"Gilbert Water Ranch" is shorthand for "The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ." This is a 110 acre facility of seven large shallow basins used to recharge the water table with processed waste water (i.e., "gray" water). Water levels are adjusted all the time, so there's never any advance knowledge of where the water will be on any visit. During the hotter months there may be only very small "survival" ponds in a few of the basins as the bulk of the water is sold to golf courses in the area. There is also an eighth pond beside the library that is kept full and stocked for fishermen that generally holds little of interest to photographers.
The basins are surrounded by wide gravel berms that are easy to walk upon, with low native shrubs and a few scattered small mesquite trees that host various passerines.
The facilities are open to the public dawn to dusk, and the gravel paths get lots of use from birders, photographers, joggers, strollers, and dog owners. Occasionally there are 2-3 teenage girls on horses. On weekends a horde of cub-scouts often invades and pretends they are roughing it in the wildness while the troop leaders hide out in their cars parked 10 feet away during overnight stays.
The facility is completely surrounded by typical metro development sprawl. The basins attract lots of water birds, and the vegetation is used by typical land birds of the area. Most resident birds are now very tolerant of people, making photography easier than the same birds in less visited locations.
With such good and varied habitat in the developed surroundings, the location is a magnet for both birds and birders. I've personally seen 182 of the more than 220 species reported here since it opened to the public in late 1999. In a typical 2-3 hour visit I can walk around about 1/3rd of the trails (based on where the water is) and see 45-55 species. If I took my spotting scope instead of my camera on these visits I'd likely see another 10-15 species.
Rarities here have included: Streak-backed Oriole (three winters, last seen in Nov 2007); Groove-billed Ani (1 bird for about a month); Least Tern and Elegant Tern (one of very few records for AZ); four species of gulls including Franklin's and Sabine's; many vagrant "Eastern" warblers (Magnolia, Prairie, American Redstart, Kentucky, Tennessee, Blackpoll, and currently Northern Parula), Fulvous Whistling-Duck, and Ruff.
It is probably the best birding location near Phoenix and certainly worth a visit for anyone living in the Valley, visiting here, or just passing through on the way to southern Arizona or California.
For bird photographers the primary attractions are wintering waterfowl and migrant shorebirds. Good numbers of Long-billed Dowitchers are present fall through spring. Black-necked Stilts are resident year round and provide opportunities for mating displays and close ups of recently hatched chicks. American Avocets also nest here and one or two may be present in winter as well. Killdeer nest in many places. Herons and egrets are well represented, including breeding Black-crowned Night-Heron and Green Heron. Both Least and American Bittern have been seen but are not to be expected. Neotropic Cormorants have displaced Double-crested for the most part and can be photographed in flight, swimming, and roosting in trees. Abert's Towhee, a Colorado River basin specialty, is resident and can be abundant but is difficult to find off the ground. Curve-billed Thrashers are also resident and nest in the large Saguaro cactus group next to the main parking lot. Gila Woodpeckers also nest here and can be seen feeding on the blossoms and fruit of the cacti along with White-winged Doves in season.
Best photography is in the first hour or two at dawn, when the light is good, the temperature hasn't reached the triple digits yet, and visitor activity is at a minimum. Most photographers head directly to the east side of pond 5, just past the central restroom. From the parking lot head south on the main path between ponds 7 and 1, and go 30 yards or so beyond the elevated area where the water is pumped between the ponds. Walk past the bench and pick a dry spot close to the water's edge. It is not necessary to set up a blind, or even to wear camo here - just get low and stay quiet without making any sudden moves. Birds may be across the pond when you begin but often move so close to the eastern edge that you can get frame-filling shots of Least Sandpiper with 600mm. While watching the shorebirds don't overlook Song Sparrow, American Pipit, Red-winged Blackbird, or Great-tailed Grackle that come to feed at the water's edge nearby.
More information on finding and photographing common species here is presented in Water Ranch Examples.
A near-current checklist of birds reliably seen at the Water Ranch is available on Birds of the Gilbert Water Ranch.
Official web site: http://www.riparianinstitute.org/