Gatorland Rookery

Gatorland is an Orlando amusement park. While tourists come looking for alligators, birders come to visit the Wading Bird Rookery, a boardwalk over gator territory that gives you close access to dozens of bird nests. The Great Egrets start nesting in early February, and by May, the rookery is a chaos of baby herons, egrets, and anhingas.

Photography Advice

Intermediate telephoto lenses will give you great shots of nests right off the boardwalk. I also bring my long lens to isolate birds across the pond. Consider the Photography Pass that lets photographers enter the rookery early in the morning.


Gatorland Rookery Blog Archives

  • Gatorland in Early April

    Gatorland in Early April

    An early April visit to the Gatorland Rookery yielded awesome shots of beautiful breeding birds and a few cute babies
  • Breeding Colors on Display at Gatorland

    Breeding Colors on Display at Gatorland

    Breeding birds on display at Gatorland in late April, where the Cattle Egrets posed for head shots and the Snowies showed off their plumes
  • Lots of Good Color at the Gatorland Rookery

    Lots of Good Color at the Gatorland Rookery

    Some friends convinced me to visit Gatorland in early April, and I’m really glad I went!  I was a little burned out on rookery photography after the past few years, and I wasn’t looking forward to fighting the crowds on the boardwalk.  But the birds were more than worth it.  We had excellent opportunities with Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and especially the Cattle Egrets. The Great Egrets are in all stages of breeding.  I saw some several-week-old chicks, some recently-hatched nests, some mating, nest-building, and of course, lots of bright green lores and lacy plumes!  I love the feathers on these birds in their breeding colors.  It’s fun to try to get good preening shots, which aren’t as easy as they sound.  You want the bird’s head parallel to the image plane.  If only they would take direction from photographers! :) This nest of Great Egret chicks was a lot of fun to photograph.  The chicks weren’t more than a few days old.  The little guys were hungry, and they wanted their mom to know all about it!  Much head-bobbing ensued as they tried to get Mom to regurgitate a nice fish for them.  (Rookery feeding habits are a little …
  • Gorgeous Birds at Gatorland

    Gorgeous Birds at Gatorland

    My last Gatorland post focused on the Snowy Egret that I saw hatch, but I saw lots of other birds last Saturday morning also.  It was a cloudy morning, with a good chance of rain, so I didn’t want to drive for hours and then take a long walk with my Beast.  So I opted for Gatorland, which is closer to home and has rain shelter if required.  I was surprised to find that lots of other photographers had the same idea as me!  The rookery was packed.  There were several photo workshops going on, lots of long lenses, and after 10:00, tons of tourists.  But the clouds diffused the sun, letting us shoot much longer than usual.  Activity at the rookery has picked up considerably in the past two weeks.  When I was there with Debbie, the Great Egrets were the primary nesters.  Now the Snowies and Tricolored and especially the Cattle Egrets have moved in. My goal for the morning was a Cattle Egret in full breeding colors.  I got it!  (Now I want one in sunlight.  Photographers are so picky!) I was surprised to find Gray Catbirds everywhere.  They hopped onto the fenceposts of the boardwalk, not …
  • Tiny Miracles at the Gatorland Rookery

    Tiny Miracles at the Gatorland Rookery

    This morning I had the privilege of watching a baby bird hatch at the Gatorland Rookery.  It was incredible.  Watching the little bird break out of the egg and enter the world was an amazing experience.  And a long one!  The last time I watched an egg hatch, it was a Double-Crested Cormorant, and it happened really fast.  First I was looking at an egg, then the mother was poking at it and ruffling her wings, and then a baby was peeking out of the shell.  It happened so fast that I wasn’t even sure I’d seen the hatch moment until I got home and saw my pictures.  Well, today was different.  I sat watching this nest for three hours as the baby worked his way out of the egg.  It was a very fun morning! Early on in the morning, I noticed the cute pair of Snowy Egret babies that would peek out when their mom stood up.  There was still an egg in the nest, and I thought to myself that it would be fun to watch the egg hatch.  But no way, I didn’t expect it would actually happen!  I passed by the nest several times throughout …
  • Slow Season this Year at the Gatorland Rookery

    Slow Season this Year at the Gatorland Rookery

    I spent a morning at the Gatorland rookery the weekend before last.  My friend Debbie Tubridy was in town, and we decided to check out the rookery, expecting it to be teeming with birds.  But it wasn’t!  The morning-light side of the rookery didn’t have nearly as much activity as in previous years.  I was very surprised as I walked out onto the boardwalk and saw open expanses of Brazilian Pepper without any birds.  The Great Egrets are nesting, but we saw very few Tricolored Herons or Snowy Egrets.  It was disappointing.  I wonder if the weather is a factor, if the birds aren’t nesting as early because we keep getting cold snaps.  It didn’t seem to bother the Great Egrets, but maybe the Snowies and Tricoloreds have more sense than to nest when it’s still dipping into the high 30s?  Maybe? There were a couple of Great Egret nests with young chicks very close to the boardwalk.  These were very popular with the photographers with intermediate telephoto lenses, as well as with tourists with point-and-shoots.  The family pictured above has slightly older chicks.  There was still plenty of nesting and courtship going on with other Great Egret pairs.  Several …
  • Gatorland Rookery Great Egrets Put on a Show

    Gatorland Rookery Great Egrets Put on a Show

    I got out with my camera this morning for the first time since early December! It felt so good. I headed to the Gatorland Rookery in hopes of capturing some Great Egret nesting activity. The birds didn’t disappoint! This morning was my first time taking the Beast to the Gatorland Rookery, and wow! It’s a whole new experience with a 500mm lens. With my 400mm lens I was pretty much constrained to photographing the birds that were right next to the boardwalk.  With my Beast and teleconverters I was able to shoot the farther-away birds, who were easier to isolate with pleasing backgrounds. I’m going to have to try a late Saturday afternoon trip one of these days, to spend some time with the nests that are backlit in the mornings. I saw lots of Wood Storks and Anhingas on the afternoon side of the pond. But on the morning side, today there were mostly Great Egrets. They are in their breeding colors now, with those beautiful green lores and bright red eyes. There are a couple of Great Egret nests with chicks, and at least one nest with teenagers (those tall gangly babies that haven’t learned coordination yet!) This …
  • One More Gatorland Photo Contest Decision…

    One More Gatorland Photo Contest Decision…

  • Gatorland Photo Contest Candidates

    Gatorland Photo Contest Candidates

  • Fledglings are Starting to Leave Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Fledglings are Starting to Leave Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    The nesting season at Gatorland’s Rookery is starting to come to a close.  While there are still nests under incubation, and some nests have tiny babies, the majority of the babies have fledged, and they spend their time hopping around in the tops of the tallest trees they can find. The rookery was strangely quiet this morning as the sun rose.  I guess the fledglings are starting to figure out how to feed themselves, and they don’t have to fuss for food as much. The majority of the Wood Storks have left the rookery, and you can see them teaching their babies to fish in the south pond by the Papyrus Islands.  This was one of the few storks who hung out in the rookery this morning: A bunch of the adult birds have started to molt.  You can see the feathers in their faces are getting thinner, and in the case of this Cattle Egret, it looks like her face is really dirty. This Great Egret juvenile fussed his little head off every time his parent came by.  I think the parent was trying to encourage the bird to branch-hop, as the parent kept hopping farther away, trying to …
  • Cloudy, Breezy Days are Great for Bird-Watching at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Cloudy, Breezy Days are Great for Bird-Watching at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    This morning was cloudy, breezy, and great for getting outside! The birds at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery took longer to wake up, probably because the sun wasn’t shining as brightly as usual. The rookery was eerily quiet when I first got there, and then the babies started fussing as soon as the sun started to break through the clouds. As I arrived at the rookery, I saw the fledgling Swallow-tailed Kites in the pine trees near the entrance to the Swamp Walk. They were more intent on preening than posing. The cloudy skies and diffused light made for some great birdie portrait lighting. This Tricolored Heron fledgling ventured out onto this branch and then watched as other fledglings flew over him. The trees were covered in fledging Cattle Egrets. If you looked down into the branches, though, there are still plenty of nests under incubation. This baby peeked out at me through a “window” in the leaves. Nearby, this juvenile Cattle Egret was posing for me. Actually, he thought he was waiting patiently for his mother to return with breakfast (and he got excited anytime a grown Cattle Egret flew overhead!) – but he also posed nicely while he waited! The …
  • The Gatorland Rookery is Covered in Fledging Birds

    The Gatorland Rookery is Covered in Fledging Birds

    The Gatorland Rookery is crawling with birds these days.  Fledglings seem to have appeared out of nowhere — all those hidden nests are empty now and their occupants are getting as high in the tree branches as they can.  It was amusing to see the rows of fledglings along the boardwalk, fences, and observation tower as I arrived this morning. There is a nest near the North Gazebo that started out as a Little Blue Heron nest, then it was reclaimed by some Tricolored Herons.  The eggs have hatched now, and I heard their cries for food before I saw them. I was a little surprised to still see tiny babies at the rookery today.  There was even still some incubation going on.  I spent a few minutes watching this nest of Snowy Egrets.  I think those babies are the cutest in the rookery. :) In the trees above, a Double-Crested Cormorant mother was feeding her almost fully grown chick.  Then the mother flew off, leaving the chick to pose in the great morning light. I did not see my little cormorant at the Observation Today today.  Like Mike says, he’s too big to have fallen, so he must have …
  • “Lucky” the Double-Crested Cormorant

    “Lucky” the Double-Crested Cormorant

    Birds grow up far too quickly at the Gatorland Bird Rookery.  This spring, one Double Crested Cormorant made her nest in a tree right next to the third level of the Observation Tower.  I was lucky enough to be there the day her eggs hatched, and then I returned week after week to photograph the nest.  There were three eggs in the clutch, but only one bird survived to fledge.  I named the surviving bird “Lucky”, first because I was lucky enough to see the hatching, and then because he was lucky enough to live. Incubation Mama built her tiny nest and incubated it for weeks. Hatch Day I checked on the nest early in the day, and just saw Mama sitting.  But the word spread throughout the photographers that there were tiny babies in the nest.  So I went back up to watch and wait.  I was up there for over half an hour, just waiting, then finally I saw Mama move.  Out popped a little baby head! Mama fed her chick a little, then suddenly she got pretty agitated.  She kept putting her beak down under her, and I could see gooey stuff down in the nest.  Then …
  • Lots of Bad Hair Days at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Lots of Bad Hair Days at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Cattle Egrets were all over Gatorland’s Bird Rookery this morning.  It was very hot, and there were only a handful of photographers there for Early Entry.  (Did everybody go to visit the baby spoonbills at St. Augustine?)  So I had the place virtually to myself.  As always, the birds put on a great show. There were baby Cattle Egrets all over the place.  There are all stages of nests; some mothers are still incubating, some babies looked like they had just hatched this morning, other babies are about a week old, and some are starting to branch-hop as they begin to fledge. I was amused to watch two adjacent Cattle Egret nests.  One chick from one of the nests was starting to branch-hop, and the other chicks from the other nest seemed to take it as a territory invasion.  Much fussing ensued!  The branch-hopping baby ended up moving very tentatively back into his nest.  It was pretty funny. Most of the Cattle Egret adults are in their post-breeding plumage, so I was surprised to see one pair still in full breeding plumage.  It’s fun to see their bright orange and purple colors.  It looked like they were constructing a nest.  …
  • More fledglings at the Gatorland Bird Rookery

    More fledglings at the Gatorland Bird Rookery

    My new baby bird of the week was the Little Blue Heron.  I’ve been watching a couple of nests for the past few weeks.  One nest in particular has changed hands between Tricolored Herons and Little Blue Herons several times. So today I finally noticed movement in the nest, and caught a glimpse of the tiny white baby inside.  The nest wall was high, and the baby was so small, I couldn’t get wonderful pictures.  We played “peek-a-boo” for several minutes before I got this shot: Little Blue Herons are so easy to confuse with other birds.  The juveniles are white, like egrets, and the breeding male has a dark brown neck, like a Tricolored Heron. The Cattle Egrets continue to hatch.  Some of the juveniles are already pretty big, and others looked like they had just hatched this morning.  I enjoyed watching this mother feed her babies: In another nest, the babies posed nicely, obliging me by looking at the camera together for a split second. The nests are more and more obscured by the vegetation that is filling in rapidly.  The nests are pretty close to the boardwalk, but it’s hard to get pictures without lots of branches …
  • Bird nesting continues at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Bird nesting continues at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Just as the great egrets hatched back in March fledge, a new set of nests are under construction and more babies are on the way to Gatorland’s Bird Rookery. The rookery is alive with birds, from nesting adults, fledging chicks learning to fly, and babies of all ages. I heard this cattle egret nest before I saw it. Each species has a particular baby “fuss” sound. I peeked down and around some branches, then saw these babies. They moved so fast, it was hard to catch all three of them looking at the camera. Fledging tricolored herons were all over the rookery. In some cases, I’d never noticed the nests until the juveniles were big enough to come out and stand on top of the bushes. This nest of tricoloreds came alive as the mother returned with breakfast. The babies go crazy, dancing around, shoving their beaks at their mother. Generally the pictures come out as a blur of wings and beaks, but this one was actually pretty good. A few trees back, I saw this tricolored mother sit up a bit, and out popped three little babies. The babies are so funny when they are this age. They look …
  • Birdie Chaos at Gatorland’s Rookery

    Birdie Chaos at Gatorland’s Rookery

    I returned to Gatorland’s Bird Rookery this morning to check up on my baby birds.  They are getting so big!  The rookery is a cacophony of little voices, all begging for food. The great egret chicks are as big as their parents, but most of the chicks still haven’t fledged. It’s amusing to watch the big juveniles shoving their beaks up their mother’s throat, like they did when they were several days old.  One of the photographers put it perfectly: “it’s amazing that the adults survive!” I’ve been watching a nest of snowy egrets near the boardwalk.  I saw the first baby on the day that it hatched, when its siblings were still in eggs, and the mother kept very close and barely let me get a peek.  The next week the birds were much bigger, and I hardly recognized them.  Today they weren’t even in their own nest, but in the adjacent abandoned great egret nest.  I guess they decided that they needed more room! The clowns of the rookery are without a doubt the tri-colored heron chicks.  The first chicks are starting to fledge.  Dyeyo and I saw the babies from one nest on what I suspect was …
  • Screaming chicks at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Screaming chicks at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Today is an off Friday and so I spent the morning at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery.  There are chicks all over the rookery now.  The Great Egret chicks are huge and you wonder when they will fledge.  There are baby tricolored herons and baby snowy egrets throughout the rookery.  The new sound of baby double-crested cormorants adds to the mix.  Only the cattle egrets and the little blue herons still sit patiently on their nests, waiting for their own babies to hatch. I climbed up into the observation tower to check on my double-crested cormorant nest (where I saw a baby hatch about two weeks ago).  The babies have gotten a lot bigger, and now they have a bit of fuzz on their bodies, instead of displaying rough leathery skin that reminded me of a turtle’s. The mother was feeding the babies as I watched, and I got a fun shot of the baby’s mouth stuck in its mother’s throat.  It makes you wonder how in the world the feeding process is comfortable, for mother or baby! It was very sad, though, because one of the chicks fell out of the nest this morning.  Apparently it was dancing around too much …
  • My Double-Crested Cormorant chick is growing up at Gatorland’s Rookery!

    My Double-Crested Cormorant chick is growing up at Gatorland’s Rookery!

    I spent a few hours at the Gatorland Bird Rookery this morning before going into work.  I wanted to check on my little double-crested cormorant that I saw hatch five days ago.  As usual, I had a great time taking pictures of all the baby birds. :) As I walked in from the early entry gate, I went over to say good morning to the green heron chicks, who were sunning themselves at the Papyrus Island.  It’s a shame that their nests are hidden inside the branches; it would have been fun to see them when they were smaller. Up in the observation tower, I was amazed to see how much my little double-crested cormorants had grown in the past five days!  They were begging their mom for food and she kept trying to tuck them under her wing. I thought the babies were kinda ugly, actually.  Their little featherless heads and bodies have a very rough texture to them. I noticed some movement in this nest, peeked in, and saw this little tri-colored heron.  He was bobbing his head around and he looks like he hatched pretty recently.  He was the only hatchling in the nest; his brothers and …
  • Baby Birds Everywhere at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    Baby Birds Everywhere at Gatorland’s Bird Rookery

    This morning I went back to the Gatorland Bird Rookery.  I was excited to see our baby tri-colored herons again.  I wasn’t disappointed!   I saw three new species of babies today (green heron, double-crested cormorant, and common moorhen).  I even saw a double-crested cormorant hatch!  Very cool. :) When we were first going in the Early Entry gate, Mike directed us to a baby green heron nest.  We all stood there for a few seconds, wondering “where are they?”  (and I might mention that a lot of these photographers have much bigger lenses than I do, and we must have made a pretty impressive crowd, all searching the landscape in front of us!)  Then we sighted these guys out under some palms on a little island in the palm: It seemed like there were more cattle egrets on nests today then in previous visits.  I love the breeding colors of  these guys – the orange and purple are very striking. I went back to the nest of the tri-colored herons that Dyeyo and I saw last week.  They were just hairballs then, but now they’re a little bigger and they’ve acquired a lot more color to their feathers.  They were …
  • Baby Birds at Gatorland Bird Rookery

    Baby Birds at Gatorland Bird Rookery

    This morning Dyeyo and I went back to the Gatorland Rookery to see if some of the nests we saw two weeks ago had any babies yet. We were happily surprised to see how many babies there are in the rookery now. We saw five types of babies:  great egrets, anhingas, snowy egrets, tri-colored herons, and wood storks. Oh, and we also saw one very fussy grackle, who had made his nest in front of the “big bird” nests and was fussing as if he was jealous that they were getting all the attention! The birds are such fun to observe in their nests. The babies fuss almost constantly with short repetitive calls. They pester their mothers all the time, poking their beaks into their mothers’ mouths to demand food. The mothers ignore them for the most part, as you can see in this little animated clip (the sequence of pictures was too cute to not string together!) I’ve noticed in my pictures that the parent birds tend to keep their eyes closed when babies are fussing for food. Smart birds! When we first arrived at the rookery, I went to the great egret nest that I’d seen last time, …
  • Gatorland Rookery

    Gatorland Rookery

    After enjoying the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Bird Rookery, I looked for one closer to home and found the Gatorland Bird Rookery. Gatorland is of course known for its gators, but wild marsh birds regularly make their nests in the “alligator swamp” each spring. The alligators keep their natural predators away while the birds raise their young. During the breeding season, Gatorland offers photographers and birders the opportunity to go into the park early to enjoy the birds in the good morning light, before the park fills with people.  So Dyeyo and I went over at 7:30 to check it out. The first bird we saw was this Great Egret, in full breeding plumage (look at the green on his face.)  He was showing off his feathers and generally posing: The cattle egrets were also in full breeding plumage.  Usually just plain white birds, in breeding season their heads and necks get these pretty orange and pink hues to them. This shot better shows the pink tones in the beak.  This bird was nest-building, and he posed for me in between trips to his nest with fresh twigs. There  was a Great Egret nest in a tree right up …