March 16, 2007
Long-billed Dowitcher
Once just an important bird area, Gilbert Water Ranch is now an Important Bird Area--designated as such by National Audubon Society, the upper case letters signifying its identification and acceptance as part of a worldwide effort to preserve habitat for birds.

Tice Supplee, Audubon Arizona's director of bird conservation, explains what the Important Bird Area designation means.  "Meeting the criteria for recognition as an IBA provides a scientifically defensible method for prioritizing conservation activities.  Identification of a site raises public awareness about the values of that location and habitat to birds and provides an opportunity for citizens to volunteer their time and resources to conserve and manage these sites."

To become an IBA site, an area must meet one of four criteria:  habitat vital to an endangered species, habitat where birds congregate for breeding, migrating, or wintering, habitat that is rare or unique, or habitat where avian research and education take place.

Gilbert Water Ranch qualifies on the second and fourth of these.  It is the winter home to a sizeable flock of long-billed dowitchers, a type of sandpiper, and both The Riparian Institute and Audubon conduct classes there focusing on avian ecology, bird identification, and our planet's need for biodiversity.  Gilbert Water Ranch, aka the Gilbert Riparian Area or GRA, is a 110 acre site with seven recharge basins managed by the city of Gilbert as a water treatment facility.  It is located behind the library on the southeast corner of Guadalupe and Greenfield Roads in Gilbert.

The dowitchers, which begin arriving in mid-July and leave by the end of May, are twelve inch shorebirds with short legs and remarkably long bills, tactile at the tip, enabling the species to feed in shallow standing water by probing rapidly with an up-and-down sewing machine motion in the bottom mud.  Food items are aquatic invertebrates such as insect larvae and marine worms.  Dowitchers are often seen flying in formation, low over the water, identified by the broad white triangle on the lower back.  Their name is thought to be either the English version of the Dutch word for "snipe," or an anglicization of an Iroquois word.

A special thanks from the dowitchers and all who enjoy Gilbert Water Ranch's birds goes to Cynthia Donald and Mike Rupp.  Cynthia, program chair for Maricopa Audubon Society, was the leader of a volunteer team which conducted a year long survey of birdlife at the Ranch, a prerequisite for its IBA status.  Mike, president of Friends of Audubon Arizona, initiated the Ranch's popular family birdwalk series.

The greatest threat to our wild bird population today is fragmentation and loss of suitable habitat.  There are now 30 IBA sites in Arizona and many consider Gilbert Water Ranch the crown jewel because of its accessible urban setting, its educational programs, and its year round birding opportunities.  There is always something going on at Gilbert--raptors overhead, water birds in the ponds, passerines in the trees.   Now if we could just get the osprey to stay and use the nesting platforms, and if we could educate pet owners not to dump their unwanted pets (cats, iguanas, cage birds, etc) at the site . . . .

Learn more about the Gilbert Water Ranch and the Important Bird Area program at the following websites:

National Audubon Society -

BirdLife International -

Audubon Arizona -

Maricopa Audubon Society -

Friends Of Audubon Arizona -