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Catnip for Photographers

Great egret and her chicks © 2013 Charles & Mary Love

You might not want to rock your baby over a pool of hungry alligators, but more than a few beautiful wading birds—roseate spoonbills, wood storks and several species of egrets and herons—think it’s a grand idea. Every spring hundreds of these birds migrate to the Alligator Farm Zoological Park in St. Augustine, Florida, to nest. Why? The birds seem to instinctively know that the alligators ward off tree predators such as raccoons and snakes. So aside from the accidental tumble, their young are safe.

Although we aren’t obsessive “birders,” we’ve been visiting the park, which is on the ocean side of St. Augustine’s famous Bridge of Lions, for years. We never tire of watching the action, which starts in February, when the great egrets and spoonbills arrive, and builds through the spring. This natural rookery is so special it attracts photographers from all over the United States and from other countries.

Upon entering, you’re greeted with a cacophony of sounds—the squawks and wails of chicks, “glub-glubs” from courting snowy egrets, and the occasional bellowing of a domineering alligator. Meanwhile, males of every species fluff their feathers, noisily drive away rivals and fly to and fro with nesting materials for their mates.  According to Gen Anderson, Bird and Mammal Curator at the park, there are about 400 nests in a bad year, 800 in a banner year. And since many species build their nests close to the boardwalk, you don’t need a 600mm lens to capture a great image.

It’s worth allowing time to view the animals in the rest of the park: West African crowned cranes, pythons, crocodiles, red-ruffed lemurs and more.

Of course, you shouldn’t miss St. Augustine, America’s oldest city (founded in 1565). Recently, the editors of National Geographic Traveler named this small town one of the 20 “must-see” places in the world. There are historic sites and museums, excellent restaurants, beaches and a variety of places to stay. For more information, visit floridashistoriccoast.com.

Insider tips: When visiting the park, stay at the Sleep Inn, which offers a discount to photographers. Across the street is the Gypsy Cab Company, a casual (and award-winning) neighborhood restaurant. Saltwater Cowboys, on the Intracoastal Waterway, offers seafood and barbecue in a rustic “fish camp”’ setting.  If you’re looking for luxury, go downtown and check into the Casa Monica, a member of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America and the exclusive Kessler Collection of hotels.

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1 Comment

  1. Stunning photo. Terrific article. Thanks for one more fascinating mystery about nature.

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