If it’s Spring, it must be the Alligator Farm.
Always the same, always so different. Always the place to be in April. You’ll usually find me there the week before or the week after the big Florida Birding Festival, which occurs during a different week in April each year. Avoid the crowds -- of people anyway.
Crowds of birds – that's what we're there for, the sheer chaos.
As you may or may not know, hundreds, maybe thousands of birds – Egrets, Wood Storks (my vote for the ugliest bird in the world),
Spoonbills, Herons, Ibis, and other wild birds come to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm every Spring to build their nests and hatch their eggs in the safety provided by the alligators swimming below the trees.
They somehow know that no rodents dare brave those jaws to steal eggs. And for a few weeks of nest building and squabbling and sitting on eggs and learning to fly, it is an absolute madhouse of squawking and flying, helter skelter in a spring swelter.
Mad, also, like a Bosch painting of hell, as in nest after nest of egrets, the same drama plays out: the bigger chicks pecking the littlest one to death over a couple of agonizing days -- while mom looks on benevolently -- and then fling the limp body out of the nest to the waiting alligators. Mom relieved, one less to feed. You go, girl.
Never forget a hat. Batteries, CF cards, HAT! One day I spied a little teen tourist girl standing under a very dangerous tree engrossed in her phone, while her mother tiptoed carefully through the obstacle course of tripods. “I wouldn’t stand there if I were you,” said I. “Why not,” demanded her mother. On cue: splat splat splat. “That’s why,” I said.
Balmy 7:55 am, the straggly photographer line waits patiently at the unmarked red door, murmuring. Always a nice surprise to look over the line and spy a friend from a previous year or Bosque or Conowingo, or even home. “I didn’t know you were coming.” 8:00 the door creaks open; the line stirs. 8:05, hundreds of thousands of dollars of 100-400, 500 and 600 mm lenses lined up along the boardwalk, ratt-tatt-tatting at 12 frames a second.
At 9 o’clock, the parents with kids troop in. By 11:30 the last of the photographers have trickled out. At 4 we start drifting back in. At 5, closing time, the tourists have evaporated, and the photographers are again alone with the birds and gators till 8:00. Maybe the moon will be rising in the right place for a shot with a bird. Last year it was.
This year not. And maybe the stars will be out: maybe Arthur Morris, who word has it lobbied for early photographer admission – hey Artie, how about getting us 7 am instead of 8?; maybe Chas Glatzer pronouncing his mantra -- Florida Sun/White Bird, 1/1200th of a second, f 8, iso 200. It works. But nothing can solve the dreaded black shadow when the bird turns. Delete delete delete. No stars my week this year.
This year the water level is way low,
because they have drained the marsh to do work on a filter system. And that presents new photo opportunities. Ibis, which generally fly out at dawn and only come back at dark, are wading in the water in large groups.
And spoonbills are splashing.
The weather is mostly perfect, bright and sunny, with just enough puffy clouds,
and at the end of the day golden light.
But variety too, with one rainy afternoon producing this magical shot before the downpour drives me out,
and one morning of overcast, for beautiful white on white shots.
There is also the tiny tiny window of an opening between the leaves and branches of a tree – photographers vying -- a spoonbill nest, in backlit glare, but just barely shootable at some moments of the day.
The shot I’m focusing on this year – the hand-off (or beak-off, I guess) as he brings a twig to the nest and she takes it from him.
Can't leave out this little guy, lost in a 60s Beachboys song with his reflectors out, "Hey dude, pass the sunscreen."
And, of course, if you’re muttering to yourself at this point, “another fucking bird picture”, well, voila:
On the downside, they have built an alligator feeding dock right into the water, which essentially eliminates shots of birds skimming along the water,
and also renders the special photographer section they built the previous year mostly useless. You can’t have everything.
But pretty much everything – just an hour drive from JAX, and the friendly Sleep Inn just 3 minutes from the A-Farm, as easy as it gets.
See more of my images on my website http://www.LewisBogatyPhotography.com