This is the place I visit the most for bird photography as it offers a lot of variety and is only 20 miles from my house.

This section provides examples of the most common species I've photographed at the Water Ranch and gives some guidelines for visiting photographers to help them get the most from the location.

I work with a 300/2.8 and matched 2x on a Nikon D200, so 600/5.6 equivalent (900mm with the 1.5x sensor size factor), which is adequate for most subjects as shown by the examples.

Check out the Gallery for any specific species to see more images at larger scale - chances are many of the shots were taken at the Water Ranch.

And check out the Gilbert Water Ranch site guide for more info on location, directions, access, etc.

(download the complete article as a 592KB pdf file)

Abert's Towhee

A Colorado River basin specialty, and an abundant resident year round at the Water Ranch along the trails. Usually seen feeding on the ground but advertises for a mate from an elevated branch in breeding season. Listen for the distinctive call note, and watch for a bird scratching in the litter under the trailside shrubs.

For a perching bird try the eastern edge paved walkway along the canal - the trees here catch the first light of the day and I sometimes find these birds catching the morning sun.

Abert's Towhee Gallery

American Avocet

Breeds at the Water Ranch. One or two sometimes present in winter. Intricate mating ritual begins when female stands stationary with head lowered and bill almost touching water surface. Male splashs water with bill beside female, then mounts briefly. After mating the pair perform a lovely but quick dance.

Usually easiest to see and photograph in pond 5 in early morning light. Get there early and sit on the east edge of the pond close to the water. It might take a while for the sun to get high enough to put light on the water. The avocets and other birds will come much closer than you expect if you are quiet and don't make a lot of rapid moves.

Watch your exposure to avoid burning out the whites - check the histogram on the camera's LCD and dial in some negative exposure compensation as needed.

American Avocet Gallery

American Coot

Abundant almost anywhere there's water, and often ignored because they are so common and superficially not that attractive. But in good light you can bring out the contrast between the dark gray head and the lighter gray body, and set off the red eye.

At the Water Ranch you can photograph them swimming, feeding or resting, singly or in small groups. There's not a lot of color in the birds themselves (other than the eye and legs), so use the surroundings to add color.

American Coot Gallery

American Kestrel

Normally a bird that doesn't tolerate close approach, a pair at the Water Ranch at times are indifferent to observers who get within photo range. These birds are most often seen around the southern end of pond 5 (near the church at the southwest corner of the preserve). They like to sit on the thin branches at the tops of the mesquite trees in late afternoon on hot summer days (be sure to bring plenty of water!). Pay attention to the direction of the light late in the day to avoid strong backlighting, and make a slow approach on any perched bird to avoid spooking it.

American Kestrel Gallery

Anna's Hummingbird

Present all year, but easiest to see and photograph in winter as they sit on the tops of bushes along the paths. Expect to see a few along the path from the main parking lot to the central restrooms between ponds 1 and 7.

Getting lots of color in the rose-colored gorget requires careful alignment with the light source; a lot of photographers use flash to get it but I haven't had much luck with them and artificial light.

Anna's Hummingbird Gallery

Black Phoebe

Present all year, but harder to find in summer. Look for them along the pond edges, and even sitting on the pond number signs - they are almost always found very close to the water.

Exposure can be an issue, with their black and white plumage, so you'll likely want to use fill flash.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Population is variable: sometimes impossible to find, while at other times there can be a couple dozen in a single roosting area. Look for them early in the morning along the edges of the ponds. Always check the tamarisks at the northwest corner of pond 4 where both adults and juveniles like to sit in daylight.

You don't need to fill the frame with one of these birds - use the perch to complete the composition and keep a sense of place in the image.

Black-crowned Night-Heron Gallery

Black-necked Stilt

This close relative of the American Avocet likes the same habitat and shares much of the behavior. So, look for it as a nesting species and spend most of your time working it in pond 5 from the east edge in the first couple of hours of light. Sit quietly at the edge of the water and avoid sudden movements. You don't need camouflage or a blind - the birds will come in close to feed.

Black-necked Stilt Gallery

Cinnamon Teal

Present in smaller numbers than the other ducks; a breeding species here. Hard to get within photo range in my experience. My best shots have come from pond 5. I've seen better images from other local photographers, but I don't know their secrets!

Curve-billed Thrasher

This desert specialty is hard to miss at the Water Ranch, especially once you learn its two-note whistled call. They can be found in many of the trail-side shrubs, but the easiest place to photograph them is on the large Saguaro cacti just off the main parking lot along Guadalupe Road. They nest in shaggy collections of twigs where the arms of the cactus join the main trunk, and they feed on the fruit at the top of the cactus.

Curve-billed Thrasher Gallery

Gila Woodpecker

A desert specialty with close ties to the Saguaro cactus. They nest in cavities of these desert "trees" and feed on the fruit. They are noisy and hard to miss as they fly in and out of the Saguaro stand next to the parking lot.

Gila Woodpecker Gallery

Great Blue Heron

Always present, but sometimes hard to find. If there isn't one or two in the ponds then look in the dry plowed basins, or under the bushes on the hidden edges of the ponds.

This is one of the few species I think makes good head shots, by the way - probably because they are such large birds. If going for a head shot you'll need less depth of field if you can keep the head parallel to the camera sensor plane.

Great Blue Heron Gallery

Great Egret

Numbers vary greatly: some days there might be 30 in a single group; on other days you might not be able to find one.

For flight shots you'll have fewer problems with shadows if you shoot early in the morning when the sun is low.

Great Egret Gallery

Great-tailed Grackle

Definitely not a "glamour" subject, but worth looking at and photographing because of its limited range. Males are glossy black; females and immatures are brownish. They are big, noisy, and aggressive.

Great-tailed Grackle Gallery

Greater Roadrunner

A specialty of the southwestern U.S. There are a couple that can be seen at the Water Ranch, but there are no guarantees on any visit. I've had my best luck with one of them at the south edge of pond 5 when the water levels are quite low. Almost always seen on the ground; seldom on a perch; rarely in a short flight between ground and perch.

Behaviors to watch for include a slow raise of the tail, expansion of the neck feathers, and sunbathing (where the black downy underlayer of the back is exposed to the sun).

Greater Roadrunner Gallery

Greater Yellowlegs

Present in small numbers on and off fall through spring, usually too far out in the shallow ponds for decent photos.

Greater Yellowlegs Gallery

Green Heron

Resident year round, but can be hard to find at times or seen distantly on the far side of a large pond. Always check the more secluded spots at the corners and edges of still water for one hiding in the shadows. Best place for them at the Water Ranch is along the path between ponds 3 and 4 where they have nested on both sides.

Green Heron Gallery

Inca Dove

Year round resident, but can be missed or overlooked. Surprisingly difficult to photograph as it spooks easily.

Try the small trees along the north side of pond 5 (from the rough path near the water) and on the extreme south edge near the entrance gate by pond 4. Don't hesitate to shoot - the bird will likely fly while you are fiddling with camera settings. And be sure to turn off any pre-flash settings on your gear if you want to use fill - the bird will be gone before you take the photo.

Inca Dove Gallery


Hard to miss at the Water Ranch on any visit. They nest in various spots each year and many of the photographers you meet there will be able to point out the current favorite spot.

Killdeer Gallery

Long-billed Dowitcher

A Water Ranch staple in spring and fall migrations, and especially in large wintering flocks. In migration an active feeder; in winter spends a lot of time standing around on one foot with the bill tucked into the back feathers.

Pond 5 is my favorite location for this bird. They will come very close - so close that you can get head shots at times with 600mm.

You'll need a fast shutter speed for a feeding bird - the beak goes u and down so quickly that the head will be blurred in many frames. So, take a lot more shots than you normally would to increase the odds of a sharp image, and edit heavily later.

Long-billed Dowitcher Gallery

Neotropic Cormorant

This primarily neotropical species is expanding northward into the U.S., and has become more common in the Phoenix area than the Double-crested Cormorant. At the Water Ranch it is sometimes abundant. Nesting has been suspected but not yet observed here.

These birds congregate in the largest tree in the center of the facility, along the path between ponds 3 and 4. There's a bare branch at the northwest end of this path in pond 4 that is a favorite perch; morning light can be excellent on a cormorant here. The toughest part of getting a shot is pushing through the thorny scrub on the edge of the trail necessary to get a clean view. Be careful of the exposure to keep from blowing out the delicate white band around the gular pouch while getting detail in the blackish feathers, and wait for proper head position relative to the light to get the face illuminated.

Neotropic Cormorant Gallery

Northern Pintail

A common duck in winter, but can be difficult to get within camera range. I've had my best luck in pond 6 in the first hour of daylight from the eastern edge just north of the tiny concrete footbridge along the main trail. Watch the light closely and you can get different color backgrounds in a short time and close together.

The white on the throat and breast of the males is very easy to over expose, so be sure to pay attention to your histogram and dial in proper exposure compensation.

Northern Pintail Gallery

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

A common bird at the Water Ranch fall through winter, outnumbering the Cliff Swallows that nest here. Not a glamourous species, so you need to show feather detail and a strong graphic composition to be successful.

They seem to choose a new favorite roosting location each year, so you'll need to look around or ask another photographer where they are hanging out when not feeding on the wing. The path between ponds 2 and 3 was good at one time. Another place to look is along the paved walk on the south side of the "fisherman's" lake near the library.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow Gallery

Orange-crowned Warbler

A common wintering bird at the Water Ranch, but like all warblers small and active and difficult to shoot. Find them foraging in the trail-side shrubs and in the larger trees along the path between ponds 1 and 7 in the northeast corner of the facility.

Peach-faced Lovebird

There's a small feral population of this escaped exotic from Africa that is often seen at the Water Ranch. Although it isn't countable on an ABA life list at the moment there's some thought that it will eventually be added. There are enough of them in the wild around Phoenix that they are shown in both The Sibley Guide to Birds and Kaufman's Birds of North America.

Listen for their distinctive harsh call, and look for them feeding on the seed pods under mesquite trees.

Pied-billed Grebe

There's usually a pair in each pond, but they can be difficult to get within camera range. Their habit is sinking below the surface and coming up far away also makes them a challenge.

I've done best with them in pond 6 in early morning, and along the path between ponds 3 and 4 in late afternoon.

Pied-billed Grebe Gallery

Say's Phoebe

More often around than not, but can be missed. I have the most luck with them near the central restrooms and a little south between ponds 3 and 5. They will often return to a favorite perch so don't give up if a bird initially flies off - it might come back to the same spot shortly.

Say's Phoebe Gallery


Another southwest desert specialty. Very small and very active. Loud call note makes it hard to miss. Can be found in any shrub or tree anywhere at the facility.

Verdin Gallery

White-crowned Sparrow

Could be the most numerous small bird at the Water Ranch in winter. Hard to miss along any trail.

Best photo opportunity occurs when the Desert Broom in is bloom and the sparrows feed in the white stuff.

White-crowned Sparrow Gallery

White-winged Dove

Spring and summer are the best times to photograph these birds as they roost and feed on the Saguaro cacti just off the main parking lot.

White-winged Dove Gallery