It was 6:15 am and Janice, that’s my wife, and I were heading to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, in Gilbert, Arizona, just a few miles south and east of Scottsdale. Riparian, an unusual word, means relating to wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams.
I’m relatively new to wildlife photography and even newer to birds in flight, which some say is the most challenging type of wildlife photography there is. In 2014, I got an invite to attend a wildlife photo workshop. That workshop was for me, photographically speaking, a life-changing experience and was one of my, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” moments. Since then wildlife photography has become an all-out, all-consuming passion. And not only that, so has mastering the craft. I set out on a specific program to educate myself, committing to take a minimum of three photo workshops a year specifically devoted to various aspects of wildlife photography, including:
- Kalispell, Montana – Triple D animals
- South Dakota – wild horses
- Grand Tetons NP – grizzly bears and other mammals
- Rocky Mountain NP – elk rut and deer
- Custer State Park – antelope, deer, prairie dogs and other small mammals
- Zoos and animal parks – variety of animals
- Bosque del Apache, New Mexico – sandhill cranes and snow geese
- Northern Washington – eagles during the salmon run
- Costa Rica – birds
- Tanzania and the Serengeti, East Africa – Mammals
Workshops enable me to sit at the feet of Masters trying to absorb their years of knowledge and experience. This is how I met Kathleen Reeder; she is a Master. Given the choice, why would anyone choose to spend years of misguided floundering, often duplicating mistakes previously made by others when accurate knowledge is readily available as are the skilled people, themselves waiting to educate you? Gifted people, able and willing to take you to places they have discovered and personally explored, saving you time, money and exasperation. Some may think “Wow, that sounds expensive.” Not so, my friend, ignorance and wasted time and effort is what’s expensive!
So, back to Arizona. The town of Gilbert, Arizona about thirty years ago, cleverly decided that, being a desert town, they should try to reuse the water they had. They made a commitment to reuse 100% of their effluent (waste and sewage) water. But rather than just store and chemically treat the water in huge, unsightly storage tanks, they decided to combine their water management program with a wildlife habitat, thus turning their conservation efforts into a practical, multi-purpose venue. In 1999, the 110 acre Riparian Preserve was developed, 70 acres of which make up seven water treatment ponds which are filled on a rotating basis with chemically-treated liquid waste water which is allowed to percolate into an aquifer where it is stored for future use.
The serendipity is that these ponds attract, according to Water Ranch’s website, close to 300 species of birds, many of whom make it a year round habitat, others merely drop by on a periodic basis which, along with the other mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects and fish that call the Water Ranch home, make it a wildlife photographer’s paradise. The seven random-shaped, geometric ponds of varying sizes are neatly laid out, close to one-another within a square bordered on three sides by city streets and on the east, by a narrow canal. The main entrance to the Ranch is on Guadalupe Road and has ample free parking. Download a Map of the Water Ranch.
My camera/lens choice this morning was my Nikon D500 and Nikkor 80-400mm, mounted on a gimbal head/Manfrotto tripod. The D500, considering the 1.5 crop factor, gave me a reasonable reach of up to 600 mm, more than ample reach for this particular pond, and the short end gave me the ability to shoot closer when necessary.
As the rising sun broke and bathed the pond in glowing light, the hungry birds and waterfowl became quite active; birds were coming and going in and from all directions with an enormous cacophony of sound. The photographer’s cameras, all firing at high-speed, as is optimal for birds in flight, sounding like the machine guns of WWII bombers fending off attacking fighters, added to the din. It was glorious and the action lasted for a couple of hours.
My advice to wildlife photography enthusiasts is make time to learn the ways and habits of your potential animal subjects to become more fully able to relate to them. Then, seek them out, enter their world, and be among them for a while. Look into their eyes and let them sense your soul. Do this and ultimately you will be capturing images you never thought possible.
Don’s an avid pilot, flight instructor, and renown educator/lecturer who has been teaching aviation seminars to pilots and business seminars to investors across the United States for the past 30 plus years. Currently he has deeply immersed himself in, and, with his wife, Janice, travels around the world pursuing wildlife photography.
Don Berman loves the world we live in! His passion is to record through his camera God’s magnificent creation and the living creatures that abound within it. His specialty is nature, outdoor and particularly, wildlife photography.