The bird rookery at
St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park,
St. Augustine, Florida

(posted March, 2019)

Bird Rookery
at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park,
St. Augustine, Florida

     The bird rookery at St. Augustine Alligator Farm/Zoo is mainly active from March thru June, as that's when the birds come to build nests, display, mate and raise chicks. The activity may spill over into late February and into July, but March thru June is the most active time. (Check out the park's web site for their bird activity schedule for more information on timing.)

Spoonbills in the gator pool.
Great Egrets mating
     I visited the park/zoo in early March, 2019, as part of a 9-day photo expedition across Florida. I had come to Florida specifically to photograph species that don't come to North Carolina.... Roseate Spoonbill, Woodstork, Reddish Egret and Anhinga, as well as other species found in NC that aren't present during mating season with their display plumage. The park/zoo web site promised Woodstorks, Great Egrets and Spoonbills during March, and all three were there as promised. But there was little else. It was a challenge to get good images without limbs and branches blocking any clear view. I understood that would be an issue going into it, though I thought surely there would be more trees and considerably more room for me to move along the boardwalk to pick and choose my subjects. The truth is that you can set your tripod in one spot at the end of the boardwalk and pan it 360 degrees to photograph everything there is to see in the rookery area. Lucky for me on the day I went, most of the people were there for the alligators. They tended to stay farther up on the boardwalk and not gathered near the birds. Only a handful of photographers were there for the birds, so I never felt cramped. I would not want to be there on a day when more photographers come (like weekends or later on in the nesting season). It was a good thing I came mid-week and early in March when things were just getting started.

     The entrance fee is a bit steep for bird photography. It cost over $45 (even with the senior discount) for me and my wife to get in to take photos. That frankly made it no bargain. You're paying for all the alligators and the "show and tell" entertainment, not the birds. After all, it's an alligator farm and "zoo", and a tiny one at that. It's not a bird park or wildlife refuge. You are actually the oddball looking at the birds, not the folks gawking at the alligators. The bird rookery is just a handy incidental happenstance during four months of the year, because the birds like the alligators under the trees keeping all the egg pilfering varmints (racoons and such) away from the nests. I've never held any fascination with alligators at all. One visit was enough for me. I won't pay to do it again.

Woodstork bringing nesting material
     You might have heard there is a special photographers pass you can get to gain early admission and extended hours without the other visitors. Itís actually an Annual Pass costing over $100, and the special extended hours are limited to 4 months during the rookery season. The rest of the year itís just an annual pass. If you do the math, itís actually a good deal for local photographers who can come often. For the rest of us who have to drive hundreds of miles to get there, not so much. If you spent everyday for a week coming there to photograph while in Florida, youíd save money on admission. But honestly, one day was all I needed to photograph everything there was to shoot 10 times over while standing in one spot. I canít even imagine spending 4 or 5 days there trying to get my money's worth.

     Moving away from the location logistics and focusing on a photographer's point of view doesn't make things much better. With so much twigs, leaves and branches not only in front of, but also behind your subjects, it makes for busy backgrounds that are ugly and wickedly cluttered. Wide open f/stops hardly help to blur the background at all. Even if blurred, they're still horrifically busy. The Woodstorks heads looked like bark-covered tree limbs, making them even harder to distinguish from the jumble of limbs in the background. Catching them against the blue sky made a better background. You're mostly shooting white or light subjects against a dark background, with bright patches of sky behind that. You'll have to stay alert to the changing lighting conditions to avoid blowing out the bright feathers. You pretty much have to expose for detail in the bright feathers and try to pull detail out of the dark stuff later with your software. And I recommend using a camera body that can lock focus onto your subject instead of all the vegetation around or in front of the subject. It will tax your skills for sure.

     I was particularly keen on getting images of the Spoonbills on this trip. But every single mated pair of Spoonbills there had nested behind so much vegetation, and in trees so far behind the other birds, that I got no nesting shots of them at all. I could barely even see them. Plenty of the non-nesting juvenile Spoonbills roosted close to the boardwalk out in the open, but not the adults. However, the adults did like the pool down below with the alligators for splashing and bathing, but that was ten feet lower than the boardwalk, and hardly a good angle for shooting. Everything else was shooting upwards.

Great Egret displaying
     The birds seemed oblivious to all the people there. At least one juvenile spoonbill took up a roost so low in a tree over the boardwalk that I could have reached out and touched it. They seemed to have no fear at all of the people going by. The egrets, Spoonbills and Woodstorks were all busy building nests and courting. They flew about breaking twigs from the bushes and trees, and carrying them back to the nests. Though I used a 500mm f/4 with a 1.4x TC on a 1.3 crop factor Canon 1D Mark IV body (about 910mm effective reach), it was not too much lens most of the time. I did employ another 1D Mark IV with a Canon 100-400mm v.II zoom for the closer birds and most flight shots. Those two lenses gave me all the reach I needed.

     Great Egrets repeatedly flew within 5 feet of me bringing twigs, as they zipped to and from their mates on the nest. If you stayed diligent, there were frequent opportunities for flight shots. But they might be 5 feet away, or 50 feet away. Having the right lens ready was a challenge. And staying alert for mating activity might net you mating shots, if you were lucky enough to have the birds clear of interfering vegetation.

Great Egret in breeding plumage
     The most photogenic birds at the park were the Great Egrets, a species of which I already have more than enough photos from North Carolina. But....the images from the alligator park are different. These birds had their wispy courting feathers, and one bird in particular continually dazzled me with his persistant efforts at attracting a mate. Though high up in a tree away from the other birds where no others competed, his hours of efforts seemed futile. The good part was that he perched above the vegetation with only a clear blue sky behind him, allowing his brilliant white plummage to show up in great detail. Though I had a field day with his valiant efforts at displaying, it seems no females were impressed. When I left just before closing time, he was still at it, and all alone.

     A couple of last thoughts here. The restroom facilities were good. No problems there. It was obvious that on a really busy day, parking could become an issue. Finding the ticket booth and getting into the park with camera and tripod was a hassle though. Signage directing foot traffic from the parking lot to the proper ticket booth entrance was poor. The room with the ticket counter was small. It was packed with so many people milling about that I didn't think I was going to get in carrying my telephoto and tripod, while wearing a second harness-mounted camera and zoom lens. Once I got my ticket I felt like a slapstick cartoon character trying to fumble my way through the stupid turnstile. At least when I returned after going to lunch, they offered to let me go around the turnstile with my unwieldy load of gear. There was but one bench on the boardwalk in the bird rookery area, so if you want to get off your feet occasionally, bring a portable stool as I did. They ink stamp your hand when you pay, so you can come and go during the day with no problem. Just don't wash off the stamp when washing your hands.

     To sum up, I expected the place to be bigger, and I expected there would be many more birds than the four or five dozen total there. Perhaps the numbers would be greater later in March or into April, but without more trees and boardwalk, where would they nest? Given the limited space, more birds would only have made things more chaotic. The backgrounds were mostly horrible. And though I got some of the photos I was hoping for, including my only shots of Woodstorks and displaying Great Egrets on the 9-day trip, I'm not sure I'd do it again, knowing what I know now. The ticket price was certainly no bargain, and now that I've been there, it falls under the category of "Been there, done that". I see no reason to go back for another stab at it. I'll try somewhere else next trip.