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The Saint Augustine
by Ernie Sears
My passion for photography began almost 50 years ago while attending college. I had scraped enough money together to buy a Mamiya range finder camera. I wandered around campus and nearby Mountain Lake and shot black and white images of old buildings, big rocks, and other things that most people didn’t consider photogenic. Looking back at those images now, I can see why. However, the one aspect of those little trips that has always stayed with me was the enjoyment of a solitary pastime. I really looked forward to getting out where there were no other people and to be able to concentrate solely on creating my “art”. So, why was I standing in line with about 60 other photographers to get into a zoo an hour earlier than the normal opening time to photograph birds?
The zoo was the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida, or more commonly called the Alligator Farm or simply The Farm. I was there with my good friend and fellow photographer, Ceasar Sharper. We were on a seven day trip to Florida to visit ten birding hotspots (and yes that is kind of crazy for several reasons, but it worked out pretty well.) We had arrived at The Farm the afternoon before and purchased our Photographer Pass for about $80. The annual pass allows for unlimited admission, one hour early admission, permission to stay after closing, and entry into an annual photo contest.
We were there in plenty of time for the 8:00 AM opening of the gate - if you are late you must wait until the regular opening time of 9:00. As the gate opens the line compresses into a small crowd with each of us anxiously waiting to have their pass checked so that we may enter. Once inside, it is a little like participating in a senior walk race, but with tripods and camera backpacks instead of fanny packs. No one runs, but the pace isn’t casual as we pass by the white alligator display, the alligator demonstration corral, and the small covered theater, and head to the raised boardwalk the leads to the wading bird rookery that is located in the alligator swamp.
There was no need to rush. The boardwalk is broad and there is plenty of room to see the magnificent display of hundreds of wild wading birds in various stages of creating and raising the their next generation. There were birds building nests, sitting on eggs, feeding recently hatched chicks, and lots and lots of fledglings. When we were there the predominate species were egrets: great, snowy, and cattle. There were also quite a few spoonbills, storks, ibises, and a few types of herons. The only common wading bird that we didn’t see was the Great Blue Heron.
The birds and their nests are close. Some are literally within arms reach and most are no more than 50 feet away. If you do not have long glass, it is not a problem. I used my 80 - 400 for the vast majority of shots that I took over the three visits that we made. I did use my 600mm on one visit to get near full frame images of the newly hatch chicks as they were being fed bi a parent. That was also the only time that I used a tripod. A flash with a Better Beamer can be useful to capture some of the birds that have made nests further in the foliage or on overcast days.
The 80 - 400mm lens was useful for capturing birds in flight as well. The one problem with the closeness of the trees is that you have a shorter reaction time to shoot birds as they are flying into the rookery. I noticed that most birds seemed to be returning to the rookery from the north, so I stood facing that direction with my camera ready and had some success in getting some nice images.
While in the rookery, there is little chance that you will forget that you are at an alligator zoo. The nesting trees surround a small swamp that is home to scores of alligators of all sizes. The birds benefit from having these reptiles as they keep any tree climbing predators from raiding their nest for eggs or chicks. And though I was at the Farm for bird photography, I could help but to take some shots at these toothy wonders of nature.
The Alligator Farm has been a popular local and national feature for over 100 years. It is open every day from 9:00 AM until 5:00 PM. Regular admission is $22.95 with discounts for children, seniors, military, AAA, and groups. In addition to the rookery, there are displays and demonstrations involving alligators and other animals.
The visit was hardly the solitary experience that I look forward to when I go on a photography trip, but it was fun and I did get some bird behavior images that I had not been able to get before. I don’t think that I will ever prefer a zoo over exploring a park or refuge, even as natural as the Farm, but I have to admit it is nice to have the shooting be so easy every once in a while.
If you like seafood try The Seafood Kitchen, 4255 A1A S #1, St. Augustine, (904) 460-0157. It is about 4.7 miles down the street from the Alligator Farm. An old style Florida restaurant that serves local seafood. We had three meals there and enjoyed them all. Located in a small strip shopping center with a basic decor. I ordered finfish and shellfish broiled and it was cooked and seasoned perfectly. Good sized portions and very reasonable prices.
If you have a photo pass, you may be offered the opportunity to stay until dusk for an additional $5. This option is apparently left up to the zoo keeper on duty. It was our experience that we got some of our better shots during this time because the sun was lower in the sky than when we got there at 8:00 AM giving us a more pleasing light.
Address: 999 Anastasia Boulevard, St. Augustine, FL 32080
Phone: (904) 824-3337
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