The noise level rivaled the Indy 500. Chaotic quacks, riotous wings flapping and sudden splashes erupted around the pond as groups of ducks traveled back and forth over the water.
Pintail ducks revved their engines and launched from the water, the wind whistling through their feathers as they screamed around the imaginary racetrack in the sky. A group of mallards flew back from a mission, their energy gone. They plopped down unceremoniously and loudly on the water.
From his spot hunkered down in the brush along the pond, Dad shot frame after frame of ducks as they zoomed past him. Even without camouflage clothing, the plants hid him so well, the birds never knew he was there. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch was the perfect place for a high-speed bird photo shoot.
A Dream Come True
That really long name describes an oasis for humans and animals alike. In 1999 Gilbert, Arizona officials started the Preserve based on a 13-year-old dream. Years ago the town had pledged to reuse 100 percent of its wastewater. The Preserve helps city officials do just that.
Seven recharge basins or ponds are filled on an alternating basis with treated effluent water. That water then steeps down into an aquifer for future use. In the meanwhile, 298 species of birds and insects plus mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish benefit from the reliable ponds in the middle of not only a desert, but also a heavily populated suburb of Phoenix.
From its humble start with wastewater, the Preserve provides wildlife habitat, learning and leisure opportunities as well as clean water, a hot commodity in an arid climate. Visitors can wander over 4 ½ miles of trails, get a duck’s perspective on a floating boardwalk, catch rainbow trout in the designated fishing pond or visit a hummingbird garden.
Lots of families come to the park and the kids enjoy feeding the birds. Right off the bat my Mom, who accompanies Dad on all of his travels, met a few of these semi-tamed and opportunistic birds. Two geese decided Mom really should have purchased more bird food. When she ran out, one Canadian goose got its feathers ruffled. It waddled up and attempted to eat the buttons right off her shirt. We’re happy to report the shirt and my Mom are still intact. The goose was out of luck.
Getting Down to Business
Those miles of wide and smooth trails I mentioned earlier make it particularly easy for wildlife photographers toting lots of gear. While many of the birds seemed used to people feeding them from the bridge, the majority of ducks preferred a little quieter area near the back edge of the park. Maybe they were hiding out from the plethora of nature photographers Dad spied on his walk. In any case, he had no problem reaching the back ponds even with all of the equipment he brought.
One rig contained his Canon EOS-ID Mark IV paired with a Canon 400mm/f.28 lens and a 2X extender on a Wimberley Gimbal head and Gitzo tripod. The other rig was his Canon EOS-ID Mark IV and his lightweight 400mm/f.5.6 lens that he was able to handhold.
After spending some time studying the birds’ flight patterns around the pond, Dad decided to use the lightweight 400mm lens. You can read all about the pros and cons of this lens here in our earlier product review.
As Dad said, “Those ducks were flying 100 miles an hour like greased lightening. Handholding the 400mm/f5.6 turned my body into the pivot point. It allowed me to quickly turn, hone in and follow the birds through my viewfinder. The Wimberley is great in many situations but being tripod-free here gave me the edge in shooting the duck photos.
If you imagine a World War II battleship with those big guns that locked on and followed the target no matter where it went, that was me. Those ducks were flying so fast, it was all you could do just to find them and mash the camera button down. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.”
The ducks seemed to move in short bursts. A group of five to 10 would take off. Another group landed on the ponds. Two flew out. Then nothing. Dad took the down time to study the images he’d just shot and to make adjustments on the camera. He was pleased with the photos he was getting.
“The Preserve is an excellent place to hone your panning and long lens skills,” Dad said. “Shooting a fast moving subject is tricky and requires a lot of practice. This place has a plethora of ducks just waiting to be photographed. It’s easy to get in and it’s free. What more could you want?”
If You Go
The Preserve is right in the city of Gilbert between Guadalupe and Greenfield roads, at 2757 E. Guadalupe Road. You’ll find a small-ish parking area off Guadalupe Road. I say small-ish because this is a popular spot. The lot fills quickly.
Hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily but certain areas within the Preserve close at dusk. You can contact the Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department at 480-503-6200 for more information. Entrance is free as is the parking.
The family could easily tag along on this photo shoot. Between the kids’ play area, floating boardwalk and pollinator gardens the kiddos will keep busy while you’re shooting. Picnic tables, an observatory with a nifty telescope and plentiful restrooms round out the kid-appealing aspects of the park. Another bonus: you can also bring the dog along since they’re allowed on the trails.
We recommend taking a variety of gear since you may be able to shoot close ups like the ring-necked duck as well as long lens shots like the pintail ducks. Having two camera bodies ready to roll with different lenses makes it easy to capture a shot when opportunity knocks. A long lens like a 400mm with extenders, a zoom of 70-200mm and a wide-angle lens give you the flexibility to shoot tight wildlife photos as well as landscapes. Naturally you’ll want a tripod with a Wimberley Gimbal head combo just in case.
Good luck on your photo shoot and have fun at the races!