By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Standing on Kellogg beach looking inland, the air is busy with birds. Hawks, white egrets, and ravens soar against the blue mountain backdrop. They are surveying the land around whats left of Lake Earl, uncovered by the breaching of the sandbar that separated the lake from the ocean last Friday.

The bustle of life spurred on by stranded fish and other new sources of food, is a sharp contrast to what lies on the beachapproximately 2,000 dead coots.

They get sucked, subtly and slowly through the breach site and dont realize whats happening until its too late, said Alan Barron, an ornithologist and biologist. Barron has studied and lived near the lake for 17 years.

Coots are ducklike birds with small wings and a large body. They are not seagoing birds, but do thrive on placid lakes or lagoons.

Because of their small wings, Barron said its impossible for coots to take off in flight from where theyre sitting on the water.

Instead they have to sort of run and flap along the surface to build momentum.

Every time Lake Earl is breached, hundreds and sometimes thousands of the coots float out to sea, get soaked by waves and are rendered too wet and heavy to save themselves, according to Barron.

Its like on a tread mill. You cant get anywhere, he said.

In an effort to prevent the devastation, employees of California Fish and Game traditionally sound off air cannons from shore and do all they can to scare the birds out of the water before they reach the point of no return, said Art Reeve, Del Norte County engineer.

It isnt a man-made catastrophe, though - it is a natural thing, Barron said.

Lake Earl is actually classified as an esturine lagoon - not a lake. And the site of the breached sandbar connecting the lake to the ocean used to be the mouth of the Smith River. So, the fact that the area fills and drains with water, is how its supposed to be, Barron said.

Fluctuation is the key. The habitat changes from one type of wetland to another, he added.

Barron theorized that prehistorically, naturally occurring breaches caused even bigger coot kills and probably included other types of waterfowl.

Barron and the environmentalist group Friends of Del Norte, are not angry the breach occurred, he said. Instead they are pleased the lake was left to rise to the 10-foot level, then breached - that way the lake area provides the different types of wetland which serve the diverse sets of creatures who thrive there.

Friends of Del Norte does have an argument with the desire of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and some landowners to keep the lake at only four feet all the time.

Officially, the supervisors have not moved from the four-foot level. And there is a small, very vocal minority making all kinds of outlandish claims about the effects of higher levels. They seem to be sticking even harder to it than ever before, Barron said.

Since 1986, Fish and Game has tried to manage Lake Earl at the eight-foot level, studying the levels effect on wildlife and habitat. Barron said the eight-foot level management plan is a good compromise between environmental concerns and owners of property near the lake.

If its kept at four feet, its really only two feet most of the time, Barron said, because of evaporation and water soaking into the ground. He said four feet or less is too low because the lake area never fills enough to soak the surrounds and to nurture the natural wetlands.

Currently, Fish and Game is in the process of developing a management plan that will set an elevation and time of year at which the lake should be let out.

We will bite the bullet and ultimately resolve this issue. Were not going to please everyone - but it will be resolved, said Karen Kovacs, senior biologist for Fish and Game in Eureka.