Saturday, July 20, 2013


On the last of three visits to the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Florida, my friend and fellow traveler, Ceasar Sharper, and I were talking to a couple of other bird photographers from the Charlotte, NC area. They asked us if we had been to Gatorland near Orlando. When we said we hadn’t even heard of Gatorland, they urged us to go, saying that it was twice as big as the Farm, their tone implying that it was twice as good. Twice as good? Our planned single visit to the Alligator Farm turned into three trips, because we were getting so many great images. How could any rookery be that much better?

Our plan for this seven day, ten stop, birding hotspot trip called for us to leave St. Augustine and head to Fort DeSoto State Park near St. Pertersburg, Florida. Since we were taking Interstate 4 to St. Pete which passes through Orlando, we decided to make the short side trip to Gatorland. We were glad that we did.

Gatorland started in the late 40‘s as a family owned, small roadside feature like many others throughout Florida. Not much more than a small muddy pond with a few alligators, some snakes and a thatched roof gift shop, the theme park now occupies 110 acres and is one of the most popular “small attractions” in the state.

The rookery is the natural result of creating a ten acre alligator Breeding Marsh with oaks and cypress trees along the bank. Attracting thousands of birds of more than 20 species, the rookery has become the largest in central Florida.

Our visit started off especially well. When we stepped up to the ticket booth, I asked if there was a senior discount. The very pleasant and enthusiastic lady helping us asked if we were veterans. I said that I wasn’t , but that Ceasar was a retired Air Force officer. The lady reached out of the ticket window, shook Ceasar’s hand, thanked him for his service and told him to enter without charge. If that wasn’t great enough, she charged me less than half the $24.95 regular ticket price as a senior discount. These discounts are not posted at the entrance or on the website, so I don’t know if they are part of the standard policies or if we just had a very generous and pleasant ticket taker that day.

After entering the park, we walked a short distance to the entrance of the Alligator Breeding Marsh and Wading Bird Rookery. The rookery is in the trees that surround a large rectangular lake. A wide boardwalk runs the entire length and across the far end of the marsh with plenty of room for tripods and gear without worry of blocking the way. At the end of the long side of the walkway is a three story high observation tower which is large enough and strong enough to support a large crowd. There is also a large gazebo along the boardwalk to allow guests to rest and get out of the sun.

From the time you enter you immediately see birds everywhere. On the right side of the boardwalk birds are nesting within arms reach. Across the main body of water, the shoreline is lined with oaks and cypress trees and it seems everyone has several pairs of birds in various stages of raising a new clutch. There seemed to be pretty much the same mix as we had seen at the Alligator Farm, although we did not see any Spoonbills while we were there; however, we did see nesting anhingas which we didn’t see at the Farm.

A search on the web produced several articles comparing the rookeries, The Alligator Farm and Gatorland. I’m not going to repeat that information or give a statistical comparison. I do want to make some comparisons of the two parks from a bird photography perspective.

At the Alligator Farm virtually all the birds are close enough that you do not need to have a long lens to capture great images. At Gatorland, many of the birds are across the lake and a long lens is required to get intimate shots of them. There are many birds along the boardwalk that do not require long glass, but for example, all of the nesting wood storks were on the other side of the lake.

On the other hand, Gatorland has the observation tower. In addition to being a great place to set your tripod and long lens and look directly across to the nesting birds, it is great for getting in-flight shots. The lake is long, so you have plenty of time to see birds flying into the rookery. When up in the tower you can shoot these birds at the level that they are flying and even from an above the bird perspective. There is no tower at the Farm and I don’t think it would be of much advantage there since you are so close to all of the birds anyway.

Both parks offer a Photo Pass, but they are a little different. The Gatorland annual pass is $99 ($79 for seniors) versus $79 at the Farm and it is only good for Thursday through Sunday. The pass allows early entry at 7:30 AM compared to 8:00 at the Alligator Farm. The Gatorland Photo Pass also allows for after hours stay, but only on Saturday. Gatorland also has a one day Photo Pass and other options.

So, is Gatorland twice as good for bird photography as the Alligator Farm? The short answer is no. Frankly, if I had to choose between the two purely from a bird photography viewpoint, I would choose the Alligator Farm because of its better access to the birds. But usually the choice is not that simple. If you are with your family or non-birders, Gatorland is bigger and has more features. It is also close to Disney World and other major attractions.

The bottom line is that you cannot go wrong with either. They both have great facilities with friendly, helpful staffs, and lots of alligators. So do yourself a favor and do like I did, go to both! 

For additional photos and information CLICK HERE.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Saint Augustine Alligator Farm

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 in early May 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 (depending on the zookeeper), 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 that 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 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 by 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 
stood facing that direction with my camera ready and had 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 live
   oak and bald cypress 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 couldn't 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. Discounts for children, seniors, military, AAA, 
and groups are available and you might want to check for coupons. In addition to the rookery, there are 
displays and demonstrations involving alligators and other animals and a popular zip line.

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 any other place before. I
also reminded myself that the rookery occurred there naturally in the seventies.  Even so, 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 have a chance go there, but be warned
it can be habit forming.

For a photo gallery, tips, and more information CLICK HERE.

There Are An Estimated 200 Million Blogs, Do We Really Need Another One?

If you take away the mommy blogs, self pity blogs, and money pit blogs, you still have over a hundred
million.  Even if you narrow it down to just blogs about bird photography, you’ll probably still be able to 
find hundreds of those. So why American Wild Bird blog? Ultimately you will decide on the answer to 
that question, but this is why I am writing it. (ABW) is a website that focuses on bird photography, and more specifically, bird
photographers. Our mission is to provide resources and promotion to bird photographers. In addition to
showing their work and profiling excellent photographers, we also try to provide the tools and information
to aid them in continuing to produce high quality work.

The function of this blog is to support the mission of the website by providing a regularly updated stream 
of information on birding hotspots, promotional opportunities, new tools and books, and any other helpful
bits that we come across.

One frequent feature will be reports from visits to various birding hotspots throughout the country. We’ll
try to not only give a description of the location and the birds that populate it, but also specific locations
within the property that offer the best opportunity to be successful. We will report on the usability of the
location: visitor resources, restaurants, lodging, and any other travel tips to help make the trip as
productive as possible.

Most of the reports will be based on my experiences as I travel around the country looking for the best 
places to see and photograph the hundreds of species that we are blessed to have in this country. Often 
I will be accompanied with my good friendsStephen Tabone and Ceasar Sharper. Visit their websites 
and you will see that I am in very good company. Most often I am accompanied by my wife and best 
friend of 45+ years, Valerie. She has a great eye for seeing birds and great views, often before I do.

After reading a few of these posts, you may notice some biases. I visit the US southeastern states more 
often than most, because it is physically close and there are hundreds of great birding hotspots. I tend
to go to where there is saltwater nearby, because it’s in my DNA. I usually stay in the cheapest motels 
that have clean rooms and good wifi, because I am normally out before sunrise and not back until after
dark - who needs a great room and pool for that?

So, please read a few posts and then you can decide if we need blog number 200,000,001.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Columbia Insect Blocker Technology: It Really Works!

Columbia Sportswear Long Sleeve Backcountry Shirt makes the claim that it can repel bugs even after 70 washings! I don’t know about 70 washings, but I can tell you that after one washing it kept away green head flies and mosquitoes in a swamp that was full of them. Here’s what Columbia says about their bug repelling technology:

“Insect Blocker technology is a revolutionary defense in the battle against bugs. Using a synthetic version of a naturally occurring insect repellent found in certain types of chrysanthemums, it offers protection that is integrated directly into clothing and gear to keep mosquitoes, ticks, ants, and other biting insects away, so you can enjoy a bug-free adventure. Insect Blocker requires no re-application or special care of any kind and is so tightly bonded to fabric fibers that it retains its effectiveness for up to 70 washings. Insect Blocker turns clothing and gear into long-lasting, effective insect protection to keep bugs at bay so you can enjoy the greater outdoors in peace.”
In the past I have relied on the DEET found in OFF! Deep Woods® to keep the mosquitoes and flies from eating me alive. It has been very effective, but I hate putting chemicals all over my skin. Additionally, you must be careful to keep the spray away from your eyes and hands. On a recent trip to Chincoteague, the OFF!® kept the hoards of mosquitoes off of my arms and legs, but the little pests easily feasted on my back right through my T-shirt. That’s when I decided I needed a new approach. I had heard about the Columbia shirt before, but was skeptical about how effective it could be. The Chincoteague experience convinced me that it was worth $60 to try a new approach.
This past week I was at Pea Island NWR and the Alligator River NWR; both places provided a good testing ground for the shirt. At Pea Island there was a mixture of mosquitoes and green headed flies. I wore the new, unwashed shirt with a pair of jeans and a wide-brimmed hat and I did not apply any OFF!® Although other photographers I saw on the trail were complaining about being eaten up, I didn’t have a single bite.
Two days later I took my kayak to Alligator River NWR. This time I was wearing shorts, a ball cap, and the shirt which had been washed the night before. I was immediately attacked by green head flies all over my legs. I quickly pulled out the OFF!® and sprayed only my legs. A few flies would land on my shirt and even my glasses, but still not one single bite! I paddled all through the swampy area without a single bug problem.
The shirt also offers sun protection which is useful for a long day of paddling. I kept the sleeves down while in the field, but they roll up and can be fastened in place when full protection is not needed. The shirt is light, vented, and dries quickly. It is available in three colors and I found that the size ran a little large. The Backcountry shirt is only available in men’s sizes but they do offer another insect blocker shirt for women.  The company also offers a pair of pants and a floppy hat made with the same technology. I have both on order. If you’re going to be in damp areas in the spring and summer, I would highly recommend this product.
Do you have a favorite approach to managing pests?