Gray Whale Ranch
Gray Whale Ranch forms the upper part of Wilder Ranch State Park. Added to the park in the late 1990s, the ranch had been used recently for grazing cattle and timber production. It offers an excellent combination of grassland, redwood and mixed evergreen forest, and oak woodland. Birders bent on a hike might approach Gray Whale along trails leading up from the park’s lower section, but it is easier to access from Empire Grade. However, parking is strictly limited along Empire Grade near the park’s entries there, and some parts of the park are currently closed to visitor access. Ideally, one might arrange to be dropped off on Empire Grade and picked up in the lower park. This way, one can enjoy a long, scenic, and birdy trek downhill all the way to the Wilder Ranch’s coastal headquarters. Birding Gray Whale may also be combined with a visit to the U. C. Santa Cruz’s upper campus and even approached via the campus’s trails (see this guide’s Mid-County Coast section).
Directions. Park along Empire Grade 3.3 miles northwest of the western entrance to the U. C. Santa Cruz campus, and at least 0.1 mile up the road from the prominent “twin gates” that mark the large fields there. The Chinquapin Trail leads southwest into Gray Whale Ranch, while on the other side of the road it leads east through Marshall Field into the upper part of the University campus. To reach another Gray Whale entrance, continue up Empire Grade and turn left on Smith Grade (3.7 miles past the western entrance to the University). Go 0.9 mile and park on the right, across the road from the head of Woodcutter’s Trail.
Birds. The Gray Whale section of Wilder Ranch SP holds a wide variety of forest and grassland bird species. In one month (December 1995) 10 species of woodpeckers were found here! Rare species that have been found here include Williamson’s Sapsucker, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Townsend’s Solitaire, and a wintering Black-throated Green Warbler.
To reach grassland habitat, walk 0.3 mile down Chinquapin Trail, and take the Long Meadow Trail. This passes through small patches of grassland, mixed forest and oak woodland before reaching large expanses of grassland after about a mile. This route is excellent for various woodpeckers (Pileated is possible in any forest area) and raptors, and watch especially for Ferruginous Hawk and Merlin in fall and winter, and for nesting White-tailed Kites. Other grassland and grassland edge specialists here include Nuttall’s Woodpecker (fall and winter), Ash-throated Flycatcher, Western Bluebird (now rare), Western Meadowlark, and Lark, Grasshopper, and Savannah sparrows. Bluebirds may also be seen where the Chinquapin Trail joins the Eucalyptus Loop. Numerous fruiting madrones along the grassland edge host many thrushes, Cedar Waxwing, and Purple Finch in fall and winter. Check areas with Douglas-fir for Golden-crowned Kinglet and Hermit Warbler. Near dawn and dusk the forest edge near Empire Grade often has Northern Pygmy-Owl.
Woodcutter’s Trail traverses redwood forest and mixed evergreen forest, and has resident Pileated Woodpeckers. It is a great area for Varied Thrush and Fox Sparrow (fall and winter), Brown Creeper, Pygmy Nuthatch, Black-throated Gray (spring), Hermit and Townsend’s (winter) warblers, and many other woodland species.