What is a Chautauqua?

Chautauqua is the most American thing in America!
—Teddy Roosevelt

Chautauqua is an institution that began in the late 19th Century to provide higher education opportunities through the combination of lectures, concerts, and public events. The institution grew from the early-American thirst for self-improvement and education and later evolved into a traveling movement or circuit that became most popular in the rural Midwest.

The Chautauqua circuit flourished in the early 1900s before a gradual decline in the 1920s and 1930s. These traveling Chautauquas featured oratory, drama, and music. Famous personalities or politicians would sometimes speak, and admission was cheap. The Chautauqua varied in content, approach, and quality. Typically they were held in an outdoor setting under tents where the public could attend a lecture or performance.

Chautauqua is an Iroquois word meaning either "two moccasins tied together" or "jumping fish." Chautauqua is also a lake, a county, and a town in southwestern New York—home of the Chautauqua Institution.
 

Why a Bird Chautauqua in the Mono Basin?
The Mono Basin is one of the most intensively studied natural areas in California. Research includes early surveys by Joseph Grinnell in 1915, the pioneering birding/conservation work of David Gaines and David Winkler in the late 1970s, and continues today with biologists from PRBO Conservation Science. Deep personal concern for the plight of birds sparked a legal struggle that resulted in the California Supreme Court's 1983 Public Trust decision, which reaffirmed the state's duty to balance the public trust with water allocations and thereby protect the people's common heritage resources. Guided by this new direction, the State Water Resources Control Board modified the water diversion licenses of the City of Los Angeles in 1994. The decision is still in effect today, and science played a critical role in shaping the outcome.

This year marks the 23rd Anniversary of California Gull research at Mono Lake. Our understanding of these birds—and the roughly 100 other species that depend on Mono Lake—has grown from the first ecological study of Mono Lake initiated in 1976. Because of the Mono Basin's rich bird life, dramatic natural setting, scientific importance, and historical significance, it is an ideal location for a bird Chautauqua.
 

Mono Basin natural history
Internationally famous Mono Lake lies on the boundary between the western Great Basin and California's Sierra Nevada, which rises 6,000 feet above the lake's surface. Thousands of years of evaporation have concentrated salts and other minerals within the lake, making it 2–3 times as salty as the ocean. Algae in the water supports brine shrimp in the trillions as well as thick, black carpets of alkali flies along the shore. This simple and highly productive ecosystem feeds millions of migratory and nesting birds.

From the Sierra crest to the shores of Mono Lake, the Mono Basin watershed is a diverse mix of habitats: marsh, alkali meadows, sagebrush steppe, piñon-juniper forests, Jeffrey pine forest, mixed coniferous, mountain mahogany, and riparian vegetation. With 14 different ecological zones, over 1,000 plant species, and roughly 400 recorded vertebrate species within its watershed, the Mono Basin encompasses one of California's richest natural areas.

Over 325 species of birds have been observed within the Mono Basin. Islands within Mono Lake support 70–80% of California's nesting population of California Gulls, the second-largest rookery in the world after Great Salt Lake. Caspian Terns and Snowy Plovers visit the basin, the latter maintaining one of its largest California breeding areas. In summer, 80,000 Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes can descend upon Mono Lake, where they complete their molt before continuing south to tropical wintering grounds. An average of 7,000 Least and Western Sandpipers move through the basin during spring and fall, along with up to 10,000 American Avocets. After the fall passage of shorebirds, Eared Grebes arrive, with over 1.7 million birds recorded on the lake in recent years. Willow Flycatchers, extremely rare in the Sierra Nevada and eastern California, have been discovered breeding in the streams on the west side of the basin. Research conducted by PRBO Conservation Science has revealed that the creeks within the basin support the highest indices of breeding songbird diversity and species richness of 33 creeks surveyed in the Eastern Sierra. The basin lies between two major populations of Greater Sage Grouse (Bodie Hills and Long Valley), and small numbers have been observed here in the Mono Basin.
 

Conservation and management
The 1994 State Water Resources Control Board decision set a management lake level for Mono Lake that ended 16 years of litigation and controversy. The decision also required minimum and peak flows for streams. Stream and waterfowl restoration is underway along with limited monitoring of lake and stream restoration. Water diversions continue to Los Angeles, but at a much-reduced rate.

The US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management manage the majority of the open space within the Mono Basin. The lake, recessional lands (exposed lake bed), and portions of the surrounding watershed lie within the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area and the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. California State Parks is a partner in resource protection with the Inyo National Forest. The City of Los Angeles is the largest landowner/manager in the Mono Basin after the federal agencies.

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