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First Visit to the Alligator Farm


by Donald E. Chamberlain

Great Egret in Display
Great Egret in Display

It was a gorgeous Florida morning. My prime photographic objective was to visit the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in St. Augustine, Florida.
As the name suggests, the park features many American alligators in different stages of development from foot-long babies to huge mature behemoths. The park also features examples of other crocodilians from around the world. Their advertisements proclaim that the Alligator Farm is the only place in the world where you can see all 23 species of crocodilians in one location. There are a few other animals in the park, but primarily reptiles are emphasized.
While planning my trip to St. Augustine, I had talked with a photographer who had visited this site previously. He recommended that I purchase a special “Photographer’s Pass” at the entry point. This pass allowed free admission for a year and the opportunity to visit the park at times outside the regular hours for tourists (at the time of this writing the price was $69.95). It also allowed me to enter the Photography Contest held each year.


Mature and Immature Little Blue Herons
Mature and Immature Little Blue Herons

As a photographer, my favorite place in the park is an area called the Rookery Nature Walk. The Rookery Nature Walk consists of a boardwalk that winds across a small pond. At certain times of year the trees and shrubs along walk are filled with egrets, herons, and wood storks. These birds are not captive; they are free to come and go as they wish. The birds seemed oblivious to people walking along the boardwalk. You can get within a few feet of many of them. During the primary nesting seasons you can walk along the walk and be within a few feet (in some cases inches) of an egret nest or a heron nest.
Feeding behavior and nesting building behavior can be photographed without the need for a blind or stalking behavior (at one point I had to put away my 300 mm lens; I was too close to the nest to utilize it).
I visited in the last week in May. This was prime nesting time in the rookery. As I walked down the walkway, I saw birds sitting on eggs, birds with very young chicks, and some birds with young that were nearly as large as their parents. Both egret nests and heron (mostly tricolor) nests were accessible.


Herons Feeding Close Up
Herons Feeding Close Up

Some birds were in process of building a nest. Often males would fly off into the nearly hammock and bring back twigs and other nesting material. They then returned to nest and presented the twig to the female. She then placed the prize into the next. Their constant departure and return to the nests offered many opportunities for capturing them in flight.
Some parents provided food for the young. It was fun to focus in on a particular nest and note that often two parents are sharing the feeding responsibilities. One left to seek nutrients while the other stands guards over the impatient young.
I was amazed at the seemingly violent way in which a mother heron attempts to place a small food sample into the beak of her equally large offspring. Necks entwine, beaks clack together, and the sounds of siblings expressing their impatience at their lack of food made this scene memorable from many levels.
The air is filled with the busy chattering and bickering of birds protecting their territories as other birds fly in and out of the vicinity seeking and retrieving food and nesting materials. Young birds cry out for food and attention.


Wood Stork Nest in Trees
Wood Stork Nest in Trees

White most of the birds were egrets (snowy, great, and cattle) and herons (tricolor and little blue), there were other birds in the area as well. Wood storks were busily building nests in the tops of nearby trees. Again males flew in and out of the nest bringing twigs for the construction of the nest. I also spotted some Roseate Spoonbills that day (though they were not nesting).
Many birds retain their breeding plumage and provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to see them up close with their finest feathery. The different colors of the adults and parents and the vast array of breeding colors provide many photographic opportunities. I spent three hours trying to capture what was before me.


Gator with Feathers
Gator with Feathers

Remember the walk is built over water. While my primary focus was on the birds, alligators were constantly swimming around the various clumps of mangroves and other vegetation “islands” where the birds were nesting. It is suggested that the presence of the alligators makes this area very desirable as a nesting site for these birds. The alligators discourage the presence of raccoons and other nest-raiding neighbors who would seek to ravage the nests looking for their next meal.
However, this arrangement is not without its potential peril. During my frenzied attempt to capture what I was seeing on film, I was surprised by an even louder clamor in one area of the rookery. The bushes shook. Birds screeched. I turned to the source of the disturbance. The answer appeared immediately. An alligator emerged from the area and swam toward me. Protruding from both sides of its huge mouth were tips of white feathers. One unfortunate egret had chosen a branch a little too close to the water surface. . A few minutes later, “peace” was restored and the sounds reverted to the normal feeding-territoriality hubbub of the previous time. Life goes on at the Rookery.
I urge those with an interest in birding or bird photography to put the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park on your list of “must-sees” in Florida.