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.
Copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images
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.
copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images
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.
copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images
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.
copyright Eric Bowles / Bowles Images
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/
Long-tailed Duck at Rehoboth Beach, DE. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Great Locations for Winter Waterfowl
By Mark Buckler
By this time of the year, many of our familiar birds have migrated farther south. However, for some species of waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans), the southeastern United States is a prime winter destination, attracting hundreds of thousands of birds. In January and February you can find remarkable photo opportunities within easy driving range of Georgia, where huge flocks spend the winter loafing and feeding in preparation for the spring migration to their far-north breeding grounds.
Of course, for many bird photographers, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico is the ultimate bucket-list destination for winter bird photography. But with Covid-19 cases surging and long-distance travel more problematic, now is a great time to explore close-to-home options that offer similar world-class photography experiences.
Snow Geese at Pocosin Lakes NWR, NC. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Here are some of my favorite winter locations for bird photography (especially waterfowl):
Northeastern North Carolina
I often describe winter in this area as “Bosque del Apache times ten.” You’ll encounter far more birds here than at Bosque, but they are spread out over a rather wide area. There are 11 National Wildlife Refuges nearby that are home to one of the most significant wintering waterfowl regions in all of North America. Your best photographic options are the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR (massive numbers of tundra swans and snow geese) and Lake Mattamuskeet NWR (ducks, swans and a smaller flock of snow geese). The Pungo Unit is home to approximately 30,000 tundra swans and upwards of 50,000 snow geese. Lake Mattamuskeet (the largest natural lake in North Carolina) often boasts 300,000+ ducks, geese and swans.
Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware & New Jersey
In downtown Cambridge, Maryland (at Oakley Street) on the Choptank River, you’ll find a well-known spot for some amazing duck photography. Due to decades of feeding, the birds here have become habituated to people, and you will have literally hundreds of ducks (scaup, canvasback, widgeon, mallard, bufflehead, redhead and more) at your feet. At nearby Blackwater NWR, you can find large flock of snow geese, tundra swans and ducks, along with many bald eagles. Visiting coastal Delaware and New Jersey will provide lots of opportunities for photographing sea ducks.
Lesser Scaup at Cambridge, MD. Photo by Mark Buckler.
I absolutely love photographing at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Orlando Wetlands Park. Here you will find many species of birds in addition to a smattering of ducks. That wide variety is part of the appeal. Photographers will discover a smorgasbord of shorebirds, water birds and some waterfowl. You can also venture to other nearby areas, such as Viera Wetlands and Cape Canaveral National Seashore, which offer additional opportunities.
Purple Gallinule at Orlando Wetlands Park, FL. Photo by Mark Buckler.
Hiawassee NWR in Tennessee
This is not a place to photograph waterfowl, but it does host perhaps the biggest congregation of sandhill cranes in the eastern third of the United States. This will provide you with the closest thing to a Bosque del Apache experience that you can find in the East.
Photographing waterfowl is a lot of fun, but presents some real challenges. Ducks are very fast flyers (reaching speeds of over 50 mph) and are incredibly hard to locate and track through a telephoto lens. If you hope to photograph them in flight, you had better practice on some slower-moving birds first. I also suggest that you use some type of gimbal head with your tripod that will allow you to track the birds much more easily. I am a huge fan of the FlexShooter line of products, which are essentially ballheads that also act as a true gimbal head.
Setup at Pocosin Lakes NWR
Photo by Frank Clemenson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Be sure to check out Mark Buckler’s GNPA article about how to photograph birds in flight by clicking here.
You will need at least a 400mm lens to photograph waterfowl, but I strongly suggest a 500-600mm lens to provide more reach. Set up your camera as you would for any fast-moving object, and position yourself according to the sun and the direction of the wind.
Ducks and geese are among my favorite photographic subjects. Consequently, I spend nearly every day in January and February at one of the locations I listed above. I hope to see you out there!
In the Thick, Tom Wilson, GNPA
Making Autumn Last At Banks Lake NWR
There’s still time to photograph unique fall landscapes at this south Georgia gem.
Tom Wilson explains what you need to know.
By Tom Wilson
The fall always seems to slip away too quickly; one week the leaves are at the peak of their fall splendor, and the next week the limbs are bare as the more somber moods of winter take over.
But in Georgia, I’ve found a way to extend autumn in a way that December 1 becomes just as colorful as November 1. I gas up my vehicle, pack my gear in the back and head south to Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Lanier County in south Georgia.
In late November and even into early December, the Cypress trees that grow in profusion in and around the lake turn a shade of rust that can best be described as other-worldly. My favorite time of day to photograph there is early in the morning, due to the direction of the light and the possibility of fog drifting over the water. There are other places in south Georgia with beautiful fall Cypress foliage, including the Okefenokee, but I really like Banks Lake because of how convenient it is to get to, and the fact that you can find some great views of the lake without having to get into a boat. That being said, if you want to move around by boat, you can rent one from the concessionaire located in the parking area.
Milky Way Over Banks Lake
Most of my photographs have been taken from the wooden deck located next to the parking area. This is a good vantage point, but be aware of vibrations caused by other people walking on the deck. It’s not usually a high-traffic area, but when others are moving about, you should avoid opening your shutter until the vibrations have stopped.
I usually choose my full-frame Nikon bodies for photographs at Banks Lake. Typically I’ll pack focal lengths from 16mm to 120mm, but I’ve used lenses as long as 500mm to reach across the lake. In my experience, the best dates to go are from November 20 to December 3, but as with all things in nature, that can vary from year to year.
Banks Lake on a Foggy Morning
Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge is located at 307 GA Hwy 122 near Lakeland, and is administered by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Folkston. There is a concession opened daily at the location on Hwy 122 that offers snacks, drinks and tackle for sale, as well as canoe and kayak rentals. Check the Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge website for contact information and more details.
For landscape photographers, it’s a special place…especially right now.
Editor’s Note: To read Charlotte Gibbs’ article this month about shooting winter landscapes, click here.
Spectacular Sunflower Bloom, Tom Wilson, GNPA
Exploring the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve
By Tom Wilson
A Bee visiting a Porter’s Sunflower using a 150mm macro lens
The first time I took photos at Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve, I felt as though I’d somehow been transported out of Georgia. It was very difficult to believe that I was in the Atlanta metro area, only two miles from a major shopping mall, despite periodic reminders from the passenger jets flying overhead on their way to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. This is a remarkable area for geology and native plants, with almost limitless potential subjects. You could visit with just a macro lens, just a wide-angle lens or just a telephoto lens, and find plenty to photograph in each case. I choose to bring them all, however.
Layers of Porter’s Sunflowers looking towards the top of Arabia Mountain
This month, a major bloom will be occurring that makes September a special time to visit. These flowers are a type of Sunflower (Helianthus porter) known by the common names Porter’s Sunflower, Stone Mountain Daisy and Confederate Daisy. It’s an annual flower that grows in the thinner soils along granite hillsides. On Arabia Mountain, you can find a multitude of blooms. The flowers typically reach their peak sometime in the third week of September but, as is the case with everything in nature, this varies from year to year.
Your first step in planning a visit should be an online search for “Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area” to find the latest information and trail maps. The specific map you should utilize is the one titled “Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve Trails.”
Wide Angle close up of a bee visiting a Porters Sunflower on Arabia Mountain
I typically park at the South Parking Lot adjacent to the AWARE Wildlife Center. All of the photographs included with this article were made along the “Mountain Top Trail,” which begins at that parking area. The trail is a half-mile long, and includes some moderate climbing along its cairn-marked path to the top of Arabia Mountain. Make sure to have outdoor essentials such as good walking shoes, sunscreen, water and a first-aid kit. It’s also a good idea to carry a cell phone and have a buddy with you for safety.
Icy Vernal Pool, by Tom Wilson GNPA
In order to protect delicate flora, you should also be very careful where you walk. Stay on the path as you travel, and avoid stepping on vegetation or in any sandy areas. Walking on these sandy soils can damage sensitive plant life, including some endangered ones. Even in winter, make sure all your footsteps land on rock surfaces that are free of vegetation. The trail map will include safe-visit guidelines that everyone should follow.
As you may note from my accompanying photos, I try to visit the park on the edges of daylight, either early morning or late afternoon for the most dramatic lighting. I typically carry a fairly comprehensive camera bag including a tripod, polarizer, a full range of lenses, and light modifiers such as a speedlight, diffusers and graduated neutral density filters. Although I typically shoot landscapes at this location, I never venture there without a macro lens as well.
This month’s spectacular sunflower bloom offers a great time to visit, but you’ll find terrific photo opportunities in other months as well. I typically visit in January and February on very cold mornings to take photographs of the frozen vernal pools on top of the mountain (I’ve included one such photo with this article).
In March and April, I come to photograph Diamorpha smallii, (see accompanying image) an amazing red plant that grows in the solution pits on the mountain. The possibilities are almost endless, and the fact that this other-worldly realm exists within an urban area is truly special.
Good luck and good shooting.
Swallow-tailed Kite flight with insect, Tom Wilson, GNPA
Swallow-tailed Kites and Mississippi Kites
By Tom Wilson
There are plenty of great things about living in Georgia. If you’re a bird photographer, one of them is a particular raptor, the Swallow-tailed Kite, which breeds in Georgia and other southeastern states. While these birds winter in South America (primarily Brazil), they can be found here for a few weeks every summer.
Photo by Tom Wilson, GNPA
A fairly reliable option for spotting these birds is near the town of Glennville, in Long County. From approximately July 20 through August 15 every year, you can usually find numerous Swallow-tailed Kites (as well as Mississippi Kites) at a private farm owned by the Skeen family. The owners have been very friendly to birders and photographers in the past, but it’s critical that we take nothing for granted and exercise courtesy and respect while photographing on their property (important details below).
The farm offers perhaps the best location in the area for photographing kites, which spend the bulk of their time hunting insects on the fly (most of your photo opportunities will be flying birds, so before you go, be sure to read Mark Buckler’s column in this newsletter about photographing birds in flight). You may see more than 100 Swallow-tailed Kites, plus some Mississippi Kites, on a given day.
The Kites start to gather around 9:00 a.m. or so, and begin to disperse in the late morning or early afternoon. You can count on it being very hot and humid. Make sure you are well hydrated with plenty of extra water, wear cool, breathable clothing, and protect yourself against the summer sun. I would recommend you take whatever gear you typically use for birds in flight. I prefer a zoom lens, which offers me the reach I need but also allows me to zoom out when birds get closer. In my case, I use the Nikon 200-500 on my Nikon D500. Also, keep your eyes peeled for parents feeding young birds in order to get a variety of shots.
Photo by Tom Wilson, GNPA
Timing your trip is very important, because the drive is fairly long for most of us. As a result, I urge GNPA members who photograph birds to sign up for the List Serve, Georgia Birders Online (GABO). Mark McShane, who provided the details and map overlays for this article, posts updates in July through GABO. Those include the numbers of Swallow-tailed Kites and Mississippi Kites currently in the area.
Mark also checks to make sure that the owners of Skeen’s farm are OK with birders and photographers accessing the area. That’s why it’s doubly important to check GABO for Mark’s posts this month, both to make sure we’re allowed to access the farm for photographs, and to confirm that the birds are there. Additionally, I will repost Mark’s GABO post on the GNPA Facebook page when it comes out, although if you are a bird photographer, I strongly suggest that you sign up for GABO yourself.
The maps below give the coordinates for the location in Long County. I would urge you also to do a web search for Grady Kennedy Rd. NE, Glennville, Ga. 30427 to plan your driving route. The overlays on the maps provide very good information for locating the Kites, finding parking, etc. Drive safely, and good shooting!
Image from Google Earth
Image from Google Earth
Image from Google Earth
Reusset-tipped Clubtail, Tom Wilson, GNPA
Editor’s Note: As a part of each newsletter, we will explore some of the best places in Georgia for nature photography. This issue, Tom Wilson tells us about his favorite May destination for dragonflies and damselflies.
By Tom Wilson
I miss being able to visit GNPA Chapters to share my favorite photography locations, so I’m happy to feature one of them in our first newsletter. JJ Biello Park, at Riverside Athletic Complex (610 Druw Cameron Dr, Woodstock, GA 30188), is a great choice this month for finding both dragonflies and damselflies.
Located adjacent to the Little River, its wide-ranging habitats offer a tremendous variety of species and settings. You can expect to find pond species in the small ponds near the parking lot, gliders in the fields, and many river and swamp species on the back trails that parallel the river. I’ve photographed over 40 species of Odonates here in the past six years, and May is an ideal time to take a loop hike and look for dragonflies.
Photos by Tom Wilson, GNPA
JJ Biello is actually a good venue for dragonflies from now through September. I prefer to visit on sunny days, typically from about 10 a.m. until noon. My gear of choice is the Nikon D500 equipped with a 200-500 Nikon lens, carried on a Black Rapid Strap. The accompanying map illustrates my favorite route through the park, and the photo composite shows only some of the available species you may find.
Base photo from Google Earth