Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

February 3, 2012

Locked Gates at Gilbert Water Ranch

Filed under: Birds, Cats, favorite places, Gilbert Water Ranch, light — richditch @ 4:45 pm
Locked Gate at Gilbert Water Ranch

Locked Gate at Gilbert Water Ranch

Long-time readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time at the Gilbert Water Ranch for my bird photography. I’ve been going there since it opened to the public over 10 years ago, and when the temperature is good as it has been recently I am there two or three times a week.

The Water Ranch is a wonderful community resource: 110 acres of open space and trails around shallow basins that hold varying amounts of reclaimed “gray” water being percolated back into the ground water system. The water and the vegetation that surrounds it is a magnet for birds in this former agricultural area (and desert before that). I’ve personally seen 216 species here and the list of documented species is at least 20 more than that.

The birds attract birders and bird photographers. The Streak-backed Oriole that returned for three winters put the Ranch on the radar of birders nationwide and many birders came from all over the United States to see it. That bird was surpassed last winter when a Baikal Teal was discovered among the numerous Green-winged Teal, and it delighted birders who could get here in the few days it remained.

During all the years the Water Ranch has been open to the public I had never seen any of the gates that block entry to the trails closed. Bird photographers and birders and other nature lovers could begin their walk into the facility to be at their preferred spot for the fleeting light of dawn – a precious commodity to photographers in a land where the soft warm light near sunrise only lasts a brief time as the sun climbs quickly above the horizon.

That changed for me on Tuesday, January 31, 2011, when I arrived just before sunrise. I prepared my gear (about 20 pounds with camera, long lens, tripod, gimbal head, accessories and water) and walked along the paved sidewalk that is always open for the fishing crowd at the freshwater pond by the library. The gate that marks the start of the gravel path from the paved walkway was closed and locked.

My assumption at the time was that the gates must always be locked at night, and the person who normally unlocks them before I arrive was behind schedule. So I poked around some places by the freshwater pond and checked back at the gate 30 minutes later. It was still locked.

So I decided I’d circle around the north end of pond 7 where the picnic pavilions are always open and see if the gate on the other side was open. It was, so I ended up making a much longer trip to get to the part of the Ranch I wanted to be at around dawn. I encountered three more locked gates preventing me from reaching the spot where a rare Clay-colored Sparrow had been hanging out. I was forced to make a much longer circuit than I had expected to get back to my car. I even ran out of water on my way back.

When I got home I emailed the Director of the Riparian Preserve (the official name of the Water Ranch) with my tale and my questions. He informed me that their new policy was to lock the gates each night to cut don on vandalism and open them by dawn every day. But the person supposed to unlock the gates was out sick on Tuesday and the other person sho could open them had the day off. The Director assured me that they would be open by dawn when I returned.

I wasn’t there on the following day, but another birder reported locked gates when he arrived that eventually were unlocked much later.

I was there again a little before sunrise on Thursday, February 2, 2012 and was disappointed but not surprised to find the gate still locked. I took photos with my iPhone to document it before departing and just as I was starting back to my car the Naturalist arrived to unlock the gate.

I suspect I frightened the Naturalist when we spoke: it was difficult to contain my frustration. The Naturalist explained the reasons for the new policy: overnight vandals, quads, people illegally coming in to feed the feral cats, and even people coming in to shoot the birds. I understand the need to limit this abuse of the Water Ranch and I applaud the people that manage and maintain the place for their efforts to date. I’m not sure the Naturalist understood how important it is to photographers to get in early for the good light, nor the need to be able to enter the preserve from the west side as well as from the northeast.

I also worry how well this will work out over time, especially when sunrise is at 5:30 am instead of 7:30 am. It is frustrating to get up especially early and make a long drive to be at the Water Ranch to catch the light only to find entry barred by a locked gate.

So, please let me know your experiences on any future visits to the Gilbert Water Ranch with a comment here. I’d also like to hear suggestions on how we can improve the odds that we’ll always find the gates open.



  1. That’s a bummer Rich. I hope they get their act together.

    Comment by rondudley — February 3, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

  2. Wow Rich, it must have been a shock to find the gate closed and locked. I hope that this will work out for all the photographers so that the gate will be open for the good light.

    I used to go to a State Park in Florida in the afternoon specifically because they didn’t open the gate until 8 am, long after the good light in the summer months. I wasn’t really fond of being there in the late evening because I didn’t have the best angle of light then for the subjects I usually photographed.

    Comment by Mia McPherson — February 3, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  3. I will be there the first weekend of April for some photography. Coming from MN. I would hate to miss the good light after flying that far and getting up that early. At least knowing before hand so I can make other plans would be nice.

    Comment by Jon Swanson — February 14, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

  4. So far, so good, Jon. I’ve been back at dawn a few times since I found the gates locked and have had no further problems. Plus, I’ve heard from no other visitors having problems with locked gates. I hope this issue is now behind us all.

    Comment by richditch — February 14, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

  5. i emailed Scott Anderson there and he said it is something they are able to do not that they have enough help. It has nothing to do with vandalism. So I will be down in April….hope to see you then!

    Comment by Jon Swanson — February 14, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

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