Your first thought when you read "Alligator Farm" might be "tourist trap," but that could not be more inaccurate. And while the alligators are wonderful and plentiful at the place fondly referred to as the "Gator Farm," it is the birds that attract the world's best photographers.
The birds come each spring to the Gator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida, naturally. The gators keep tree-climbing prey away from the birds' babies. While the gators sometimes hit the trees with their tails to knock eggs out of the nests, the birds know that their babies' odds for survival are much better around the gators than without them.
The Gator Farm is home to a variety of bird species, including Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Roseate Spoonbills, Ibis, Great Blue, Tricolor, Black-Crowned and Yellow-Crowned Heron, and Wood Stork. The birds fly out of the area to collect sticks for nest building, pass them to their mate, build their nests, lay their eggs, and feed their young. You can photograph all of this activity to document their life-cycle story.
Round out your photography visit to the Gator Farm with a variety of other animals. The Farm is home to every living species of crocodilians in the world, including the 15-foot long "Maximo" and some albino gators. You'll also see several different types of monkeys, toucans and parrots, and various other mammals. Don't miss the feeding show usually at noon and 3:00 where the gators gobble some Brazilian River Rats -- they crunch like popcorn.
Background and Directions
The Farm is about an hour south of the airport in Jacksonville, Florida. It is located at 999 Anastasia Boulevard, also known as Highway A1A, just across the Bridge of Lions, in St. Augustine. Specific driving directions are available on the Gator Farm website at www.alligatorfarm.com.
The Farm began in 1893, when two men started collecting alligators on Anastasia Island. It soon became a tourist attraction and the rest is history, literally (the Alligator Farm is listed on the National Register of Historical Places).
The daily entrance fee for adults in 2005 is $17.95, and the Farm opens to the public at 9 am. You can buy an annual photography pass for $59 to get in precisely at 8 am through the side red door. Don't be late, or you'll likely have to wait until 9 am. The pass also is your entrance fee to the Farm's annual photography contest.
The park officially closes at 6 pm. Many of the Gator Farm employees take turns staying longer for photographers to shoot through sunset. Be sure to tip the volunteers generously on your way out, because the employees are not paid by the Farm for the extra time.
The bird rookery is in a swamp area perfect for raising bird families. The birds build their nests in the surrounding live oak trees or elderberry bushes. The area is accessed by a long boardwalk that puts you within feet of some of those nests. Because the birds have become accustomed to human visitors, you can get very close. Be sure to give adequate space to the nesting birds, though.
You'll need a mid to long range telephoto lens to capture the birds on their nests. Lenses in the 400-800 mm give you the best opportunities to photograph the chicks once hatched. The fastest focusing lenses in the range of 100-400mm will allow you to grab flight shots.
Your biggest shooting challenge will be to get a clean background. The birds nest amongst the branches and leaves, so your shots may look cluttered. Look for opportunities to photograph the birds while on top of the bushes or where the background bushes are dark and full. Another approach is to zoom in tight so that your shot eliminates those intruders.
Take advantage of the photographer's hours in the morning and evening. These times offer the best light and the other photographers are mindful of your purpose. Once the public arrives, which often includes groups of children, the boardwalk shakes a bit as tourists walk by. They rarely linger for long, however. Most of the birds nest on the east side of the boardwalk, so your best photographic opportunities are in the afternoon. Also, many birds return to their nests at the end of the day, so you can catch flight shots then, too.
The major bird activity generally begins in March. While the nesting season varies every year, chicks usually begin to arrive in April. By late May, you'll capture many of the different phases at once since the various bird species have different nesting calendars. Many of the birds are gone by June or July, but this year the activity is still going strong into the summer months.
The Gator Farm website is www.alligatorfarm.com and is chock full of great information. It includes two "webcams" located in the rookery to get a glimpse of the bird activity. The Bird Rookery Yahoo Group provides up-to-date information on bird activity at the Gator Farm and the area. Information on how to sign up is available on the Gator Farm website. Amanda Whitaker, the Gator Farm manager, monitors the group and provides additional helpful information. We are indebted to Amanda for continuing to provide a wonderful place to photograph the birds.
In sum, the Gator Farm provides one of the most convenient, comfortable and exciting places to photograph a variety of birds and their activities. Hurry to catch the action there this year, and make plans to spend time there each year from now on. You won't be disappointed.
The Gator Farm is clean, well-maintained and provides great access to the animals. The snack bar on site sells a good variety of snacks and drinks. Restrooms are located next to the snack bar and by the entrance.
Lodging in St. Augustine is relatively expensive, but is available throughout the area. Some options near the Gator Farm are: Sleep Inn, Anastasia Inn, and Scottish Inn. In downtown St. Augustine, your options include the Comfort Suites, Days Inn, Hilton and Clarion Collection. Since traffic is not a problem, you can find viable lodging options on the outskirts of town, as well, including the World Golf Village - home to two golf courses and the World Golf Hall of Fame.
A trip to the Alligator Farm is fun and safe. The gators are kept securely behind barricades or swim below the boardwalk, so you don't have to worry about your being dinner for them. The normal precautions about Florida sun should be followed - wear a hat, use sunscreen and drink lots of water.
The northeast coast of Florida offers wonderful photography opportunities, as well. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States, and is decorated with beautiful Spanish architecture. Additional good bird photography spots are scattered throughout the area - check Anastasia State Park next door to the Gator Farm and Merritt Island in Titusville, Florida.
Copyright 2005 Carolyn E. Wright All Rights Reserved
--- ABOUT THE AUTHOR ---
Carolyn E. Wright, Esq., has a unique legal practice aimed squarely at the needs of photographers. A pro photographer herself, Carolyn has the credentials and the experience to protect photographers. She's represented clients in multimillion dollar litigations, but also has the desire to help new photographers just starting their careers. Carolyn graduated from Emory University School of Law with a Juris Doctor, and from Tennessee Tech Univ. with a Masters of Business Administration degree and a Bachelor of Science degree in music.
Carolyn wrote the book on photography law. "88 Secrets to the Law for Photographers," by Carolyn and well-known professional photographer, Scott Bourne, is scheduled for fall 2005 release by Olympic Mountain School Press. Carolyn also is a columnist for PhotoFocus Magazine and Naturescapes.net.
Carolyn specializes in wildlife photography and her legal website is http://www.photoattorney.com