need them. Time is running out, not just for the team but also for phalaropes themselves. “Stories are what get people to act,” he says. And action is what the birds need.


flock of phalaropes in flight is among Earth’s great wildlife spectacles. A lucky visitor to a saline lake may see thousands of Red-necked or Wilson’s Phalaropes undulate and flow in a single, ­sinuous mass. Then, with a sound like a billowing sail, they tack as one, the smoky swarm whitening as they flash their chalky bellies.

On paper, however, phalaropes are a mess. These shorebirds are found only occasionally along shorelines and instead feed mostly while swimming. Too buoyant for serious diving, they swim in tight circles to create eddies that draw food toward the surface. “If you were designing a waterbird, you would not start with a shorebird body,” Rubega says. “The plan is all wrong.” Red and Red-necked ­Phalaropes may as well be seabirds: They breed in the Arctic and spend the rest of the year mostly on the open ocean. Wilson’s, by contrast, are landlubbers. They breed among shallow wetlands in several western states and provinces, and in June they begin staging for migration at saline lakes. There, in just a few weeks, they molt out of their breeding plumage and eat enough invertebrates to double their weight. Growing new feathers and migrating thousands of miles require scads of calories. “You would arrive, get completely naked, get your weight up close to 400, then grow yourself an entire set of clothes. And do that in a month,” Rubega tells me. “It takes a lot of food is my point.”

Such strange birds are right at home in some of the planet’s most bizarre ecosystems. Saline lakes form in closed basins with no outflow; water can exit only through evaporation, which leaves salt and other minerals behind. Many are too salty for fish, frogs, and other freshwater regulars, yet life abounds. Brine shrimp—better known as Sea-Monkeys—squirm innumerably through the water column. Adult brine flies, having encased themselves in silvery air bubbles that serve as scuba tanks, mill about the lake bed, grazing on bacteria and algae. 

For many birds, no other food source can compare. More than 10 million avian visitors stop to feed each year at Great Salt Lake alone, and it is by far the continent’s most important place for Wilson’s Phalaropes. It is also an ecosystem in crisis. Unsustainable water use, mainly to grow alfalfa and other crops, has taken more than two-thirds of its historic inflow. The lake’s water level set a record low in 2021, then broke it a year later. The receding waters caused a mass die-off of reeflike structures called microbialites, which provide an algae buffet for invertebrates and a place for brine flies to anchor their larvae. With less water to dilute minerals, salinity in parts of the lake has spiked so high that brine shrimp could soon die out. A 2023 report warned that, having lost nearly three-quarters of its volume, North America’s largest saline lake was on track to disappear within five years.

Mono Lake’s shore buzzes with brine flies that are a dietary staple for phalaropes and other birds. Video: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The results would be disastrous. As the lake bed is exposed, dust storms carry heavy metals and particulate pollution to nearby communities, putting residents at greater risk of major health problems, including cancer. Industries dependent on the lake, including a $60 million brine shrimp fishery that supplies aquaculture companies with fish food, would wither. Phalaropes, Eared Grebes, and other birds accustomed to finding sustenance there would have to look elsewhere. “It is a little bit of a time bomb,” says Wayne ­Wurtsbaugh, an expert on saline lakes and retired Utah State University limnologist.

It’s a catastrophe that birds and people have experienced elsewhere. In 1913 the growing city of Los Angeles began siphoning water from the Owens River through a 233-mile aqueduct. By 1926 Owens Lake, which had not gone dry in at least 800,000 years, was completely desiccated. Once a waterbird paradise, in most years the lake now exists as a series of impoundments, plowed ridges, and gravel fields used by Los Angeles to manage toxic dust—an obligation expected to cost the city $3.6 billion by 2025 (more than the value of the water the city took, according to one report).

Lake Abert, in Oregon, has historically been among the continent’s top gathering places for phalaropes, but upstream diversions and hotter, drier conditions caused it to all but vanish in 2014, 2015, 2021, and 2022—years in which the usual masses of phalaropes and Eared Grebes never materialized. “There’s less habitat, plus there’s less food available, so it’s no wonder they don’t come,” says Ron Larson, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who monitors the lake for Eastern Sierra Audubon Society. “If these birds aren’t coming to Lake Abert, where are they going? Or are they just dying?”

Those are the sorts of questions Carle and the working group are trying to answer. To gain a fuller sense of the birds’ movements and population trends, in 2019 the team began coordinating annual surveys at staging areas in California, Oregon, Utah, and Saskatchewan. Encouragingly, their early findings suggest that phalaropes are flexible enough to adjust to changing habitat conditions. As Lake Abert’s bird numbers plunged in 2021, for example, Mono Lake saw its highest count since surveys began. In 2023, when an extremely wet winter made Owens Lake a proper lake for the first time in a century, its bumper crop of brine flies lured a record number of Wilson’s.

There may, however, be limits to the birds’ flexibility. When Great Salt Lake was on the brink of collapse in 2022, its phalarope numbers plummeted, but surveys detected no corresponding spike at other sites. Overall, the survey data so far tell a more sobering story. The average number of Wilson’s Phalaropes is roughly half of comparable counts in the 1980s. Just since Carle and his team began their counts, the tally has fallen from 340,000 Wilson’s Phalaropes in 2019 to roughly 74,000 in 2023 (though that year had an unusually high number of unidentified birds; nonbreeding Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes look very similar).

“This is a really critical period, I think, for these saline-dependent birds,” Larson says. As some of their most crucial gathering places shrivel, the stakes become higher for protecting relatively stable habitats like Mono Lake and Laguna Mar ­Chiquita. And even these comparatively safe havens are showing serious signs of distress.


or Carle, this work is intensely personal. “Mono lake has always been in the background of my psyche,” he says. (Locals pronounce it MOH-no, as it’s a reference to the area’s Indigenous inhabitants.) When California created a state reserve there in 1982, Carle’s parents became its first rangers. A photo from a 1992 Fourth of July parade shows him in a brine fly costume. In another, from 2004, he models a Mono Lake Is for Lovers T-shirt, which he designed as an intern for the nonprofit Mono Lake Committee. These days he lives in Santa Cruz, but he returns to Lee Vining each summer to study phalaropes. “I feel a lot of responsibility to do a good job,” he says. “A lot of my professional partners I’m working with are people who have known me since I was a little kid.”

Carle’s deep ties to the Mono Basin aren’t the only reason he’s interested in the phalaropes there. It’s important to understand how they use this habitat, he says, because Mono Lake, four times deeper than Great Salt Lake and better protected, has stronger odds than its counterparts of surviving a changing climate. “In a relative sense, we can count on Mono Lake being there for the birds,” he says, “and we can’t count on these other lakes.”

Half a century ago, however, this million-year-old lake faced disaster. In 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting water from streams that feed Mono Lake, sending it to the city 350 miles south. LADWP took so much water that the lake’s surface dropped 45 feet, halving its volume and ­doubling its salinity. The city was on course to deplete Mono Lake as it had Owens.

In 1976, with a mix of concern and curiosity, a scruffy group of college students spent a summer conducting an unprecedented ecological study of the Mono Basin. They found that the area was far more important for birds than anyone had realized. The lake supported more than 700,000 Eared Grebes and as many as 93,000 Wilson’s Phalaropes. It hosted more breeding California Gulls than any place except Great Salt Lake, but the falling water level would soon create a land bridge, allowing predators to reach their main nesting island. And with the lake’s salinity rising, they reported, brine shrimp and brine flies “may be subject to extinction.”

Alarmed, some of those young idealists launched the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 and began rabble-rousing on the lake’s behalf. By the following year they had convinced the National Audubon Society and others to join them in an audacious gambit: They sued LADWP, the largest municipal utility in the country.

In a landmark 1983 ruling, the California Supreme Court found that the state has a duty, under a legal principle known as the public trust doctrine, to protect Mono Lake for people and wildlife. To fulfill that responsibility, the State Water Resources Control Board issued its own watershed decision in 1994: LADWP’s withdrawals would be reined in to help the lake’s surface elevation reach and remain at 6,392 feet above sea level—25 feet lower than before the city’s diversions, but 20 feet higher than its 1982 low point. Computer modeling indicated that, with the new restrictions, it would reach that target by 2014.

Today the lake isn’t even halfway there. The withdrawal limits prevented ecosystem collapse, but they have proven too lax to bring about the planned recovery, says Geoff McQuilkin, executive director of the Mono Lake Committee. The computer models didn’t see climate change coming: They couldn’t predict that, from 2012 to 2016, severe drought would drop Mono Lake’s elevation by seven feet.

This intake system diverts a portion of Lee Vining Creek’s flow about 350 miles south to Los Angeles via an aqueduct on the left, while the remainder continues tumbling from the Sierra Nevada to Mono Lake.

In December 2022, with the region once again in the grip of a multiyear drought, McQuilkin sent the water board a letter urging officials to stop the diversions, which meet no more than 3 percent of the city’s demand. “This water is really valuable in Mono Lake, less valuable in Los Angeles,” he says. LADWP doesn’t seem to share the sense of urgency. “While lake level rise is not occurring as quickly as originally hoped for,” a department spokesperson wrote to Audubon, “the Mono Basin is among the most protected of California’s imported supply source regions and the target lake level will be achieved in time.”

“In time” is not good enough, Mono Lake advocates say; the 1994 ruling was an order, not a recommendation. In it the water board said that if the lake did not reach the target elevation by 2014, it would call a public hearing to determine if changes to LADWP’s licenses were necessary. Far past the deadline and nowhere near the goal, that has yet to happen. The board told Audubon it plans to hold a hearing but declined to say when.

As the winter of 2022 closed in, Mono Lake had dropped so low that its salinity exceeded Clean Water Act regulations and a land bridge to the gull colony was reemerging. Then snow began to fall—and fall. Lee Vining would see a record 19 feet that winter. Deep into summer, snowmelt roared down the mountainside. The influx left the lake well short of the target elevation but raised it enough that the rules will allow the LAWDP to take nearly four times as much water in 2024 as it did in 2023.

That’s exactly the wrong response to a generous winter, McQuilkin says, and evidence that the rules must be updated to face the reality of climate change. “We need to preserve the gains of a wet year, minimize the losses of a dry year,” he says. “One wet year is not a water management plan.” 


ell before Carle’s lesson in the indignities of trying to catch Wilson’s Phalaropes, Marcela Castellino was an expert on the subject. She began researching the birds about a decade ago, but capturing them proved so difficult that she had to put a planned Ph.D. on hold. “They’re all the time in the water, and it’s very muddy, and they are very fast,” she says. She tried hand nets, mist nets, nets shot from a cannon her father fabricated, and nets dropped from a drone: “I tried every method that you can think of, and I only caught three in four years.”

Nevertheless, the work made her an authority on the species, which as far as she knows no one else had seriously studied in Argentina, her home country. She attended the 2019 phalarope meeting at Mono Lake, after which the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network hired her to work on saline lake conservation. And when Carle needed an austral counterpart to coordinate research in South America, he turned to Castellino.

It was a perfect match. Both scientists were born in 1985. Both want their research to have real-world conservation value. Both spent their childhoods in small towns beside saline lakes—Laguna Mar ­Chiquita, in Castellino’s case—and return regularly to visit family and count phalaropes. Castellino’s parents weren’t park rangers, but such is their love for Mar Chiquita that they gave all three of their daughters names that begin with Mar.

Shortly after Carle started counting Wilson’s Phalaropes at Mono Lake during his summers, Castellino began leading aerial and shore surveys at Mar Chiquita during hers. For now it’s too soon to draw conclusions from those ongoing efforts, but a related project raised concerns about the bird’s trajectory. In 2020 Carle, Castellino, and others fanned out across South America, from High Andes lagoons to ­Patagonian wetlands, surveying 753 sites for Wilson’s Phalaropes, many for the first time. Since the 1980s scientists had figured the global ­population was about 1.5 million. Based on the census, the working group decreased its estimate to 1 million.

Of all the South American sites, none compared with Mar Chiquita’s half a million birds. While Mono Lake rests in a steep-sided bowl, Mar Chiquita sprawls across a landscape so flat that one wonders how the water knows where to pool. It is 14 times larger than Mono Lake but much shallower, and fed by three rivers that crawl across the vast plains of central Argentina’s Córdoba province. Its largest tributary enters at the lake’s north shore, where vast, remote wetlands are a draw for shorebirds and three flamingo species.

Castellino grew up on Mar Chiquita’s southern shore in Miramar de Ansenuza, a laid-back tourist town—palm trees, souvenir shops, Burrowing Owls lazily eyeing passersby—where the raucous sounds of Great Kiskadees, Southern Lapwings, and Monk Parakeets give way to thumping dance music come nightfall. In December 2022 I joined about a dozen other Americans there for a gathering intended to strengthen the international collaboration that, as Castellino puts it, Wilson’s Phalaropes demand. It was also a celebration: Six months earlier Argentina had established Ansenuza National Park, which encompasses all of Mar Chiquita. The lake’s importance for Wilson’s Phalaropes, flamingos, and other birds was a major reason for its designation, and the gathering bubbled with optimism that the park will help to protect the lake and grow the region’s economy through nature-based tourism.

Miramar de Ansenuza’s residents and visitors alike enjoy swimming and boating on Laguna Mar Chiquita.

While it took impending disaster to spur the movement to save Mono Lake, here conservation efforts appeared to be ahead of the curve, with plenty of water still in Mar Chiquita. Compared to its North American counterparts, though, Mar Chiquita has not been closely studied. Castellino and others I spoke with shared a sense that no one was exactly sure what shape it was in or what its future might look like. A 1970s spike in precipitation drove the lake to record heights, but the amount siphoned for agriculture also grew. A 2023 study found that, from 1992 to 2020, half of Mar Chiquita’s water disappeared. Climate change played a role, but the biggest factor was human consumption.

Mar Chiquita’s water lacks the kind of legal protection secured for Mono Lake. A watershed committee exists to oversee water use along its tributaries, but it is maddeningly opaque, Castellino says. It hasn’t been able to provide her with documents she has requested about water use, and she’s not sure if streamflow gauges are even working. “Water levels, what is happening with the invertebrates, what is happening with water quality—we need that information,” she says.

Without it, it’s hard to understand the present or plan for the future of this lake where half of all Wilson’s Phalaropes spend the nonbreeding season—especially as the world grows hotter. In September 2023, as Argentina suffered a historic drought, Castellino emailed me satellite images showing that the lake’s northern edge had receded dramatically over the past four years, exposing vast tongues of salty earth. “I’m very worried,” she says. “This could be a really critical situation in a few years if we don’t pay attention.”


n 2009 researchers extracted core samples from the bottom of Great Salt Lake. From these columns of sediment they plucked brine shrimp eggs, some more than 200 years old. When the scientists watered the eggs, they hatched.

Maybe that’s a dangerous story. One could conclude that letting saline lakes go dry wouldn’t be such a big deal. They can bounce right back—just add water!—though that wouldn’t help the birds that need food this year, and next year, and the year after that.

But it’s also a hopeful story, and feeling hopeful is not unreasonable. Mono Lake rose by around five feet in 2023 on the shoulders of that massive snowpack. The water board has not yet scheduled a hearing to reevaluate LADWP’s licenses, but it did hold a public workshop that February. It was the first formal hearing of its sort since the board’s 1994 decision, McQuilkin says. During five hours of comments, McQuilkin, Carle, Castellino, and many others—state wildlife officials, air-quality managers, and the Mono Lake Kutzadika’a Tribe—urged the board to take action to protect the lake. “That was a really big deal,” McQuilkin says.

That lavish winter also replenished Lake Abert and Great Salt Lake—not a cure but a balm. As the snowmelt petered out last September, environmental and public health groups filed a lawsuit against state agencies in Utah that was modeled on the Mono Lake suit. Whatever its outcome, Utahns I spoke with say that people are paying attention to the lake in a way that feels new. Last year the legislature formally declared brine shrimp the state crustacean. More substantively, state lawmakers in 2022 put Audubon and The Nature Conservancy in charge of a new $40 million trust fund to get more water into the lake. Last year the fund secured 64,000 acre-feet of inflow and issued grants for projects to bolster 13,000 acres of wetlands. Also in 2022, Congress created a new program to coordinate saline lake monitoring across the West.

The phalarope working group, too, has made important strides. A few days after my chat with an exhausted Carle on that dock in Lee Vining, he texted me a photo of a robin-size bird in the glare of a headlamp. The night before, his team had caught two Red-necked Phalaropes. They weren’t Wilson’s, and the tags Carle planned to deploy didn’t fit the species’ stubbier legs. Still, it was a breakthrough: Shining phalaropes at night seemed to be the key to catching them at their migratory stopovers. A few nights later, using the new intel, U.S. Geological Survey researchers tagged 10 Wilson’s Phalaropes at Tule Lake in Northern California.

Data from those transmitters have already revealed new insights into phalarope movement that could be valuable in conservation. After Tule Lake, the birds visited wetlands in Southern California and Mexico that researchers didn’t realize were impor­tant to the species. That they rested there at all was a revelation; conventional wisdom held that most Wilson’s Phalaropes migrate nonstop to South America.

Last June, as the birds were preparing to fly south, Castellino and other visitors from Argentina traveled north for the inaugural Mono Lake Phalarope Festival. In a park overlooking the lake, Castellino joined Carle in singing a song he wrote called “Me Llaman Falaropo” (“They Call Me Phalarope”). “I will return; the salt lakes call me,” they sang as he strummed a mandolin, “and my journey never ends.”

It might sound corny—a song doesn’t put more water in the lake—but when I watched the video later, it moved me. These two scientists, children of two saline lakes on two continents, singing together in their two languages about this one beautiful bird they’ve always known and are just beginning to understand—it diluted my cynicism just as the runoff then sluicing down the canyons would soften Mono Lake’s salty edge. “I know one day we will protect all of the places I call home,” they sang. Behind them, up in the Sierra, thick slabs of snow still lingered like unopened gifts. 

This story originally ran in the Spring 2024 issue as “Must Add Water.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.