Incredible Morning at the Alligator Farm Rookery

Posted

I drove up to St. Augustine to spend my off-Friday at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm‘s bird rookery.  It’s right at peak season and the rookery, and the activity is awesome!  Some Great Egrets are still building nests, others have tiny babies, and still more have fledglings who know how to leave the nest but still haven’t figured out how to feed themselves.  Likewise, the Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons have all stages of nesting/babies/fledglings.  The Cattle Egrets are busy building nests and incubating.  Best of all, there was a set of three Roseate Spoonbill fledglings that amused me greatly with their begging for breakfast.  It’s a long drive to go to St. Augustine, but this rookery is so totally worth it!!

I love the Cattle Egrets in their breeding colors, with their bright orange beaks and purple accents.  They are such fun to watch as they go through their courtship activities.  They stick together, sitting on the nest side-by-side.  There were lots of profile juxtaposition opportunities this morning, but I decided that I liked this single bird best:

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egrets were constantly in the air as they searched for nesting material to bring back to their nests.  While I usually shoot in AV mode, I found that I did best in manual mode for flight shots.  Manual exposure guarantees a good exposure regardless of background, while the AV mode would under-expose the bird when he’s in front of the sky, and over-expose when he’s in front of the green trees.  My flight shots from today were almost all Cattle Egrets.  This was my favorite:

Cattle Egret with Nesting Material

Cattle Egret with Nesting Material

I watched several pairs of Cattle Egrets as they worked on their nests.  They clearly work together as a pair.  There was a lot of “you preen my back and I’ll preen yours” going on.  One bird decided that preening wasn’t enough, and he seemed to bite the back of his mate, but she didn’t mind.  I kept my eye on two pairs in particular throughout the morning, hoping to catch them mating, and I did.  I couldn’t decide which of the series I liked best, so I combined a set of three.  The little nuzzle in the last picture is sweet.

Cattle Egrets Mating

Cattle Egrets Mating

My favorites in the rookeries are the tiny babies.  The St. Augustine rookery is great for having very visible, photographable nests, where sometimes you can find babies that have just hatched.  Those tend to be the more cluttered pictures, but the subjects are adorable!  This Snowy Egret, for example, was probably less than three days old.  His mom kept him close to her, only rarely standing to let him get a breath of fresh air (and to let me get a quick shot!)

Snowy Egret chick

Snowy Egret chick

At another nest, there were two slightly older Snowy Egret chicks who were dancing to try to get Mommy to feed them.  She wasn’t listening, but that worked for me as I tried to snap the shutter when the birds looked at the camera.  (Somebody passing by asked me if I was waiting for something in particular.  I should have responded that I was waiting for the birds to smile at the camera!)

Snowy Egret chick

Snowy Egret chick

The Snowy Egrets weren’t the only hungry chicks.  The Tricolored Heron chicks stayed asleep longer than some of their counterparts, but once they woke up, they fussed and fussed and fussed.  I enjoyed having The Beast to make tight shots of the mother-baby interactions, like this one of the baby trying to convince his mom to open up (just the opposite of their human counterparts!)

Tricolored Heron mother and baby

Tricolored Heron mother and baby

The nests are very cluttered—there’s always one too many branch in the foreground, and the Brazilian Pepper and various trees don’t tend to lend to great bokeh.  So I was excited to get this shot of an almost-unobstructed Snowy Chick, looking hopefully up at his mom.

Snowy Egret chick

Snowy Egret chick

One of the more annoying species of baby is the Great Egret chick.  They have a steady neh-neh-neh call that starts early in the morning and continues throughout the morning.  Rich heard it on a video and agreed that it’s even more annoying than our baby mockingbird!  I remembered one Great Egret nest in particular.  It was under construction when I was at the rookery last time, and the parents impressed me with their gentle nest-building cooperation.  Today the nest had two small chicks in it.  I stood watching it for a while as they woke up and started to fuss for food.  When their mother didn’t immediately regurgitate a tasty snack for them, they started to test each others’ beaks, just in case one of them had some food.  I was happy that they both looked toward the camera for a split second while they searched…

Great Egret chicks

Great Egret chicks

The birds in flight overhead were impressive.  This rookery is a great place to go if you want to practice flight photography.  There are many opportunities.  I didn’t have my flash on my hand-held camera, so I adjusted the lighting a bit in Photoshop.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

The most unusual birds in the rookery are of course the Roseate Spoonbills.  I grinned as I heard visitor after visitor step out onto the boardwalk and exclaim, “Look at the pink birds!  They are so pretty!”  I tried for some Spoony flight shots, and I love how the red eye is tack sharp in this one.

Roseate Spoonbill

Roseate Spoonbill

There were a bunch of spoonbills on nests, and I was happy to see one nest had fledglings already.  (I didn’t see any other Spoony babies.)  The fledglings were not close to the boardwalk, but I found a window through the trees that gave me decent visibility.  One of the fledglings wandered over to my window, stood thinking for a second, then stretched his wings.  It’s when I see the wings stretched in this pose that I understand the reference to the “pink angels”…

Roseate Spoonbill fledgling

Roseate Spoonbill fledgling

The spoonbills were hilarious to watch as they begged for food.  The mother was preening and the babies wanted breakfast.  Like all bird babies, they made a repetitive call, but it wasn’t as loud or as annoying as most babies.  But they bobbed their heads, up and down and up and down and up and down…they never stopped!  If I was their mother, I don’t think I’d be able to ignore them.  But theirs did.

In looking at my Bird List on my blog, I noticed that I don’t have a photo of the Eurasian Collared Dove.  So when one posed obligingly for me on a nice branch with a green background, I had to take his picture, even if he’s not exactly one of the rookery stars!

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove

A Great Egret was building a nest by herself.  She is no longer in her gorgeous breeding colors with the bright green lore.  Her patience as she placed each stick in its proper place impressed me.  The more I learn about birds, the more they amaze me.

This Tricolored Heron chick wanted to be sure of a spot on my webpage, so he stuck his tongue out at me!

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored Heron

A Snowy Egret in full breeding colors was building a nest in the side of a palm tree.  The Snowies really seem to like placing their nests in the palm trees, staggering them in the dead cut-off palm fronds along the trunk of the tree.  This one seemed to be having territory issues with the Snowy Egret fledglings in the adjacent nests, though.  Over and over they snapped at him.  He finally backed down from this set of three birds, only to be accosted by the fledglings on the opposite side of the tree.  I couldn’t figure out why they fussed so – the birds in these rookeries are colony nesters, and they are used to having nests practically on top of each other.  Maybe the nest-builder here was stealing sticks from the fledglings’ nests in order to build his?  Or maybe he was taking over an old nest of theirs?

I’ll end with one of my favorite pictures from the morning.  In the big oak tree at the end of the boardwalk are several very photographable Great Egret nests, with nice clear backgrounds and great morning light angles.  In one such nest, two babies woke up and started to beg for food.  I found an angle with a dark background that isolated just one of the chicks, who stood still (briefly!) and looked up at Mom with the most hopeful look.  “I know you’ll feed me my breakfast soon!”  These little chicks are so scruffy looking, and yet so cute at the same time.  Maybe it’s a good thing this is a still shot instead of a video, or the chick’s nagging voice might change my mind about his cuteness!

Great Egret chick

Great Egret chick

I wish the rookery were closer – I’d be there every day!!

http://www.blog.catandturtle.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Great-Egret-Nest-Building.wm

Want to learn more about nature photography at Alligator Farm?

Check out my Alligator Farm page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!

Planning a trip to Florida? Don't miss my Central Florida Bird Photography Locations reference guide!