Gilbert Riparian Preserve

During my trip to Phoenix a few weeks ago, I had a lot of free time on my hands on Saturday before the event at the Desert Botanical Gardens began at night.  I felt like I needed to go out and do something in Phoenix.  I’d read a lot about the Gilbert Riparian Preserve from dragonfly enthusiasts and bloggers in the Phoenix area and it sounded really great, but I had never had an excuse to go.  I finally had some time to kill there!  It was over 100 degrees and humid the day I went, but I went anyway.  As I pulled into the lot at the preserve, I prepared to roast myself in the desert sun while taking dragonfly photos for a few hours.

Gilbert Riparian Preserve map

Gilbert Riparian Preserve map. Image from

The first thing I noticed was that it was very hot.  I arrived around 3PM, which is generally a bad time to be wandering around alone in the desert in the summer.  I had plenty of water and there was ample shade, so I knew I could stay safe.  The second thing I’d noticed was that I’d seriously underestimated the size of the preserve!  I had given myself 2 hours to explore.  I realized 30 minutes into my visit that it wasn’t going to be nearly enough.  I hadn’t researched the preserve before going, so I didn’t realize that it covered 110 acres and housed 8 separate ponds.  There was no way I was getting it all in during my two hours!  I only visited two of the ponds and a stream that flowed between two of the others.

water ranch lake

The water ranch lake, the fishing pond at the preserve.

The Gilbert Riparian Preserve is a really interesting site.  The story goes like this.  In 1986, the city of Gilbert, AZ decided it wanted to recycle 100% its treated wastewater.  The preserve was built to help the city accomplish this goal.  Effluent from the wastewater treatment plant is released into the preserve where it flows into one of seven recharge ponds.  The sun and the plants growing in and around the ponds help to clean the water up a bit.  The water also trickles down through the soil below the ponds, getting cleaner and cleaner the deeper it goes thanks to the natural filtration soil provides.  The water eventually seeps into the shallow aquifer below the preserve.  From there, the water is pumped into the eighth pond, a pond stocked with fish and open to fishing, or into other areas around Gilbert for other uses.

female mallard

A female mallard, taking a vigorous mid-afternoon bath.

While the water filtration is important, the preserve also provides a great resource for wildlife and the public.  As you probably know, the Phoenix area is in a desert and water can be scarce.  The large amount of open water at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve provides valuable habitat for animals such as insects, birds, and fish and provides water for larger animals.  It also gives the people in the Phoenix area a great place where they can go to see animals that depend on water, learn about water resources in Arizona, fish, and enjoy being outside near water.  The preserve hosts several interpretive walks and talks, weekend star-gazing via the on-site observatory, and gives people a little respite from the dry desert of the surrounding area.


One of the ponds at the preserve, Pond 5

We have a facility like the preserve in Tucson (you can read more about it next week), but I have to admit that I liked the Gilbert Riparian Preserve a lot better.  The managers seem to really care about providing a great educational experience to their visitors.  The site is well laid out so that you can see both ponds and small stream-like habitats.  There’s also clearly been a lot of money devoted to the site to keep everything running smoothly and looking great.  It’s a really nice place!

But I was there mostly for the dragonflies.  I’ve seen species lists for the site and lots of pictures of dragonflies that people have photographed there, so it seemed like a good spot.  (Pierre Deviche and Kim Hosey have taken some great photos there if you’re interested!)  In spite of arriving at the preserve in the middle of a hot day when most of the dragonflies were hiding in the shade to prevent overheating, I still saw several species.  As someone who went to the site primarily to photograph dragonflies, I was pretty happy with what I saw!  Perhaps not quite so happy when I got back to my hotel room and noticed I’d been shooting at 400 ISO and my photos were all kinda grainy, but what can you do?  Some of my favorite shots were of the super common species in Arizona:

Pachydiplax longipennis

Blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) male, hanging out on a cattail leaf near the Water Ranch pond.

Blue dashers might be common, but I still love them.  Look at that lovely blue!  And the bright green eyes are just gorgeous!  In this photo, you can see the split between the parts of the eye that look up and the parts that look forward and to the side.  The light at this particular moment and location really highlighted the two parts of the eye.

Another really common Arizona dragonfly:

Sympetrum corruptum

Variegated meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum) male.

Sympetrum corruptum head on

Another variegated meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum, head on

Like the blue dashers, the variegated meadowhawks are common, but very beautiful.  Note the position of the male in the upper photo.  He’s tilting his abdomen away from the sun to stay cool!

These little orangey-yellow Mexican amberwings always seem to be out:

Perithemis intensa male

Mexican amberwing (Perithemis intensa) male.

They like to sit out on vegetation that’s hovering horizontally out over the water away from the bank and about a foot or two up from the surface.  They spend hours at a time looking out toward the water, waiting for prey, females, or males to enter their territories and respond accordingly when they do.  They seem pretty laid back as far as dragonflies go though and don’t fly around nearly as much as the others.

These little damselflies are also common, but I see a lot fewer of them:

Ischnura ramburii

Desert forktail (Ischnura barberi ) female.

I love all the different colors on the desert forktails!  And they come in a lot of different color combinations too.  This is a female with the typical male coloration, but there are other color variants in females too.  This one was hiding in a shady place near one of the little streams that ran between two of the ponds.

All in all, I thought my trip to the Gilbert Riparian Preserve was fabulous!  I ended up drinking 3 liters of water I’d brought with me while I was there, but it was still a great trip.  Lots of dragonflies, a fun place to visit, and another aquatic habitat in Arizona to check off my list.  I’m going to have to go back sometime though and check out the other 6 ponds I didn’t see, maybe when it’s a little cooler or earlier in the day.  I barely even scratched the surface of the preserve!

Next Monday I’m posting about a similar site that we have in Tucson.  I stopped on my way back to town from Phoenix and finally got one good photo of a flying dragonfly there!  Woohoo!


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5 thoughts on “Gilbert Riparian Preserve

  1. One of my favorite places! My parents live quite near there, and in fact my dad is in the astronomy club that does the star-gazing nights. I go there more looking for birds than insects – in the winter it’s a FANTASTIC place to find ducks, and in the summer avocets and stilts.

  2. I think those are the most common dragonflies (and damselfly) I see there too. There were some giant darners out my last time, and black saddlebags and roseate skimmers are pretty common, but I’ll be darned if I can get good shots of them (especially the skimmers).

    Glad you had a good time! It’s a nice spot.

  3. Have you been to Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler (Chandler Heights and Lindsay)? We went today and saw dragonflies in every color (or it seemed that way)!

    • No, I haven’t been there yet, but that and Rio Salado are high on my list of places I would like to visit in the Phoenix area the next time I have time to kill there. Doesn’t happen very often, so I’ve just barely started visiting places and checking them off my list. I hear the park is nice though!

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