By Eric Bowles
Few places can offer the type of bird photography you’ll find at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, and the best time to visit is fast approaching. From late March through late May, photographers can encounter hundreds of wading birds that are nesting, courting, breeding, laying eggs and raising chicks. For nature photographers, this Florida attraction is a must-see.
Those who have experienced the site know the raucous cacophony from hundreds of birds and chicks that greet you upon arrival. Visitors dutifully line up before 8:00 a.m. at the famous Red Door, along with a couple dozen photographers who are there each morning. Everyone in line either has a Photographer’s Pass or is buying one, because that pass allows early entry and also allows you to stay late, after normal closing time. While you wait, you strike up a casual conversation with other photographers. You find the group is a mix of locals, regulars and others from all over the country.
When the doors open, you all head to the wide boardwalk that winds its way through the rookery. There is plenty of space to observe and photograph. You’ll often be at distances of less than 10-15 feet from nesting wading birds. The largest birds are the wood storks – prehistoric- looking creatures that were once on the endangered species list and are now making a great recovery. Nesting in the same trees are Great Egrets with stunning white plumes and brilliant green lores during breeding season. Not to be confused with the Great Egrets are the Snowy Egrets – smaller white egrets with bright yellow feet, black legs and a raspy squawk. Recently we have seen increased numbers of Roseate Spoonbills, with as many as 50-75 birds nesting in the area. You’ll also spot Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons and scattered Green Herons and Cattle Egrets nesting in the smaller palm trees and bushes. All told, there are usually more than 700 adult birds, and at least that many chicks in the nests.
Finally – before you get too comfortable – don’t forget the alligators. There are hundreds of alligators on the property, and many of the large ones are swimming under the boardwalk. It’s mating season, so you’ll hear their deep rumble and see droplets or water vibrating on the surface nearby.
The St. Augustine Alligator Farm is listed on the National Historic Register and has operated in the current location since 1920. It is actually a world-class zoo, and the only place that features all the species of alligators and crocodiles found on the planet. They have a full staff to support not only animal care but research and conservation activities as well. This is not a game farm; rather, it’s an internationally recognized, fully accredited zoo.
Originally, it started as a tourist destination where visitors to St. Augustine could see creatures they had never experienced. Through the years, the alligators have increased in number and now dominate the swamp. The alligators are captives, but the birds understand that those ever-present alligators prevent predators – snakes, opossums and raccoons – from raiding the nests and stealing eggs or chicks. The result is an amazing rookery.
If you want to visit, be sure to get a photographer’s pass. The midday light can be harsh, and the best photos are taken first thing in the morning before the public enters, or in the afternoon after closing time for the public. My routine is to arrive for entry at 8:00 a.m. (don’t be late!), and to photograph the birds for a couple hours or so. Then I’ll head to brunch or an early lunch, and back to my hotel room to process photos. In the afternoon I plan to enter at 4:00 p.m. or a little later and start photographing around 4:30. I’ll typically stay until near sunset in order to take advantage of late light.
Your gear should include a camera, long lens and tripod. Most photographers are going to want a gimbal head for their tripod, and many use a flash with an extender to magnify your flash, such as a MagMod, Better Beamer or Flash Extender. Lenses will typically range from 300mm to 600mm, but this is one place I have actually used a fisheye for bird photography because the birds are so close and are not afraid of people. On a couple of occasions, I have used extension tubes with a long lens to reduce the minimum focus distance. Be sure to bring plenty of memory cards and some form of computer to download your images and backup your files. I normally take 1000-1500 photos in a half-day session. And don’t forget two important items – sunscreen and a hat.
The big advantage of this rookery is that you can photograph birds in a variety of positions and situations. On your first day you’ll be photographing everything that moves – and wind up with far too many images. You’ll learn to make critical decisions about image selection and discard images based on a shadow, head position or even the lack of a catch light in the eye. After that first session, you’ll learn to concentrate on better compositions and head positions. You’ll avoid the harsh light of mid-day and look for better opportunities. You will begin to watch for birds in the background that might distract from your composition. You may even work on birds in flight, pan blurs and other techniques that require repetition and practice.
One final tip: Remember I suggested that you bring a hat? Keep an eye out for large white spots on the deck in areas under the trees. Don’t stand there, regardless of what a good photo location it might be.
For more information about the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, visit their website at https://www.alligatorfarm.com/