First Trip to Gray Lodge, 10-22-20

Got up around 6:00 am and was out the door with my friend and fellow naturalist Roxanne to head over to the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in Gridley (about 90 minutes from Sacramento). We’d never been there before, so we didn’t really know what to expect, but we’d seen posts on social media of the birds other folks are seeing there.

It’s early in the migration period, so there are mostly Pintails, Northern Shovelers and Snow Geese in big flocks all over the place – and that’s pretty much what we were seeing at this preserve. But over the next few months, sightings of other birds should sharply increase. Another factor working again us today was the fact that it was very windy in Gridley, so there was a lot of chop on the water in the wetland areas, and the birds were all kind of hunkered down to keep warm. Nonetheless, I could really see the potential of this preserve to become one of my go-to places in the future.

There is a 3-mile auto tour route that we followed, and a couple of trails, too. Along the auto tour route, there are turn-outs (some with porta-potties, which are GREATLY appreciated) and great viewing areas. It’s about half as long as the route at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, but far more open. We walked one of the trails as far as the wildlife blind… which was THE NICEST blind I’ve ever seen. It’s well shaded, had lots of viewing windows, polished benches to sit on, and room to bring in your gear – or even your lunch. I was very impressed with the place.

The views of the Sutter Buttes from around the preserve are excellent. We would have gotten more photos if the air wasn’t so smutty with smoke and dirt kicked up by all of the work being done on the surround ag properties right now.

The Sutter Buttesas seen from the highway heading into Gridley, CA

As we were driving to toward where the pay station was and the auto tour route began, we stopped at one of the turnout to look at the huge pyracantha bushes on the side of the road, and watch several hawks and vultures coasting overhead on the wind. We also use the porta-potty unit there which was one of THE cleanest units I’ve ever seen.

There was a large willow tree near there that was wearing a thick “coat” of poison oak. And in another nearby tree was a juvenile Turkey Vulture. He was very young but fully fledged; his head and the tip of his beak were still very black. If we’d had all day to sit around there we might have been able to see his mom come to feed him.

A juvenile Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

Just before you get onto the auto tour route, there’s a kiosk to buy a land’s pass for the day. It’s $4.25 per person. You can buy an annual pass online (if you set up an account), but it’s by CALENDAR year and isn’t prorated; so, if you buy a pass in October it’s only good though December of the same year (2 months) but still costs you as much as a 12-month pass. So, it’s best to buy the annual pass in January.

Adjacent to the kiosk are some picnic tables, and access to the ADA compliant Wetland Discovery Trail. This one is a little over half a mile long and leads to a viewing platform. We didn’t walk it, but look forward to doing that during our next trip there.

In the ponds along the auto tour route we saw the usual suspects: Coots, Pipits, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Mallards, Killdeer, Wigeons, Green-Winged Teals, Greater Yellowlegs, a Common Gallinule, Greater White-Fronted Geese, Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Gadwalls, blackbirds, and others. Most of them were pretty far away, sheltering against the wind near stands of tules and other vegetation. So photo-taking wasn’t all that easy.

Gadwall duck, Mareca Strepera

At one point, though, we found a Peregrine Falcon standing in a naked tree and were able to get a few photos of him before he flew off. And further along, we saw a Red-Tailed Hawk being harassed by a Raven. When the hawk set down on a berm to rest for moment, the Raven sat down nearby, resting too. Then they both took off again, with the Raven resuming its harassing activities.

A Common Raven, Corvus corax,and a Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis take a break before starting the harassment again.
Listen to how strong the wind was!

In the group shots I got of the ducks was the pleasant surprise of finding a Eurasian Wigeon in among the American Wigeons and Northern Pintails. That was a “first” for me. I’ve seen pictures of them,of course, but I’ve never spotted one in the wild before. Very exciting.

A rusty-headed Eurasian Wigeon, Mareca penelope, among a flock of American Wigeons, Anas Americana , and Northern Pintails, Anas acuta

When we’d completed the auto tour route, we parked in a pull-out, used the facilities there, and then walked down part of the 2-mile graveled Flyaway Loop Trail. This runs along the levees around some of the temporary and permanent wetland pools, and leads to the Betty Adamson Hide, the large bird blind. As I’d mentioned, this was the nicest-looking blind I’ve ever seen. On the side of the blind is an inverted V-shaped bat box. At Gray Lodge, there are supposed to be several species of bats including the California Myotis, Brazilian Free-tailed bat, Pallid Bat, and Western Red Bat. One of the windows looks right out onto the box, so it might be cool to sit there at dusk and see if anything flies into the box.

Along the trail were lots of blackberry vines and sweetbriar rose bushes, salt grass, tules and rushes, and a variety of riparian habitat trees: oaks, willows, cottonwood, boxelder, eucalyptus, ash…

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Rox pointed out the salt grass to me, and I was able to get photos of the exuded salt on its leaves along with close-up images of its pinkish “flowers”. I ran my fingers over the leaves and then licked them to taste the salt, but I didn’t put my tongue on the plant itself. Hah! Salty!

Salt Grass, Distichlis spicata

We saw a variety of dragonflies, still in flight although late in the season, including Black Saddlebags, Variegated Meadowhawks, Pondhawks, and Green Darners. We saw some of them, male-and-female pairs, flying in tandem and some in-wheel. We also saw a pair of the Meadowhawks depositing eggs on the water.

Black Saddlebags Dragonfly, Tramea lacerata

There were a lot of incredibly tiny butterflies (no larger than my fingernail) flitting around the foot of the plants on the trail. I managed to get some photos of them, and believe they were Western Pygmy-Blues, the smallest butterflies in North America. Their wings, when open, are dusky copper with a purple-blue blush down the middle, with each wing rimmed in white. Sooooo pretty; and so much remarkable detail for such tiny things. Their host plants include pigweed, saltbrush and amaranth plants. “…After mating, females lay eggs on all parts of the host plant, oftenmost on the uppersides of leaves…” Considering how small these guys are, can you imagine how miniscule their eggs, caterpillars and chrysalises must be?!

The Western Pygmy-Blue Butterfly, Brephidium exilis exilis. The smallest butterfly in North America.

The biggest surprise, was finding the biggest grasshopper I’d ever seen. It was a dark luscious green with a yellow stripe down its pronotum and bright red hind tibiae. It was a kind of “bird grasshopper”, called that because it can fly very high and very fast like a bird; a Spotted Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca lineata.

I had a little trouble ID-ing it at first because this species comes in a variety of different color including reddish-brown, yellowish-brown, yellowish-green, olive-green, olive-brown, or dark brown. The color changes with age and is also dependent on the surrounding environment. This particular species overwinters as an adult (rather than in egg form in the ground like most grasshopper species). Females are larger than males.  I’m guessing we found a female.

Spotted Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca lineata. Based on its size, I assumed this one was a female.

I first caught sight of it hanging underneath the leaf of a blackberry vine. I could see one of its legs and its long abdomen and at first I thought it might be a mantis of some kind. On closer inspection, I realized it was a grasshopper. I reached into the blackberry vines to try to get a hold of it, but every time I got close to it, it would death-drop down further into the brambles. I finally used my old-lady-cane to pull the thorn-covered vines away and got hold of it. It was totally worth the scratches. As big as it was, it had a lot of power in its hind legs, so we held it by the thorax and the wings in order to get photos of it before releasing it again into the thicket.

An American Robin searching for bugs in the leaf litter at one of the turn-outs along the auto-tour route.

When we got back to the car from the trail, we stopped for bit to sit in the shade and have our lunch before heading home again. All in all, we were out for about 8 hours. It was a fun, interesting and informative day. I really enjoyed it… and am looking forward to going back to the preserve a little later in the season (preferably when it’s not so windy).

Species List:

  1. American Coot, Fulica americana
  2. American Kestrel, Falco sparverius
  3. American Pipit, Anthus rubescens
  4. American Robin, Turdus migratorius
  5. American Wigeon, Anas Americana
  6. Armenian Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus [pink flowers]
  7. Audubon’s Warbler, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata auduboni
  8. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  9. Black Saddlebags Dragonfly, Tramea lacerata
  10. Black-Necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus
  11. Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum
  12. Boxelder, Box Elder Tree, Acer negundo
  13. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  14. California Towhee, Melozone crissalis
  15. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis
  16. Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata
  17. Common Raven, Corvus corax
  18. Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto
  19. Eurasian Wigeon, Mareca penelope
  20. Gadwall duck, Mareca Strepera
  21. Golden Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla
  22. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  23. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  24. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons
  25. Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca
  26. Green Darner Dragonfly, Anax junius
  27. Green-Winged Teal, Anas carolinensis
  28. Herring Gull, Larus argentatus [spot on bill, gray legs, pale eye]
  29. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferous
  30. Mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  31. Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris [heard]
  32. Mosquito, Common House Mosquito, Culex pipiens
  33. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  34. Non-Biting Midge, Chironomus sp.
  35. Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus
  36. Northern Harrier, Marsh Hawk, Circus hudsonius
  37. Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos
  38. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta
  39. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata
  40. Parrot’s Feather, Myriophyllum aquaticum [water plant]
  41. Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus
  42. Poison Oak, Pacific Poison Oak, Western Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum
  43. Prickly Pear, Opuntia sp.
  44. Pyracantha, Firethorn, Pyracantha coccinea
  45. Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis
  46. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus
  47. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium
  48. Salt Grass, Distichlis spicata
  49. Smartweed, Persicaria lapathifolia [white]
  50. Snow Goose, Chen caerulescens
  51. Snowy Egret, Egretta thula
  52. Spotted Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca lineata
  53. Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus [heard]
  54. Sulphur Shelf Fungus, Western Hardwood Sulphur Shelf, Laetiporus gilbertsonii
  55. Swamp Smartweed, False Water-Pepper, Persicara hydropiperoides [pink]
  56. Sweet-Brier Rose, Rosa rubiginosa
  57. Tasmanian Blue Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus [white flowers]
  58. Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
  59. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum
  60. Western Gull, Larus occidentalis
  61. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta
  62. Western Pondhawk Dragonfly, Erythemis collocata
  63. Western Pygmy-Blue Butterly, Brephidium exilis exilis 
  64. White Ash Tree, Fraxinus americana
  65. White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
  66. White-Faced Ibis, Plegadis chihi
  67. ?? Tiny rounded droppings (chipmunk?)